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Jun 15, 2011

Restless Derek Brown

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Derek Brown is busy.

Ostensibly, he's a bartender, though when pressed, even he can't settle on that.

No, Derek Brown is busier than that. In no particular order, Brown is a business owner, historian, writer, judge, consultant, instructor, and bartender, who in addition to manning the bar of his well-regarded cocktail club, the Columbia Room, is occasionally called upon to shake and stir libations for heads of state, European royalty and the nice couple who live at 1600 Penn. Ave.

Derek Brown is busy.

Brown's work behind the bar has resulted in heavy recognition from his peers within D.C. and across the country, including the James Beard Foundation, as well as magazines and newspapers that are as likely to quote him as employ him. In a city with quite a few great bartenders, Brown may be the best and is certainly the most well known.

Three years ago, I didn't have a clue who he was.

I was an assistant at the cooking school CulinAerie and signed up for a series of cocktail classes taught by one of the bartenders from The Gibson, the speakeasy off U Street whose pretentious concept was reason enough for me to avoid it. However, Brown was an affable instructor, and over the course of the three classes, I came away with a better understanding of the science of cocktails, as well as a drink of my very own. All thanks to the guy from The Gibson.

It's from that frame of reference that I began following Brown's career. Typically, we get to know the big name chefs and bartenders around town through articles and interviews. Before we eat their food and drink their drinks, we know their back stories, their approach to their craft. I've never met Michel Richard or dined at Citronelle, but given the number of articles I've read about the chef and his restaurant, I have a fairly good idea of what to expect from both. With Brown, I had nothing.

Instead, he was the bartender who taught my cocktail class. Afterward, I began going to The Gibson, even though I still believe the not-so-secret secret concept is tiresome. It was worth it for the show. Brown is as much an entertainer as a bartender. Every other drink was a minor pyrotechnics display, as Brown and the other bartenders squeezed citrus and fire across the tops of cocktails in the dimly lit lounge. Even the act of shaking a cocktail - an act as dynamic as it was loud - was a feat of strength and technique that captured the bar's attention. The craft cocktails scene was peaking in D.C. and Brown was starring at The Gibson.

The fact that he became such a renowned bartender even surprises him. Eleven years ago, Brown was just another aimless restaurant employee at Rocky's in Adams Morgan. Tired of waiting tables, Brown lied his way behind the bar claiming bartending experience he didn't have, slopped together a passable rum punch and began a new career. A decade after that miserable drink, Brown owns his own bar, married fellow bartender Chantal Tseng and GQ magazine declared his martini the best in America.

"My brother likes to say that if it wasn't for alcohol, I wouldn't have a job, a hobby or friends," Brown said.

Since his days at Rocky's, Brown went on to work as a bartender and sommelier around town, consulting with bars and restaurants on their beverage programs. He also began to study the art of cocktail making. Although D.C. isn't without a cocktail history, it's not New Orleans and it's not New York. With the exception of Sam Lek, of the former Town & Country, and Jim Hewes at the Round Robin, the city didn't have many great bartenders for the up-and-comers like Brown, Todd Thrasher of PX and Gina Chersevani of PS7's to turn to for guidance and advice. So they had to figure it out for themselves.

"We were students without teachers," Brown said. "So we learned things and figured things out along the way. Eventually, we got better and developed better techniques."

DSC_0039 After his stint at The Gibson, Brown opened the bar-in-a-bar concept, The Passenger and Columbia Room with his brother Tom. The spaces couldn't be more different. Up front is The Passenger, black and grimy, with Iggy Pop blaring through the air and Tom and PBRs behind the bar. It's a laid-back bar that specializes in Tiki drinks on Tuesdays and an eclectic punk soundtrack all week. But make your way through The Passenger - with a reservation - and you'll find The Columbia Room, a quieter, apothecary shop of a bar that puts Derek and his cocktails on display.

Back at The Gibson, Brown's fellow bartenders would bust his balls about the folks who would insist on the seats that clustered around his end of the bar. But Brown knew he made good drinks and put on a performance, so he ignored the comments. At the Columbia Room, there's no need to grab a special spot at the bar, all 10 seats face Brown.

He calls it the fishbowl effect, and while it can be unnerving, he's used to being stared at as he goes about his work. Every 30 minutes, a few new people come in as a few people head out. A drink to start, a drink for the season, and a drink of your choosing. Three cocktails, paced slowly. Throughout the evening, Brown makes light conversation with the revolving cast of guests who've paid $64 each for the pleasure. And though he's the sole bartender of the Columbia Room, when it comes to that final beverage, his time is yours, whether that means making a martini or spending 15 minutes hand carving a block of ice into a diamond for a Scotch on the rock.

Five days a week, that's where you'll find Derek Brown. The rest of the time he's busy.

Following Brown on Facebook offers an interesting glimpse into schedule. There are posts about cocktails he's working on for the Columbia Room. There are posts about his latest article in The Atlantic, or his Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post. There are posts from spirit tasting events in San Francisco. There are posts about the Museum of the American Cocktail, for which he is a board member. And there are posts from the parties and other functions he's been hired to bartend.

Then there are the things that he doesn't post on Facebook: the books he's working on (or trying to), the new bar projects he's considering, the consulting he's doing with Chef R.J. Cooper and Rogue 24.

Most people would be satisfied to own their own business and have a job they enjoy, but Brown is restless. All the extracurriculars, the writing, the consulting are stepping stones toward, well, something. While his goal isn't completely clear, all of it begins at the bar.

Brown wants to make a better cocktail. That's why he spends so much time tinkering with cocktails and thumbing through old recipe books. His martini, the one GQ liked so much, doesn't have a garnish. Why? He determined the sliver-thin lemon twist he once served with the drink made the beverage bitter. During our interview, the conversation took a tangent into bitters, which led Brown to tell me about The Meadow, his new favorite shop in New York that specializes in cocktail bitters, salts and chocolate, and to break out a few bottles to show me how good they were (they were). He did the same thing a few years ago when he discovered Fee Brothers bitters.

It's about refinement. It's about making the drink better.

For now, he's pursuing that drink at the Columbia Room. But he knows that in time, the broader fascination in craft cocktails will fade and only the cocktail geeks will be interested in his showmanship and his club. When the Columbia Room runs its course and the reservations stop coming in, Brown will move on to the next project.

He describes his long-term goal as positioning himself to be "patient zero for the good life." To create bars, beverages and a culture that celebrates the best parts of our drinking culture.

It's a vague goal, to be sure, but Brown's got a lot on his plate at the moment. He has to prepare for tonight's reservations at the Columbia Room, go over his next column for the Atlantic, touch base with a couple clients and wrap up out a few final details about an upcoming event. As he churns through his hectic schedule, that long-term goal might take shape, become a bit clearer.

For now, though, Derek Brown is busy.

Categories: Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, Cocktails, DC, Interviews, Liquor, Washington, DC
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Apr 28, 2011

White whiskey is not moonshine, but it may be the new absinthe

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White whiskey, corn liquor, white dog. By another name, unfinished whiskey. By another, novelty.

Of all the recent trends in cocktails and spirits, this is the one I least understand. After all, it’s one thing for distillers to bottle half finished whiskey and try to sell it to the masses, but it’s quite another that the masses actually buy it. And buy it, they do.

Two ounces neat can cost you $10. A bottle can go for $45.

But why? White whiskey is but stage one in the lengthy whiskey making process and lacks all the qualities of good, old brown whiskey. The time spent in wooden barrels gives whiskey those quintessential warm flavors of caramel and vanilla, that faint earthy hint of white oak (or port, depending on the barrel’s previous tenant) and the amber hue that is the spirit’s signature color. The barrel aging process also tames the liquor’s harsh bite, which is why the older the whiskey, the smoother the taste. All of this, all of it, is due to the wood.

White whiskey, then, is simply corn liquor that either never made it in the barrel or spent so little time in it to not matter. Consequently, it’s clear as water, but hot with alcohol, harsh to drink and tastes heavily (and miserably) of sweet corn. All in all, it’s not a very good spirit. Yet, it can command the same price as a quality bottle of bourbon.

Matthew Halligan, a manager at the whiskey bar Bourbon in Glover Park, said white whiskey’s price is at least partially due to its limited availability and the fact that it’s new. Although it’s easier than ever to find unaged whiskey, it’s still not as prevalent as traditional bourbons and popular Irish whiskies. 

That said, Halligan agreed that it is odd that a liquor that is relatively fast, cheap and easy to make can cost as much or more than a spirit that’s been aged for years. Given the choice between young and old, the whiskey bar manager would rather have a bourbon.

The problem with wood aging, though, is the time it takes. Not only do whiskey barrels take up space and require tending, but also the longer whiskey sits in a barrel, the more it bleeds into the wood and evaporates into the ether. Most bourbons spend a minimum of two years in a barrel. Single malt Scotches take no less than three years to mature, but are often left in the barrel for many more years. That’s a long time to wait before sending a product to market. And as with so many things, time equals money.

In Scotland, where temperatures are moderate throughout the year, whisky barrels are typically stored in a single location until they’re tapped. In Kentucky, however, distillers rotate the bourbon barrels in their warehouses throughout the year to compensate for the seasonal fluctuations in temperatures. But even in Scotland, that storage space costs money. And the longer a whiskey ages, the less there will be when it’s ready to bottle. That’s why a 21-year-old bottle of Macallan Scotch costs considerably more than a 10-year-old bottle -- there’s simply a lot less of it.

So taking a page from the vodka market, whiskey makers have decided to forego the wait and bottle a portion of their liquor as soon as it comes out of the still.

Kevin Kosar, author of Whiskey: A Global History, and founder of the Website, AlcoholReviews.com, said white whiskey, as a product, works for distillers because it gives them a new product without the need to invest in new materials.

Whether it comes from boutique and up-market distillers, like Tuthilltown and Buffalo Trace, or the Johnson Distilling Co., which sells its Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey in a mason jar, the white whiskey is hustled the same way –- a traditional American spirit made the old fashioned way. The similarity in marketing is no accident. Distilleries across the country may be producing white whiskey, but they’re all channeling Appalachia’s staple spirit, moonshine

The thing is, though, white whiskey has more in common with vodka and Everclear than backwoods white lighting. Moonshine is illegal liquor. Because it’s illegal, there are no standards for making it, so moonshine can be made from anything. Whiskey, even white whiskey, must contain a certain percentage of corn or grain; it must be taxed and regulated; and it is very much legal. But legal is boring. Moonshine is exciting. And if you’re a distiller trying to sell the public a new product that doesn’t taste very good, you need exciting on your side.

Besides, with the rise of classic cocktail bars, craft breweries and the artesianal food movement, everything old is new again, including white whiskey.

“It’s all part of the heritage kick,” Kosar said.

94980022 That’s where things start getting muddled. Does moonshine equal heritage? Maybe. But is white whiskey made by a boutique distillery in upstate New York and sold for $45 a bottle heritage? If it is, who is it appealing to? Judging by the slick packaging and price tag, most white whiskies appear to speak more to East Coast foodies than north Georgia moonshiners.

And let’s not forget, white whiskey doesn’t taste very good. Of the few brands I’ve tried, Tuthilltown’s Hudson Valley Corn Whiskey is the most palatable. The sweet corn flavor is present in the spirit, but it’s toned down and the finish is relatively smooth. Relatively. It’s fine for what it is, but given a choice, I’d rather have bourbon.

Even the cocktail – once the refuge of problematic spirits – can’t save white whiskey. Derek Brown, co-owner of The Passenger and The Columbia Room, is no slouch behind the bar. He put together two cocktails for me using white whiskey: a martini and a whiskey sour. They were quite good, but the white whiskey’s particular flavors pushed passed the other ingredients and dominated the cocktails. Given a choice, I would’ve rather had gin and bourbon, respectively.

“Maybe that’s the dirty little secret,” Kosar said, tasting the Hudson Valley Corn Whiskey with me. “There’s not a whole lot of there, there.”

Halligan said white whiskey is a bit of a novelty and many people who order one at Bourbon are simply curious about the half dozen crystal clear whiskies the bar sells. Still, there are a number of knowledgeable whiskey drinkers who occasionally order the spirit and the bar is considering adding a white whiskey to its whiskey tasting menu.

In 2004, I was traveling through Britain with my wife and had a chance to try absinthe. The U.S. was still a few years from legalizing it, so it was exciting to try a forbidden spirit. Turns out, absinthe tastes like black licorice. I don’t like black licorice.

You know what else tastes like black licorice? Sambuca and ouzo, both of which have been legal for years. So when absinthe hit U.S. shelves in 2007, I had a feeling that the initial surge in interest would fade pretty quick. Sure enough, there are now a lot of fancy absinthe decanters gathering dust around town.

White whiskey, I believe, is headed for a similar fate. Because it’s relatively cheap to produce, it’s likely to stick around as long as stores and bars are willing to stock it. But its popularity will fade once enough people taste white whiskey and realize that a few years in white oak can turn this novelty spirit into something quite novel.

Categories: Bar/Club, Cocktails, Liquor
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Oct 29, 2010

Pumpkin Liqueur for Halloween Fun Times!; or, How I Failed at Pumpkin Juicing.

PPumpkinCrush I try to keep my food and beverage choices on the natural and local side, but sometimes that plan goes awry. See this week when I got a hankering for a pumpkin cocktail, and decided that what I needed was some pumpkin juice, which I was pretty certain I could make myself. So I bought myself a 1 1/2 lb pumpkin at the friendly neighborhood Whole Foods (Yeah, I know the pumpkin was probably from Idaho; so sue me), chopped it up, and chucked it in a food grinder. I then squeezed the resulting pumpkin slurry through cheesecloth, and retained the sweet, sweet pumpkin juice that trickled out.

PPumpkinJuice Ever try to juice a pumpkin without a proper juicer? Don't know what you ended up with, but I got about 50ml of liquid and a sink full of dishes for my trouble. There's got to be a better way! A lot of the top mixologists these days are using canned pumpkin to add some autumn flavor to their creations; I shunned this option pretty much out of spite. Screw that devil's fruit, and natural be damned -- suddenly I wanted something orange in a bottle!

PSpiceLiqueur In my line of work, I see a lot of wacky liqueurs, but I've only ever seen one flavored of pumpkin. Apparently, the value-for-cost ratio for producers is on the low side, so the only game in town is from good 'ol Hiram Walker, makers of the finest garish-colored, sugar-loaded mixers money can buy! I picked up a bottle of their Pumpkin Spice Liqueur at One West Dupont Wine and Spirits for about $10.

So what to say about the Hiram Walker Pumpkin Spice Liqueur? How about this from the producer's website?:

"The bold pumpkin pie, graham cracker and vanilla taste of Hiram Walker Pumpkin Spice mix(es) deliciously with any spirit for unique and festive seasonal cocktails."

Yum!

PTriaminic On its own, this stuff is undeniably awful: The color, though, is truly amazing, reminding me of that bright, mesmerizing, other-earthly orange of Triaminic Cold Syrup. The nose is medicinal and slightly creamy, with a high note of some sort of undefinable fruit. On the palate, it very sweet and corn syrup smooth, with some of the advertised graham cracker, along with more of that unpleasant, bizarre medicinal thing.

PMartini I was skeptical, but I have to say, though absolutely undrinkable on its own, this stuff is really not a bad mixer. Oh, sure, when mixed 1:1 with vodka as suggested on the back label it's almost WORSE, but when used in an ensemble, this player has quite a bit to add.

 First, I tried a simple Manhattan recipe using two parts rye whisky, substituting one part Pumpkin Liqueur for red vermouth, with a couple dashes of bitters. Even with the brown spirit as a base, the cocktail came out a festive neon orange. The medicinal flavors are completely sublimated by the other spirits, and the sweetness is nicely tempered by the dry, spicy whisky; most of the liqueur's influence is asserted in the finish as pleasing vanilla and cinnamon notes.

PMargarita I also took the classic Margarita and squashed that shit up. The recipe was as follows:

2 Parts Tequila
1 Part Pumpkin Spice Liqueur
1/2 Part Triple Sec

When shaken and poured over ice, the end result was similar to the Manhattan; a BRIGHT ORANGE expression of the original, made slightly sweeter, with notes of vanilla and cinnamon on the finish. Not bad at all, highly festive, and easy to whip up as a pitcher drink, if you stir instead of shake.

PPunch Speaking of pitcher drinks, I came up with a pretty tasty punch amongst my experiments with my new Tang-colored friend. Behold, the Autumn Harvest Punch!

 

1 1/2 Parts Rye
1 Part Pumpkin Liqueur
1 Part Apple Cider
Dash of Bitters

Thanks to the opaque brown cider the Autumn Harvest came out a bit more naturally colored, though still very seasonally appropriate. This one had the perfect amalgamation of fruit, spice, vanilla, and bite. I tried it on the rocks with a bit of cinnamon on top, but I also imagine it would be great served hot. (Note: I used a very dry rye for this; if you make it with a sweeter whisky like Jack, up the whisky percentage to keep things balanced).

PSpiceMartini Finally, I thought it would be good to try something a little more on the highbrow side. Believe it or not, it's hard to find a complex cocktail based on a $10 rail liquor, but there was  one promising candidate from Colleen Graham of About.com.

Pumpkin Spice Martini

1 1/2 oz rye whiskey
1 1/2 oz Modern Spirits Pumpkin Pie Vodka or Hiram Walker Pumpkin Spice Liqueur
1/2 oz triple sec
1/4 oz anise liqueur
1 egg white
3 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters
grated nutmeg for garnish (optional)
Preparation:

Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
Shake vigorously (to ensure the egg is properly mixed)
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Sprinkle grated nutmeg on top if desired.

This was an amazing cocktail, and also pretty easy to assemble. On the nose, this one was heavy on the rye spice, with an assertive licorice note. The texture was full and silky, with mulling spices mingling well with orange and anise, leading to a creamy, smooth, easy going vanilla finish.

I have become used to being a failure, but rarely does it turn out this well. While I am sure pumpkin juice is great and all (apparently its all the rage at Hogwarts), it turns out the Hiram Walker Frog is actually a bright orange Prince. As I said, I picked mine up at One West Dupont Wine and Spirits, but it should be pretty widely available this time of year. Got a shindig goin' down this weekend? Grab a bottle, and have yourself a spicy, road-cone orange Halloween!

 

 

 

Categories: Cocktails, Liquor, Seasonal
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Oct 04, 2010

The Manhattan, A Great Cocktail However You Make It

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The Manhattan is one of our most popular, if not most beloved, cocktails. References to the drink date back more than a hundred years, meaning it survived Prohibition and countless cocktail trends that had people consuming all manner of drinks (Buttery Nipple, anyone?).

The strength of the Manhattan lies in the brevity of the ingredient list and how well they play together. After all, it doesn't get much simpler than bourbon and sweet vermouth.

Or is that rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters? Wait, maybe it's Canadian Whisky, orange bitters and equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. What about the garnish? Should it be a maraschino cherry or twist of lemon? And which of these versions is "perfect?" (Is there an imperfect Manhattan?)

Google "Manhattan cocktail recipe" and you'll get a more than 2.8 million (mostly porn) results, and I would venture nearly as many unique takes on the classic drink.

Some Manhattans I've ordered were simple affairs: bourbon and sweet vermouth. A nice enough drink, but technically the lack of bitters makes it a sling, not a cocktail. I think it also makes for a cheap bar.

More often than not, though, I come across Manhattans that are made with bourbon, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and garnished with a frighteningly red cherry. Although this drink looks and (more or less) tastes like a Manhattan, it's not quite.

To help figure out what makes a Manhattan a Manhattan, I e-mailed noted cocktail expert and proprietor of The Passenger and Columbia Room, Derek Brown.

"A Manhattan is a cocktail with rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters," he wrote. "Often, Bourbon is substituted for rye. The varying proportions are important dinstinctions(sp) but don't necessarily constitute a separate category."

So while the ingredients are important, they don't have to be in the traditional amounts of two parts whiskey, one part vermouth and three dashes of bitters. Brown cited the reverse Manhattan, which is two parts sweet vermouth and one part whiskey.

While Brown noted that bourbon can be substituted for rye, in parts of the Midwest, there's no substitute for brandy.

My wife's family and part of mine come from the great state of Wisconsin. Order a Manhattan in Mosinee and no one will bat an eye. Order it with bourbon or rye and they'll know you're not local.

For many Midwesterners, the typical Manhattan also uses equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, which is commonly known as the perfect Manhattan.

Whenever I get together with my father-in-law, the day ends with a Manhattan. He grew up on them in central Wisconsin and seems to enjoy my take on the drink (or the fact that I'm making them).

Of course, my recipe is different. Both recipes, actually.

With all these variations of the drink, what makes a true Manhattan and what doesn't?

When I posed this question to Brown, he sought counsel.

"Former judge and judicial scholar Robert Bork had this to say about martinis in a letter to the Wall Street Journal in 2005," Brown wrote, "which was his response to an article by Eric Felten: 'What counts in mixology is the 'original understanding' of the martini's essence by those who first consumed it. The essence remains unaltered but allows proportions to evolve as circumstances change. Mr. Felten's 'near-perfect martini' is the same in principle as the 'original-understanding martini' and therefore its legitimate descendant. Such latter-day travesties as the chocolate martini and the raspberry martini, on the other hand, are the work of activist bartenders.' Hope that helps."

It does.

It seems that fans of the Manhattan are attracted to the spirit of the drink - the rich, sweet amber whiskey (or whisky) cocktail - not necessarily the specifics of the ingredient list. While one man's Manhattan might be technically different than another's, when it comes down to it, we're all enjoying the same great cocktail.

The "Perfect Manhattan" and Little Italy

Perfect Manhattan

2 ounces of rye whiskey or bourbon (Wild Turkey 101-Proof Rye or Early Times Kentucky bourbon)
1 ounce of sweet vermouth (Dolin if you can find it.)
1/2 ounce of dry vermouth (Dolin again.)
4 dashes of Angostura bitters
1 brandied cherry (Les Parisiennes or similar brand)

DSCN5555 When I make a Manhattan, I always use dry vermouth. It balances out the sweetness of the sweet vermouth and richness of the bourbon.

In a cocktail shaker, combine the whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters and stir. Add the dry vermouth to the cocktail glass and gently swirl so the vermouth coats the walls of the glass (a process known as rinsing), and then discard the rest into the sink or drink it like I do. (If you like your Manhattan on the rocks, pour the dry vermouth over the ice, swirl and remove the rest. This way, the ice will be nicely coated.) Add the cherry to the glass.

(A quick word on the cherry. It's time to graduate from the candy-red cherry you're used to using. A couple years ago, I picked up a jar of Les Parisiennes brandied cherries and haven't looked back. These cherries are sweet, but not cloying, and a little boozy, which is appropriate for, well, booze.)

Fill the shaker half way with ice and stir for 20-30 seconds or until the whiskey, vermouth and bitters are thoroughly combined. Strain the ingredients into the cocktail glass and enjoy.

Little Italy

If you find the Manhattan a bit too sweet, this might be the drink for you. I replace the sweet vermouth with amaro, a bitter Italian liquor. It's sweet enough to stand in place of the sweet vermouth, but the added bitter levels things out. I also like to use Fee Brothers' Whiskey Barrel Aged bitters instead of Angostura for the caramel and nutmeg flavors they bring to this drink.

2 ounces of rye whiskey or bourbon (Wild Turkey 101-Proof Rye or Early Times Kentucky Bourbon)
1 ounce of amaro (I like Ramazzotti.)
1/2 ounce of dry vermouth (Dolin once again.)
4 dashes of Fee Brothers' Whiskey Barrel Aged bitters
1 brandied cherry

In a cocktail shaker, combine the whiskey, amaro, bitters and stir. Add the dry vermouth to the cocktail glass and gently swirl so the vermouth coats to walls of the glass, and then discard the rest. Add the cherry.

Fill the shaker half way with ice and stir for 20-30 seconds or until the whiskey, amaro and bitters are thoroughly combined. Strain the ingredients into the cocktail glass and enjoy.

Categories: Cocktails, Liquor, Recipes
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Nov 19, 2009

ChocoVine: A New Baileys Replacement Therapy?

CHOCO1 I have a problem with Baileys. No, not like a beef with it, more like an addiction. As soon as the weather gets cool, and the noon sun gets closer to the horizon, stores put up those stacks of shiny, shiny gift packs, and I invariably pick one up. "What the hell?" I ask myself, "I'll just have a glass or two after dinner." Yeah, right -- fast forward to 48 hours later, and that bottle is gone; that's twenty-some-odd bucks, down the hatch all too quickly.

There has got to be a better way! Oh, sure, I could try to exercise a bit of willpower, but I have no illusions about myself. As the nights get longer and the ol' melatonin levels drop lower, my willpower loses what little influence it ever exerts, and gets put away until March. But a $22 bottle of Irish cream every two days is just not sustainable. Thus was my curiosity piqued when I saw ChocoVine at a DC shop last week. As you can see from my picture, it looks kinda like Bailey's, and one of the gentlemen at the shop assured me that it tasted just like Baileys... and this for $12.99? I'd had cheaper Irish creams before and been less than satisfied, but this was something altogether different, and the price was right. Sold!

ChocoVine is a new beverage made in Holland from a combination of chocolate and Cabernet wine. According to its website, ChocoVine is "the perfect union of wine and chocolate," and sure to "create a near-orgasmic taste experience." Quite the claim! So I brought the ChocoVine home, and I am afraid it didn't quite get the reception I had hoped -- my girlfriend also likes the Baileys, but living with a crazed addict, she rarely gets to have any, and was disappointed by my knock-off replacement for the bottle I'd downed. But eventually, despite the cheesy trade dress and dubious origins, she was grudgingly won over, and I, too, felt my $13 gamble a success.

Choco2 ChocoVine, beyond opacity, doesn't really bear much resemblance to Baileys at all. For starters, it is thinner than Irish cream, though still quite thick, and almost buttery on the front. ChocoVine pours an odd shade of dark muddy brown, looking much as you might expect of a combination of red wine and chocolate. Though Baileys does have cocoa nibs in its recipe, ChocoVine tastes much more heavily of chocolate, and is markedly sweeter on the finish. In a nutshell, ChocoVine tastes like really strong chocolate milk, with the slightly gritty texture of a heavily cocoaed drink, and a slight bite thanks to its 14% abv.

Neat or on the rocks, Chocovine is a little cloying and oddly textured -- but shaken a bit with ice, it mellows out nicely, and develops a slightly foamy, more milk-like mouthfeel. We also sampled a few of the cocktails listed on the ChocoVine website, and found the Lady's Night (2 parts ChocoVine, 1 part Chambord, shaken with ice) to be a very pleasant nightcap, a fact I don't consider the least bit emasculating. Haven't tried it yet, but we've both been eyeballing that bottle of peppermint schnapps someone gifted us several years ago...

I picked up my bottle at Dixie Liquors (3429 M St NW), but I am pretty certain I have seen it pop up at several other stores in the last few weeks. Fellow closet dessert drink fiends, I will not go so far as to say that ChocoVine surpasses the glorious liquid crack that is Baileys, but it is a damned satisfying and versatile alternative for the money. Pick up a bottle and let me know what you think!


Categories: Cocktails, Liquor, Wine
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Sep 17, 2009

Real Tequila Deal at New Heights

NewHeights1 The past fifty years have not been kind to tequila. Formerly the honest, artisanal product of proud distillers in central Mexico, tequila is now widely considered little more than a frat drink, a cheap and effective instigator of bad decisions and worse hangovers. But what Pepe Lopez and Jose Cuervo bring to the party is decidedly not real tequila — indeed, a lot of what goes into these and others of their ilk is straight fermented sugar, or essentially, industrial-grade alcohol.

Real tequila, made from 100% agave and in the traditional method, is more than just a shooter. Oh, and sure, your higher-grade mass-market brands like Patron, Milagro, Corazon and the like are fine, but still not all that interesting. It's rare in this town to come across a truly interesting selection of tequilas, which is why I was shocked when I wandered into New Heights in Woodly Park and saw a bottle of Don Fulano.

NewHeights3 For every geek, there is a revelatory moment, when a thing that had once been a minor interest promises so much more. Handel's Messiah, or The Velvet Underground's Pale Blue Eyes have no doubt turned many a dabbler down the path of the music nerd. As for literature, Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow have opened up the minds of millions of readers, exposing them to a completely new understanding of the medium. Don Fulano worked similar magic on my 23 year old mind when I tried it long ago at my old place of business. Up until then, the best liquor I'd ever had was Seagram's VO, and I couldn't even down a shot of Mexican courage without gagging. Sipping the Fulano was revelatory; where I expected simple, it was complex; where I expected burning, it was smooth. I wish I could have had more, but the stuff was over $150 a bottle, and soon dropped out of the market.

Of course, time is a tricky bastard, and rarely is anything as good as we remember. Regardless, when I saw that familiar, long gone bottle behind the bar at New Heights, I was elated, and excitedly engaged the bartender in conversation.

NewHeights2 Apparently, bar manager Jason Robey was once the distributor of this and other tequilas in the DC market, and continues to stock several, at great effort and expense, from sources on the west coast. Many of Jason's tequilas will be unfamiliar to most, so he's developed a great little flight to make it easy on ya. Everyday, New Heights will pour up three samples of their more esoteric tequilas — including Chinaco, Los Azulejos, and Don Fulano Anejo — for $40, which is a good $20 less than what you would pay ala cart. As a bonus, Jason serves this up with his own house-made sangrita, a traditional blend of tomatoes, citrus juice, onion, adobo, and other spices, served with a salted rim. When sipped after fine tequila, sangrita serves to both cleanse the palate and enhance the flavors of the liquor.

While I couldn't guarantee that these, or indeed any tequila would provide you with the epiphany I experienced way back when, if real, fine tequila interests you at all, you are not likely to find a better deal in town.

New Heights
2317 Calvert St NW
Washington, DC 20008-2622
(202) 234-4110
Bar opens daily Mon - Sat at 5:00 PM

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Jul 23, 2009

Second Annual Rickey Month: Celebrating DC's Piece of Cocktail History

Picture 1 About 120 years ago, on a sweltering DC summer's day, a lobbyist named Colonel Joe Rickey walked into Shoomaker's, a popular local watering hole. Being parched and overheated (pre-AC, our fair city was the pit-stain capitol of the east coast), Rickey asked his friend, bartender George Williamson, to whip up something cool and refreshing. The two, collaborating over several auspicious minutes, combined the juice of half a lime, soda water, and sweet, sweet Bourbon, into what would become the era's greatest cocktail sensation, the Rickey. Not only is this the first good thing to ever come from a lobbyist, it is also a point of pride for DC bartenders and bartendresses. To honor the cocktail and its local beginnings, the DC Craft Bartenders Guild started Rickey Month, a 31 day celebration of all things boozy and refreshing.

After the enourmous success of last year's inaugural festivities, the Guild has made it an annual, with even more local bars participating. All month, DC's best mixologists have been slaving over their... umm, mixology labs, concocting innovative homages to the popular beverage in both the Gin and Bourbon varieties. On August 3rd, a collection of local cocktail luminaries will gather at Bourbon in Adams Morgan, and a winner will be announced.

The great part about Rickey Month is that you, too, can be a part of it! A special People's Choice prize will also be awarded to the drinksman who garners the most votes here. This year there are 15 entries in the competition, whom I have enumerated below:

Gina Chersevani of PS7s
Owen Thomson of Bourbon
Chantal Tseng of Tabard Inn
Dan Searing of Room 11/Warehouse Cafe
Tiffany Short of the Gibson
Clinton Terry of PX
Jon Arroyo of Founding Farmers
Sebastian Zutant of Proof
Andrew Shapiro of Inox
Rico Wisner of Poste Brasserie
Jill Zimorski of Café Atlantico and minibar
Diego Zeballos of Jaleo
David Fritzler of Tryst
Rachel Sergi of Zaytinya
Jason Stritch of Rasika

As of today, I am sorry to say I have only had a chance to try one of this year's entries: Gina's Knee High by the 4th of July at PS7s. Based on Woodford Reserve, this cocktail incorporates the traditional lime and soda, along with house made corn water (yes, you heard me), and a secret blend of herbs and spices. As advertised, the cocktail was indeed refreshing, with the whiskey taking a back seat to the sweet corn, and green, herbaceous characteristics. Very nice, and indeed, appropriate to the spirit of the event.


Hopefully, I will get to try a few more before the judging, and will update this post accordingly, so stay tuned. If you out there have tried any of the contestants' beverages and have something to say, please do chime in in the comments section. Oh, and if you are free the evening of Monday, August 3rd from 6:30 to 10:30, go by Bourbon for the main event -- the $10 entrance fee buys you a classic Gin or Bourbon Rickey, and cash bars planted around the restaurant will let you sample all the nouveau interpretations. I will be there, and in the interest of fairness, will make a point of trying each and every one. If you see me on my back in the bathroom, please do flip me on my side, lest I pull a Hendrix...

UPDATE:

Gunslinger Managed to sneak by Tabard Inn yesterday to sample Chantal Tseng's "Gunslinger Rickey." The Gunslinger is made with Woodford Reserve, San Pellegrino Chinotto Soda, lime, and smoked Mezcal cherries. This one definitely shows its Bourbon base, couching it in the delightful, slightly sweet/spicy character of Chinotto. The coolest part of this drink -- and I assume the origin of the name -- is the three Mezcal soaked, kitchen smoked cherries that serve as a garnish. Even while sipping the cocktail, the cherries exert a strong, flinty aroma, reminiscent of smoked meat and spent firecrackers; don't leave them in the glass when you are done, as they are also delicious.

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Jun 23, 2009

The Darby Flower: the best cocktail you haven't had ... yet

15

This is the Darby Flower. It’s good. Damn good, actually. And it’s mine.  

Go ahead, look up the name, you won’t find it. Look up the combination of ingredients and proportions. You won’t find a cocktail that matches (at least I didn't). If you do, let me know and I’ll give credit where credit is due. Until then, it's mine, baby. All mine.

I came up with the drink back in March while taking a bartending class taught by Derek Brown -- bartender, writer, cocktail historian and all around nice guy.

Brown is the head bartender at The Gibson, and an ambassador for the Museum of the American Cocktail (OK, I don't really know what that means, but it's a pretty neat title). The man knows from a cocktail. If you get a chance to take the class he teaches at CulinAerie, do it. Even if you know the difference between a pony and a jigger, you’ll learn something the guy's class.

The three part course wrapped up with Brown pairing us off into groups to invent a new cocktail, which would be judged by Brown, chef and CulinAerie co-owner Susan Watterson and Going Out Guru Fritz Hahn. In the back of the classroom were our implements: a table full of liquors, bitters, fruit and mixers. The only rule was we had to use gin (Hendricks).

Before we got started, Brown gave us the pep talk: it's very difficult to invent a cocktail. First of all, you have to concoct something that people will want to drink. Secondly, it has to be an original combination of ingredients and proportions. Therein lays the problem. Bartenders have been mixing drinks for a long time, so coming up with one that someone else hasn’t already made is daunting. As Brown tells it, every time he thinks he’s come up with a new libation, he inevitably stumbles upon "his" recipe in some dusty old cocktail book.

With that boost of confidence, he set us lose to achieve what he has not (so far).

As I considered the table of ingredients trying to figure out a plan, I noticed the pint of little orange kumquats. Growing up in Florida … No, growing up in Dade City, Florida, I am familiar with the kumquat, an oblong citrus fruit whose name may well be better than its flavor. Most of the kumquats you see at the grocery store came from dear old Dade City. (Our gift to you. No thanks necessary.) When I was a kid, everyone I knew hated these things. The tiny, tart fruits made better projectiles than snacks.

So when I saw the pint of kumquats, I knew I had to use them, if for no other reason than a laugh. Besides, it wasn’t as if I was keeping them from anyone else. Brown also provided a bottle of elderflower cordial, a French liquor that I had absolutely no experience with. 

With ridiculous fruit in one hand and an unknown spirit in the other, my two teammates and I set off to make a mess, but came away with a winner. Of course, that was after several rounds of questionable cocktails. I'd mix one and my teammates would taste on comment (usually the looks on their faces said enough). By the sixth or seventh iteration, we knew we were on to something. The tartness of the kumquat juice was balanced by the sweetness of its zest, the elderflower and the simple syrup. The drink was rounded out by the gin (drier the better) and a few dashes of Angostura bitters. All in all, it was -- and is -- a pretty solid cocktail.

As pleased as I am with the result, the drink really is the product of pure dumb luck. But, boy dumb luck tastes good.

Like I said, this bartending class was back in March, which wasn’t exactly the ideal time of year to enjoy a refreshingly sweet, tart cocktail. Now that it’s June and we’re just starting to climb toward the 90s, the Darby Flower is ready for its public debut. (Incidentally, the name is a combination of Darby, the tiny area near Dade City my family moved to way back when, and flower, for the elderflower in the drink).

Cheers.

6 The Darby Flower

2 oz. of gin (the drier the better, but Hendricks is fine)
1 oz. of elderflower cordial
1/4 oz. of honey simple syrup
Zest of 2 kumquats
Juice of 2 kumquats
3 dashes of Angostura bitters

Combine the ingredients in a shaker, including the juiced kumquats, and muddle. Add ice, stir, shake (Yup, both. Trust me.) and serve neat with a thin slice of orange or a twist.

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Jun 11, 2009

Brandy Sangaree: My Favorite New Old Cocktail.

Sangaree2 Though I classify myself as very much a beer and wine guy, sometimes it is nice to have a cocktail out on the balcony before dinner, especially as the year gets on toward summer. As far as cocktails go, I am quite the master of the ampersand, and can whip up the best Gin & Tonic, Rum & Coke, or Scotch & Soda you've ever had! Beyond these, however, my skills and knowledge as a mixologist are shamefully slim.

'Course, the main reason behind this is a lack of practice. Like most you out there, I don't stock a full bar of obscure liqueurs, nor do I keep a fridge full of tropical juices, nor a full compliment of miniature umbrellas and swords, which exempts me from the more charming warm-weather cocktails. In addition to taking up a lot of room, that stuff is expensive, and decidedly less than versatile (you'd have to drink an unwise number of Harvey Wallbangers to justify a bottle of Galliano). Financial and spatial constraints have limited my fancy cocktail consumption to the bar, which is not typically the ideal space for sippin' on a Daiquiri or Pina Colada.

Recently, though, a friend of mine introduced me to an easy, tasty new cocktail of which I'd never heard: the Brandy Sangaree. In truth, the Sangaree predates the cocktail by about a hundred years, and with the Flip, was one of the favorite thirst quenchers of colonial America. As might be expected of such an ancient drink, the ingredients are very common, and the recipe is a cinch:


Sangaree1 Brandy Sangaree

2 oz Brandy
1/2 tsp Powdered Sugar
1 tsp Water
Carbonated Water
1 tbsp Port
Nutmeg

Dissolve powdered sugar in 1 tsp water.

Add brandy and pour into a highball glass over ice cubes.

Fill with carbonated water and stir.

Float port on top, sprinkle lightly with nutmeg, and serve.

The result is a light, slightly buttery, and pleasantly spicy concoction that, while refreshing, has all those delicious flavors usually associated with winter. Though slightly sweet, the port and nutmeg really take center stage, making this drink appropriate on its own, with a selection of fresh fruit, or even matched with strong cheese and charcuterie. Though ideally enjoyed out in the sun (what isn't?), the Brandy Sangaree also makes for a comforting indoor drink, and is great for whiling away these dismal days of monsoon season.

Perhaps most appealing of all about the Sangaree is its modest price tag; even though I sprang for the Christian Brothers VSOP (cuz I'm classy like that), the total ingredient cost was less than $30, and should be enough to keep me well stocked in colonial goodness for months to come. Compare that to a similar supply of even modestly priced pink or white wine, and there simply is no contest.

The standard recipe takes well to modification; for my part, I enjoy a little more port in my Sangaree, and go quite a bit lighter on the soda. Sangaree also covers a wide range of other ingredients, and a similar cocktail can be made with gin, scotch, or bourbon as a base. Whatever you do, though, don't skip the nutmeg; having tried the drink with and without, I've found that the spice really pulls the whole drink together.

If you've got your own go-to drinks (whether by-the-book or all Macgyvered up), please post them in the comments below. I would love to hear what others are doing to keep sauced in the summer!

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Feb 17, 2009

In defense of the dry martini

Image019 Alright, enough already with attacking the dry martini.

It's one thing for The Washington Post to attack my favorite cocktail. It's quite another when D.C. Foodies' own Rob Rutledge does it.

I can only surmise that Rob and the Post's Jason Wilson are in cahoots to ruin the martini.

A few weeks ago, Wilson wrote in his Spirits column that the era the dry martini is coming to close. No longer would we be forced to drink the drink of Churchill and Hemingway. Finally, we can add dry vermouth -- lots of dry vermouth -- to the drink.

Rob followed with his own attack on the dry martini. It hardly qualifies as a cocktail, he said. D.C. bartenders are now mixing 50-50 gin and vermouth martinis, he said. The dry martini is your grandpa's drink, they both said.

Hardly a cocktail?! Grandpa's drink?!

People, the dry martini is one of the single greatest cocktails ever constructed. When done properly, it's crisp, bracing and ever so slightly sweet. It's everything you want in a proper cocktail.

If all that gin is too much for you, maybe you should stick to vodka tonics.

Speaking of vodka, let's be clear about what a martini is. On this point, Wilson was right. A martini is gin, dry vermouth and garnish, stirred and served in a cocktail glass. While the olive is the common garnish, I prefer a lemon twist. If I want to change it up a bit, I add a few dashes of orange bitters.

What the martini is not is a vodka and vermouth cocktail. Gin is the martini's foundational ingredient. It's the bedrock for which the drink is constructed upon. Replace it and you have a different drink.

As the foundational ingredient, gin should be the prominent ingredient. I like the story about Churchill merely tipping his glass toward France to give his martini his preferred amount of vermouth. But if the story is true, the prime minister was not drinking a martini.

On the other hand, by overwhelming the martini with dry vermouth, you lose the flavor of the spirit. Gin has a distinct herbal character, but it's easily drowned out by the vermouth.

Now, if you're a fan of vermouth, by all means dump as much as you like to your martini. But Papa, the prime minister and I will continue to enjoy our martinis dry, very dry.

Dry Martini

3 oz. of gin (Plymouth, Hendricks and Martin Miller's are all good choices)
1 tsp. dry vermouth (Dolin works)
lemon twist

Fill a shaker half full with ice and add the dry vermouth. Stir and vermouth to coat the ice cubes and strain the excess. Add the gin, stir and pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon twist.

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