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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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Feb 23, 2011

Barrel Aging Whiskey At Home (Because You Have Too Much Time On Your Hands)

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This post isn't for you. No, you're a right-thinking person with things to do. When you're hungry you eat. When you're thirsty you drink.

And when you want a cocktail, you don't wait four months for it. But that's what I'm doing. On my kitchen counter is a 2 liter wooden barrel that I filled with an equal mixture of corn liquor (think moonshine) from Finger Lakes Distilling and an equally un-aged Wasmund's Rye Spirit from Copper Fox. With any luck, the clear alcohol that went in the white oak vessel will - in time - exit it much more tan and much more flavorful. 

In other words, I hope I have whiskey.

DSCN5891 Sure, I could just go buy a couple bottles of whiskey and be done with it. It would cost me about the same (or less). But why do that when I can go through the trouble of preparing a barrel and waiting until June?

So I can say it's mine.

It's not the best reason in the world, but it's the best I've got. I'm also fascinated by the process of barrel aging - how the wood breathes, allowing the alcohol to leach into its charred interior and extract those beautiful caramel and vanilla flavors that make whiskey what it is.

Besides, as hobbies go, this is a pretty low key one. Once the barrel is prepped and filled there's not much to do other than wait. And when the whiskey is ready, you'll look like Jack Daniels pouring liquor out of your very own barrel (by your fourth high ball, you'll be telling people you're Jack Daniels).

Oddly enough, this isn't my first whiskey barrel.

Last year, I bought a 10 liter barrel for a homebrewing project and filled it with a finished whiskey, Early Times. The Kentucky whiskey is aged at least three years in oak barrels before it's bottled and sold. I gave it another seven and a half months in a new white oak barrel I got from Copper Fox (the smaller the barrel the less time the spirit needs to spend in it). The difference is dramatic.

DSCN5911 In the photo, the glass on the left is regular Early Times, the glass on the right is the Early Times I aged. Now, I like Early Times. It may not be as well regarded as Buffalo Trace or Pappy Van Winkle, but it's a smooth, easy drinking whiskey. My 8 liters of extra aged Early Times, though, can give the big guys a run for their money. It's as complex and rich as any of them. The Brown-Forman Corporation may have made the whiskey that went into my barrel, but I take credit for the whiskey that came out.

By the way, did you notice 10 liters went in the barrel, but only 8 liters came out? That's typical. Distillers call that the "angel's share" and it's the result of evaporation and absorption by the wood (and the occasional quality control sample). That's much of the reason why a bottle of 20-year-old Scotch whisky costs so much more than a 12-year-old bottle - by the time that Scotch reaches its 20th year, there's a lot less of it in the barrel.

So if you've got too much time on your hands and not enough sense to just go buy a drink, I have a project for you. Here's what you need and what you need to do to barrel age your own liquor:

1 barrel
1 tub or sink large enough to accommodate the barrel
1 large pot of boiling water
1 funnel
1 spray bottle, filled with very warm water

New white oak barrels can be purchased from a number of sources, including Copper Fox Distillery, Thousand Oaks Barrel Company, or homebrew supply stores. Sizes range from 1 liter up to a full-sized 194 liter barrel (that's a lot of whiskey).

You can fill the barrel with either un-aged spirit, or add more flavor to a finished whiskey (or rum for that matter). The brand is up to you, but I've found Copper Fox's un-aged rye and whiskey locally at Central Liquor in Penn Quarter and Schneider's of Capitol Hill.

DSCN5895 To prep the barrel, set it in a tub or sink, because it's going to get wet. Bring a pot of water to boil (boil more water than you need to fill the barrel), and then reduce to a simmer. You want to keep the water between 155 and 180 degrees. This will help the wood swell, closing off any leaks, and kill any bacteria that may be in the wood.

The barrel should come with a spout, bung and stand. Attach the spout and make sure it's opened. Insert the funnel into the bunghole (I know, I know) and, using a glass Pyrex measuring cup or similar heat-safe cup, carefully fill the barrel with the hot water. After a bit of the water has run through the spout, close it and finish filling. Once the barrel is full, insert the bung and spray the entire exterior of the barrel with the warm water.

For the next four hours, periodically spray the barrel with water (basically if it's dry, spray it down) and look for leaks. If you don't find any, drain the water and fill with booze.

The rule of thumb with aging is the smaller the barrel the less time you need to age the spirit. It has to do with the amount of contact the liquid has with the wood: smaller barrel equals more contact; bigger barrel equals less contact. So, if you buy the 194 liter barrel, you shouldn't bother checking the contents for a few years. But if you go with the 2 liter barrel, your newly aged beverage could be ready in a few months.

Categories: Do It Yourself, 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.

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Apr 16, 2010

Ron del Barrilito: Puerto Rico's Best Rum, Now Available in DC!

RonB1 Contrary to popular belief, hard liquor can go bad. It doesn't turn into vinegar like wine does, nor cloudy, bacteria-laden poison like beer, but if you leave a small amount of liquor in a bottle for too long it will lose its flavor and end up tasting kinda dusty. Being capricious and forgetful, I have let many a bottle go down this road, and my latent attachment issues just won't let me throw the damn things out (at least not the rare ones). "But its not even good anymore!" I tell myself. "Yeah, but I can't get anymore!" It's bad for my mental health, and frankly, scads of nearly empty liquor bottles don't really fit the decorating scheme. Thankfully, one of the oldest of my precious garbage bottles has now hit the recycling bin, porque Ron del Barrilito esta aqui!

Chances are if you are from the islands you know this one, and if you ain't, you don't. For the longest time, RDB was one of those treasures the Caribbeans kept for themselves, with some small enclaves of availability in NYC, San Francisco and the like. A friend of mine from Puerto Rico (from which RDB also hails) was kind enough to let me try some of his stash some years back, and I was bowled over. The reputation of Puerto Rican rum is almost exclusively built on Bacardi, far and away the best selling rum in the world, largely by virtue of being the lowest common denominator. It's insipid, neutral, and purposefully bland, so as not to offend, and turn almost flavorless in the presence of Coke.

RDB by comparison has a beautiful dark brown, gold accented hue, like maple syrup, and is visibly more viscous then that clear crap. The nose is a complicated melange of roasted nuts, cola, honey, and pepper. The front is sweet and slightly buttery, with a smokey character developing on the middle, leading to a peppery, molasses accented finish. This is not a rum for mixing, but for sipping neat, or with a splash of water. Though, if you were feeling saucy and wanted to make an ersatz Manhattan or Old Fashioned, I guess I wouldn't blame you...

RonB2 The aforementioned friend, on one of his sojourns to visit friends and family, was kind enough to bring a bottle back for me, some 4 years ago. I nursed that bottle like I was Florence freakin' Nightingale, taking only the occasional drink every few months. I even moved the damn thing three times! As time wore on, I knew it wasn't the same... the stuff tasted like crap, towards the end, but I clung on, a codependent in an abusive relationship. Imagine my elation when I saw a full bottle at one of my favorite stores not two weeks past, and learned that the product was just picked up by Bacchus Imports! That very same night, I kicked that old good-for-nothin' space taker to the curb.

So far, I have only seen Ron del Barrilito at Ace Beverage and 1 West Dupont Wine & Spirits, but ask your neighborhood retailer to get it for you from Bacchus, and I am sure he will accommodate. The rum I have been discussing is the "Three Star," and should run about $40 to $50, but they also now sell a younger "Two Star," which I cannot wait to try.

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Mar 13, 2010

John L Sullivan and Paddy: Two New Drinkin' Buddies for St. Pat's

Selfdrive_st_patrick1 So when Saint Patrick was ministering to the druids and such of Northern Ireland in the 5th century AD, do you think he had any inkling as to what people would be doing in his name 1500 years down the line? History and hagiography agree, the man himself was a bit of a hardass, more into fasting and prayer than, say, drinking copious amounts of crappy green beer. On top of that, did you know he is more traditionally associated with the color blue than green?

Calling a spade a spade, I think its fair to say the whole thing is a farce. Everyone knows the celebration these days has nothing to with a long dead bishop... but it needn't be only about Car Bombs, shamrocks, and silly green hats. Celebrate the great nation's history and get a buzz; drink some whiskey!

Ireland has a fabulously long history of distilling, dating back over a millennium! Whiskey making was once a sort of national pastime, with thousands of stills, both sanctioned and illegal, running full-time throughout the country. Unfortunately, economics and international competition were not good to the Irish distillers, such that today a mere three distilleries remain. Because of this, seeing a new label is rare, so the fact that St. Pat's 2010 brings us two new brands is downright inconceivable!

JLS1 John L. Sullivan

This guy has been on the market for a few months now, and I am afraid the WaPo beat me to the punch. But no matter, it's still a pretty damned good whiskey. JLS is made at Cooley Distillery, the last Irish-owned distillery in the country, which already has some renown for its Connemara and Tyrconnell lines. The spirit -- named after the turn-of-the-century sportsman, and America's first millionaire athlete -- is double distilled in pot stills, then aged in single-use bourbon barrels. This unusual last step adds a depth of color unusual to the species, yielding a pretty, pale gold. Lots of vanilla, some peach, and a hint of allspice on the nose. JLS is a little more oily than most Irish on the front, with the flavor of malted brown sugar, proceeding to a rather smooth, rye-accented finish. If Jameson or Bushmill's is your usual dram, you will definitely notice the difference, but may very well enjoy its more forward "American" personality.

JLS is available at several local stores including Schneider's, Connecticut Ave Wine and Spirits, Ace Beverage, Dixie Liquor, and Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits, for in the neighborhood of $24 / 750ml bottle. I've also seen it around at several area bars in both DC and Virginia, including Cafe Saint-Ex, Marvin, O'Sullivans, The Passenger, and Againn.

Paddy1 Paddy

This new brand is actually quite old, and one of the more popular in its homeland. Paddy was once the flagship brand of the Cork Distilleries Company, which named this, their first attempt at a bottled spirit, after their best salesman, Paddy Flaherty. Paddy has a reputation for being one of the softest, smoothest whiskeys produced in Ireland, a country already known for the easy goin' stuff. The spirit pours a dark burnished yellow, like an older Chardonnay. The nose is quite malty, with a floral note, some melon, and a touch of sweet vanilla. More malt meets you on the attack, along with lots of banana, proceeding to a soft, oak-dominated finish. Being so mild, fruity, and light, this is almost the perfect intro whiskey for your novice friends; still, it is definitely complicated enough to give the connoisseur something to ponder.

Though I remember Paddy fondly from my study abroad period in Dublin, the brand has never really been marketed in the US, so I was shocked when I saw it at The Gibson the other day. I know that they have a good supply, and that Potomac Wine and Spirits nabbed a couple cases, which they are selling off at $31.99 / 1 Liter bottle. Supposedly, the distributor (RNDC) brought in about 70 cases to test the market, so there has got to be more out there somewhere. Let us know in the comments section if you track it down. If you find Paddy to your liking, let your favorite bars and retailers know, and hopefully they will put some pressure on RNDC to make it a regular item.

Categories: Liquor, St. Patrick's Day
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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!


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Aug 21, 2008

Bacon up that Bourbon!

Baconandbourbon_3 Whenever you are at a party, make it a point to strike up a conversation with a stranger — you never know what you might learn. A couple of weeks ago, Eliza and I attended a friend's birthday party at the Helix Lounge, a trendy hotel bar in the Logan Circle neighborhood. Over a few of the establishment's fanciful concoctions, we started to discuss the relative merits of various liquors with our table mates. One of our new friends (I can't remember her name — too many "Cool as a Cucumbers", I fear) turned us on to the existence of bacon infused bourbon. "Surely," I thought, "This cannot be real. I am not that good a person." A few days and a little internet research later, I confirmed that, despite my moral failings, the Lord has indeed blessed the world with so grand a creation — nature's two most perfect foods, fused as one!

Of course, the corporate fat cats of Big Liquor are too busy with their acai vodkas and lychee flavored cognacs to see the beauty of baconated bourbon, so if I wanted to indulge, I realized I would have to make it myself. The most prominent recipe on the net is one from the April 2008 edition of New York Bacon_4 Magazine. I adapted it as follows:

  1. Fry three pieces of bacon until done.
  2. Eat bacon, with pancakes.
  3. Pour approx. two tablespoons of now cool bacon grease into 375 ml of Jim Beam bourbon.
  4. Infuse at room temperature for approx. six hours.
  5. Straining Strain mixture through mesh into sealable container, and store in freezer overnight to separate fat.
  6. Strain liquor through coffee filter into clean bottle.

The result smelled... interesting, but I felt a bit hollow inside: I was all psyched up for bacon infused bourbon, dammit, not bacon-fat infused! Before jumping in for a taste, I thought I might take some liberties with the process. I purchased a second pint of Beam, and whipped up my own recipe:

  1. Baconsteeping Fry three pieces of bacon until WELL done.
  2. Do not eat bacon (pancakes are permissible).
  3. Place three slices of bacon, and pour ALL the grease, into 375 ml of Jim Beam bourbon.
  4. Leave on counter. Watch three episodes of Iron Chef Japan.
  5. Strain into sealable container, place in freezer overnight.
  6. Strain again through coffee filter... and repeat once more, for good measure.

There. Now I had two samples, just enough for a proper experiment. I tasted about one finger of each sample with a single ice cube, and then with a 1:1 ratio with Fever Tree Ginger Ale. Here are my results:

Sample One: New York Magazine Adaptation

Appearance: Slightly cloudy and yellow. Decidedly thicker looking than straight Jim Beam.
Nose: Maple and a savory/fatty component; less evident alcohol than straight.
Taste: Salty and quite heavy on the palate, with a pronounced note of used cooking oil. Alcohol and natural sweetness sublimated by fat. Finish lingers for several minutes with a buttery sensation reminiscent of taking a swig of old whipping cream from the carton.

With Ginger Ale:

Smell: Rancid. Cloying sweetness with the hint of something rotting.
Taste: N/A
(No joke, I actually did vomit when I first tasted this. The combination of fat with the sweet, carbonated liquid was horrifying. I tried again several hours later, but could not help but spit it out as soon as humanly possible).

Sample Two: Rob's Personal Recipe

Appearance: Orange/Yellow. Clear, but with visible particulate matter, despite numerous filtrations.
Nose: Instant aroma of smoke and burnt meat, with just a hint of bitter chocolate.
Taste: Light, with the traditional bourbon texture, though a bit less bite. Breakfast flavors of maple and bacon dominate the front palate, leading to a smoky, clean finish.

With Ginger Ale:

Smell: Spicy, salty, and smoky.
Taste: An odd combination of salty and sweet — almost reminiscent of scotch. Finish is clean, with similar flavors persisting.

Conclusions:

Okay, so the New York recipe was made with a particular cocktail in mind, and I realize now that there is a reason for that. When combined with maple syrup and other flavorful ingredients, this liquor may add a pleasant accent; as the primary player, it is abhorrent. I was quite pleased with the results of my second trial — I think the shorter contact time with the flavoring agent yielded a lighter, more fragrant product with a wider range of applications. Also, it didn't make me throw up like the other one did.

Though this experiment obviously didn't result in the ambrosia I'd anticipated, if you are a fellow fan of booze and meat, I suggest you give it a shot. Also, feel free to explore the wider world of meated beverages — personally, I see great potential in the field of chorizo-infused tequila...

Categories: Do It Yourself, Liquor
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Jul 31, 2008

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat.

Yeah, yeah. I’m sure all of you out there are pretty pumped about the upcoming DC Restaurant Week—so am I, I assure you. But don’t be so quick to forget another annual week-long extravaganza — Shark Week! Every year since 1987, the Discovery Channel has taken on the summer TV slump with a celebration of the shark, and man, is it some compelling television. Being at the top of the food chain of the planet’s biggest biome, there is much a foodie can respect and empathize with in this merciless killer. Like the foodie, the shark is voracious, but also open minded — from Tuna Sashimi to Seal Tartar, the shark is in, full bore. Also, he is not one to scoff at ethnic cuisine:  whether Australian, Indian, or American, everyone is on the menu. That said, the Discovery Channel pulls no punches, depicting the brutal life of these prehistoric killers in a very visceral manner—your gonna need a drink to steel yourself. Fortunately, there are a couple of producers out there making some great beverages that are appropriate to the occasion, and actually do a little good along the way.

Pict0813 Shark Trust Wines, founded by avid diver Melanie Marks, in San Luis Obispo, California, presents a great line of international wines, labeled with a focus on shark education. Shark Trust pulls its wine from all over the globe, with producers in California, France, and South Africa, each wine embodying the grapes and style of its origin. Right now, I am enjoying a glass of Whale Shark Chenin Blanc 2007, a sturdily made South African wine made from the county’s signature grape. Tropical fruit such as guava and kiwi dominate the nose, giving way more ripe flavors on a full-bodied palate, with a short but appropraitely acidic finish. The line also features a fruit-driven Reef Shark Red from southern France, (which I have tasted and find to be a great fruit-driven Rhone Style red), the Great White Chardonnay, and the  Six Gill Syrah, all of which are well priced at about $10, of which 10% goes to shark charities.

Pict0809_2 For those that prefer something a bit on the stronger side, "Take Little Bites," a company out of Jupiter, Florida, has released Mako Vodka. Founded by Long Island transplant Michael Politano in 2005, Mako Vodka seeks to "take on the big boys" like Grey Goose and Smirnoff, while donating 10% of their profits to wetlands and coral reef preservation. This three-times distilled, charcoal filtered grain vodka has a very clean profile, including hints of nuts and wheat on the nose. The body is smooth but full, almost oily, with none of that harsh vodka bite so common of spirits in its modest (about $13) price range. Regardless of your drink, this is a surprisingly palatable vodka, appropriate for tonics and martinis, and is even clean enough to drink neat.

Though the Discovery Channel, Shark Trust, and Take Little Bites all take a light-hearted tack on the matter, their underlying ethos needs be noted: that our oceans and their denizens, however large, are vital and fragile, and in desperate need of our assistance. Its good to know that, thanks to certain well minded people, in some small way, we may do something for the greater good while taking our enjoyment. Cheers!

 

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