Friday, June 27, 2008

The Future of Cocktails 2: Boozy Boogaloo

Following my recent missive regarding the state of the cocktail "fad", Professor Erik, CEO of Underhill Lounge, left some very thought provoking comments, and I decided to drag some of my response into the light of day.

One of the things he touched on is a classic -- Cost. With the economy doing less than stellar, it's not hard to imagine folks deciding that $9-10 for a drink is way more than they are willing to pay. I don't, however, think that it is a straight issue of price. Rather I think it is an issue of perceived value -- America thrives on value, and value over the last decade or so has come to be embodied in price vs. size. A double cheese burger from McDonalds is not a good burger. But sell it for a buck, and it becomes fucking delicious. Conversely, a lot of people will look at a cocktail that's 3-4 ounces, look at the $9-10 price tag, and see nothing but a money sink.

Complicating things, is the issue of quality vs. cost. While people are quite comfortable with the idea that if they are paying more for a meal out, they will be receiving (hopefully) a meal of higher quality, this is an idea that hasn't really taken a deep hold on a great many of today's imbibers. This is due to drinkers not thinking of cocktails in culinary terms -- That a drink made correctly, using quality ingredients, is going to be substantially better than a drink thrown together with whatever's cheapest, and the price of those quality ingredients, and bartender talent make the finished product worth the extra few bucks. Boiled down to its simplest, it's a mentality of; it's just a bunch of booze in a glass. What's the big deal?

All that said, one doesn't have to look too hard to see plenty of people packing into cocktail lounges drinking away with gusto. This seeming paradox links into another really interesting point Erik brought up -- that he's concerned that San Francisco is "becoming a sort of theme park for rich foodies..." The idea of gentrification in San Francisco is, to put it bluntly, huge. In a city where even middle class wages can require making concessions to keep afloat, and the idea of owning a home is a running gag for many, the influence of money on the social landscape is almost constantly being put under the microscope. It's a fair number of these rich foodies (many of them surprisingly young, if my informal system of looking at the drinkers around me has any validity) which are helping to prop up the current rise in the popularity of cocktails.

Don't get me wrong -- Having money, and an appreciation for food doesn't make anybody inherently bad, but many of these "wealthy foodies" also fall under the category of scenesters. Their interest lays more in being in on the latest "thing" that everybody is talking about. Because these are the people with purchasing power, these are the people that (even subconsciously) upscale bars are going to cater too (and who would blame them). In the more mild of cases, it means keeping an impressively large stock of spirits which ties up cash in inventory requiring higher prices. The more crass cases, and the ones which are more detrimental to the cocktail movement, involves bars churning out $15 Red Bull/Vodka, justifying it because there's a DJ, and you had to wait in line to get in, and convincing those people that they are tasting what the cocktail revival is about.

Eventually there will be a tipping point where those individuals will decide that cocktails are not longer the in thing, and take their money elsewhere. When that happens, one can only hope that enough people were swayed by the power of a truly good drink that the cocktail renaissance will turn out to be more than just a fad. This seems like an awful lot of hand wringing about booze in a glass, but nobody ever said it'd easy to be a cocktail geek.

Comments always welcome or feel free to e-mail us at drinkaweek [at] gmail [dot] com.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

35) Demon Water Punch

1 oz. Zaya Rum
1 oz. Rhum Neisson Rhum Agricole
.5 oz. Rhum Clement Creole Shrub
.5 oz. Lime juice
Hand full of blueberries
Bundaberg Ginger Beer

Muddle the blueberries in a shaker, add the rest of the ingredients, and shake until well chilled. Double strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice, and top with Ginger Beer.

As San Francisco is wont to do, the weather leading into this last weekend went from blazing to frigid in the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, as I strode into Elixir on Sunday, my mind was still in the tropics. What this meant for me is that I wanted to work with Rum, and I wanted to work with different rums together. Kind of like a total bastard of a tiki idea (because I have yet to really delve into the tiki area of drinks). I was most interested in seeing what sort of interplay we could get from a molasses-based Rum, and a cane sugar juice-based Agracole.

As we talked about the idea, Ed pulled up a bottle of Zaya rum, and said we should give it whirl. One taste, and I was firmly on his side. That's some damn fine stuff. He also thought the addition of Creole Shrub would not only add a bit of brightness, and sweetness to counter the lime juice, it would be more Rum! Then we began combing through the fruit that Elixir had on hand -- At first we were tempted to use some fantastic plums that had just come in, but decided that they were perhaps a bit too mild for what we were using. When we hit blackberries we knew we had found our baby -- They looked great, and tasted even better.

As for the ginger beer, it's something I've been getting a bit obsessive about. It's never been a beverage that I much cared for, but have found that it can be a great addition to a cocktail. One gets the nice fizz that one would from soda, but it brings its own spicy bit to the party. I was somewhat worried it might be a bit much for the drink, but as it turned out we didn't end up needing to add too much (thank you Collins glass!).

It turned out to be one of those drinks that Ed and I were especially happy with. It's smooth as hell, with the ginger and blackberries hitting up front then giving way to the notes of both rums. Last Friday's weather, some meat on the grill, and six of these, and I'd be happy as a monkey in a peanut machine. By happy, of course, I mean stupid drunk.

Blog bonus! Much to my embarrassment, I haven't explored Rum nearly as much as I'd like. This is partly due to my unending obsession with Gin and Whiskey, but also because Rum holds over me a strange sort of intimidation level. Which is why I wasn't familiar at all with the Zaya Rum. A bit of research revealed to me that it's a bit pricey, and is much more a sipping Rum rather than the sort of thing one would want to obscure in a cocktail (though it sure made it tasty!). So with that, I have two questions for you, our dear readers.

1) What might any of you with more Rum expertise recommend as a less expensive (less heretical?) Rum to use in this drink?

2) It's about time I get my Rum game going. Anybody have any recommendations as to a good cocktail place to start? The obvious choice is Forbidden Island; however, since I am lacking a car, and Rum education is the sort of thing that makes driving a bit of a bad idea, somewhere in San Francisco would be nice.

Comments always welcome or feel free to e-mail us at drinkaweek [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


It has just come to my attention that Mudpuddle Books is currently offering several reprints of great vintage cocktail books. This is huge news to those of us not in a position to shell out the dough required to get our grubby hands of a copy of these lost gems.

One of the first things any cocktail geek begins to eye (well, maybe after stocking up the liquor cabinet) are books. Books that go beyond just being a laundry list of recipes (though I love me my Difford's), and act as historical sign posts to where our beloved quaffs came from. As I have been increasingly interested in really digging into the past (thanks in no small part to this guy) to be better informed of the present, I can't wait to spend me a paycheck on these invaluable works.

Hmmm -- Think I'm gonna need another paycheck.

Comments always welcome or feel free to e-mail us at drinkaweek [at] gmail [dot] com.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Kumquat Gastrique

It was quite some time ago that I began to hear rumblings of mixologists beginning to turn from things such as house made syrups for flavoring and beginning to experiment with other, more culinary, agents of flavor. One of the ones which I found particularly interesting was gastriques (essentially a reduction of vinegar, sugar, and fruit -- A fairly versitel sauce that tends to show up most paired with meats).

At this point you're probably thinking, as I did at first, that cocktails and vinegar are two things that very much belong on opposite sides of the room. But as I thought more about it (and read some compelling writing on the subject) the idea became less of one which made me wince in tangy pain. I began to imagine that the difference between a gastrique and citrus juice wouldn't be monumentally different. It quickly become one of the many booze related DYI projects that get put on the shelf to be promptly forgotten.

That changed when I went to the finale shindig for San Francisco cocktail week at Absinthe. One of the drinks on the menu for that evening contained a cherry gastrique. It added a really interesting, and tasty element to the drink, and I was determined to dust off the idea and see what I could come up with.

For a while there had been a rasher of kumquats rolling about Elixir (Ed and I deployed some for one of our experiments), and they were one of my childhood favorite fruits so I snagged some and took them home to serve an extended tour of duty on my kitchen stove. Generally, gastriques are made using "soft" fruits that will boil away into juice or just fruit juice -- Since I was uncertain that the kumquats would really boil away due to their tough skin, and there was no way I was going to juice kumquats, I gave the whole thing a jump start by halving the kumquats and macerating them in one and a half cups vinegar over night.

The next day I chucked the lot into a sauce pan and added in a cup of sugar. Then began the long process of reduction. I started with a low heat until the sugar was dissolved, and incorporated into the vinegar, then I cranked up the heat to get a good boil going (let me tell you, there's nothing like the smell of boiling vinegar to wake you up in the morning!). I let it reduce down until it was thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, jarred it, and tossed it in the fridge to cool down.

When thinking about how to debut it, I almost immediately thought that it might make a nice variation on the Daiquiri. I decided to use the Scarlet Ibis I recently procured as I thought its higher proof would stand a better chance against the more pronounced bite of the vinegar, and decided to omit the sugar as there was plenty in the gastrique itself. Stabbing a bit in the dark I went for two ounces of Rum to one ounce of the gastrique.

Well, it sure was tart. The gastrique actually worked well in the drink, giving it a nice bite, and playing well off the rum, but it did seem a bit much. I also wasn't really getting a lot of the kumquat. A quick tasting of the gastrique on its own revealed that I had gone too light on the kumquats. I had used them sparingly as they are a potent flavor, and I was afraid that too many might lend too much of a bitter edge to the finished product. I went for another round, and this time went for 2.5 ounces of Rum to .5 ounces of the gastrique. This result was not as good, with the gastrique just not working its magic as much.

On balance I think I have to call my first gastrique experience a bust. I definitely could have used more kumquats, and I think that equal parts vinegar to sugar (which, I believe, is generally the method) may have created a better balanced product. I still want to play around with it using Gin, and perhaps Rye, but overall it's safe to say I've got some more work ahead of me in sussing out how to really get the most out of it. Fortunately, with summer here there's a ton of great produce just calling out to me for more gastrique fun!

Comments always welcome or feel free to e-mail us at drinkaweek [at] gmail [dot] com.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Innovation and the Future of Cocktails

America thrives on fads. Market mavens, and early adopters jump on trends like fleas with thronging crowds following dutifully behind screaming, "Me too! Me too!" And just as quickly as the star of popularity rises, it falls -- One white trash beer is shunned in favor of another. Backs are turned on that really cool Grasscore band from Rhode Island because, you know, everybody likes them now. Next thing you know everybody's ironically drinking wine coolers, and wearing Hello Kitty belts around their chests. Amongst this swirl of pop cultural miasma, like gummi bears resting in their frozen yogurt tomb, is the cocktail.

There is no denying that a large part of the current cocktail resurgence is due to its status as a fad. Certainly it is also being driven by the ongoing "foodie" movement, but even that movement is fraught with a number of sub-fads (foams anybody?). Being a fad, it is destined to be forsaken when the next big thing comes stalking through the land (could the recent rash of Belgian beer focused pubs here in San Francisco, and the seemingly increasing press being given to craft beer be a harbinger?). Even at my tender age (would you believe I just turned 21? Anybody? No? Fine.) I have always been philosophically ok with this. I bought garbage pail kids, I owned a hypercolor shirt, I was even down with the McD.L.T.. I know how the kids roll.

Pragmatically I'm selfish, I don't want to lose even a single place at which I can currently get a great drink. I don't want to see those places that are squeezing the bandwagon by serving swill and getting away with calling it a cocktail by charging crazy prices, and having a DJ on the weekends, fuck things up for the rest of us. I hate change and I love deliciousness. What does this have to do with innovative (the house cocktails which take up most of the menus at many drink joints) cocktails? I think they may be unintentionally contributing to the impending death of the "fad". This isn't a big reason, and there are certainly numerous other factors (this missive was even longer as I digressed into the effects of food trends over the last 10 years, as well as domestic attitudes to drinking in general), but it's one that I think is interesting.

Since I feel a bit like I might be treading on shifty sands, and often when I try and gingerly pick my way through an issue that might be sensitive, let me get one thing out of the way now. I love what's currently going on in the cocktail scene. I love the use of seasonal ingredients, the application of savory elements, the freedom that mixologists have to go crazy and apply their art. Nothing makes me happier than when a bar tender I trust asks me, "You mind if I try something out on you?" Hell, sitting at home right now I've got a failed attempt at lemon-coke bitters, and some kumquat gastrique I'm dying to play around with this weekend.

With that enormous caveat out of the way, here's the thing -- When I go out to grab a cocktail I see plenty of people happily imbibing drinks off the specialty drink menus, and I wonder how many of these people will be in the least bit interested in cocktails a year or two from now. Eventually many people are going to get tired of things like Thai basil, and green cardamom syrup. When that happens will those people fall back to Manhattans and Daiquiris? I'm not so sure they will, because for them a Manhattan is something their Grandpa drank, and never had made correctly anyway, and if it doesn't come out of a slushy machine it can't be a Daiquiri right?

Want to go on an analogy with me? Come on, it'll be fun! When I was 12, after a summer spent watching cooking shows on my local PBS station, I decided I wanted to give cooking a try. The first dish I made was chicken piccata. It wasn't very good, but it wasn't so bad that it made me want to give up kitchen experiments. I raided my mother's cookbooks, and began to acquire my own, faithfully following the recipes I found with painful precision. As my confidence (and dare I say skill) increased, I realized I had jumped past many of the basics, and back to basics I went. I learned how to make a perfect steak, roast a chicken, make the major sauces and learn their myriad uses, etc. Learning those basics hugely informed how I looked at the things I made after.

I would posit that this analogy can be applied to a number of the people who are fueling the current cocktail scene. They are, at least potentially, the cocktail equivalent of foodies, but they have jumped into the deep end, and as the intensity of the trend wanes will they explore the basics and stick around or will they drift off to some other far flung place? Perhaps more importantly, given that it isn't the job of a bartender or owner to force anybody into drinking any particular drink, is there anything that can be done? Does it even really matter?

Having spent an insane amount of time trying to get this thought on paper, I'm still not sure.

Comments always welcome or feel free to e-mail us at drinkaweek [at] gmail [dot] com.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

All Aboard the Wondrich Bandwagon!

The news has been racing around the cocktail blog-o-dome for the last couple of days, so this is probably not news to y'all, but cocktail guru and raconteur David Wondrich just took home the James Beard award for best wine and spirits writing for his book Imbibe.

Besides being a well deserved accolade for a very nice guy, I think this is a pretty good sign for the cocktail boom overall. My views on the boom can best be described as optimistically pessimistic (elaboration to come if the 1000 words I've currently got can coalesce into a cogent concept), but seeing Mr. Wondrich's book take the gold over two books covering wine makes me think that perhaps cocktails aren't on quite the shaky ground I tend to think they are. Hopefully this win will get more people reading the book, and gaining a better insight/respect for the mighty cocktail.

For any cocktail geek this is a fantastic resource, but it's also a great read for anybody. He never gets overly academic, and his frequently witty, almost conversational style is pretty much perfect. If you haven't already picked it up, it's not too late to redeem yourself!

Comments always welcome or feel free to e-mail us at drinkaweek [at] gmail [dot] com.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Best Way To Get Your Ego Bruised

Several months ago a friend told me that he had offered our blog up to the decaying Gods of print (7x7 magazine to be precise) as fodder for their upcoming "best of" edition. I thought it was kind of him to do so, but suspected they would find our somewhat regular swearing perhaps not quite the fare for their demographic. So imagine our surprise when we were eventually contacted by somebody at 7x7 telling us that we had been selected to be in the issue. Even though we they asked us if we could give them a call to gather some background information, I continued to think there was some sort shenanigans going on.

More surprise was in store for us when we got on the phone, and the person doing the research seemed to have actually, well, researched. She asked us about specific cocktails we had come up with, the abomination that was my red bull bitters, and even what our "philosophy" was. Not having a philosophy I had to make something up on the spot, then change my answer when Ed came up with something smarter. It seemed much more likely that we weren't being had, but I was still cautious as I'm a raging pessimist. Nevertheless, I started spreading the good news, and getting pretty excited.

I wouldn't characterize Ed and I as being particularly egotistical, but blogging is pretty much a labor of love, and not as easy as it looks. So, even though I'm not sure we're quite "best of" materiel right now, the idea of some outside validation, and exposure to the masses was a pretty cool idea. Besides, when we did the interview the woman was unable to tell us exactly what we would be the best of. It seemed that it would ultimately be an editorial decision -- That right there is a damn fine hook. We paid for the whole seat, but we were only going to be using the edge!

Neither Ed nor myself knew the date when the magazine would hit the stands, so I kept a vigilant eye out on my local news stand. We were rewarded last Saturday when I finally spotted a bright, shiny copy in the racks. I grabbed a copy on my way out to see Ed at Elixir, my mind racing at what very nice things they might have to say about us. Settled into the bar, I began searching for our entry. And searched -- We were nowhere to be found. As our searching became fevered, we began to get desperate. "Maybe we're in the fashion section. You know, best thing to drink after buying a ten thousand dollar hand bag or something." But no, search as we might, strain our eyes on the small print, there was no escaping the fact that we had been left on the cutting room floor.

While it was kind of disappointing to not make it, it's hard not to be gracious in defeat. We're very much babes in the cocktail blog-o-ball, and as they say, it's nice to have just been nominated.

Hell, now that I've written this, it'll probably turn out that we ended up on some obscure page which was the only one we didn't look at.

Comments always welcome or feel free to e-mail us at drinkaweek [at] gmail [dot] com.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Field Trip - Enrico's

When the good Mr. Nepove recently informed me that not only had he revamped the cocktail menu at the venerable Enrico's, but was stepping back behind the bar, I knew I was going to have to make a trip to North Beach to see what his hands had wrought. As I looked over the menu (not yet updated on the website unfortunately) I was interested to find that it was well rounded for the Enrico's clientele. With its location and history, Enrico's draws a pretty mixed crowd of old school regulars, hipsters, and tourists. The menu contains a spectrum of drinks so that most types will find something they like (or feel safe with), but all still look to retain a sense of well thought out execution. But enough of my prattling -- On to the drinks!

I decided to start off with a Hemmingway Daiquiri. I'm a bit over the moon for maraschino liqueur, and am quite the fan of the Daiquiri, so this variation is a favorite. The building of the drink was halted midway with a growl from David. "Let me guess," I said. "You're out of Luxardo?" After a bit of searching around, he confirmed that such was indeed the case. I decided it would be a shame to waste the already poured booze so I decided to improvise and asked him if he would mind throwing in some St. Germain. While I was expecting a very different kind of drink, I thought it would at least be tasty. I was wrong. St. Germain is just too much for this drink -- The floral notes of it clash with the grapefruit, and the rum ends up just sort of lazing about like debutante on a fainting couch.

Looking over the other drinks for something to soothe my battered tongue, I lingered for a bit on the Basil Gimlet. Savory drinks have been popping up on San Francisco cocktail menus for a while now, and while I like that trend I've never been that interested in the likes of this drink. I decided that I was just being a dick about the whole thing and went for it. A nice touch for this particular drink is that the option of Vodka vs. Gin is offered. I, of course, went for the Gin, and was glad I went for the drink as well. The basil worked well as an earthy foundation for the botanicals of the gin, and the lime juice gave the drink a nice, tart, brightness.

As I was working on my Gimlet David started talking about some drinks he and Duggan had been working on at Cantina a few days prior. This led to David musing on how he had recently thought about making a variation on the Ramos Gin Fizz, using Rye and Absinthe to create a sort of Sazerac Fizz. As the day before I had been talking to Ed about how I was kind of getting the urge for a Ramos, I offered up myself to the altar of giving it a shot. It was certainly a tasty looking beverage, but it was missing a little something. A couple of dashes of orange bitters helped quite a bit -- There was still just a little something missing, but it was damn tasty, and one that I'll certainly be ordering again.

After the "Sazerac" Fizz, I was in the Devil Hour -- That place where I've had enough cocktails, and it's probably a good time to go, but the pull of one more for the road is great. Having no willpower whatsoever, I went for that one for the road. It was a pretty easy decision to make as I noticed there was a Blackberry Cobbler (of the Gin variety) on the menu. Cobblers aren't really something you see a lot of these days, so I was pretty down for it. This was one hell of a tasty beverage -- The blackberries worked great with the gin (not too surprising) and was an excellent way to finish off the evening.

After that, it was off to home. Even though I really wanted a Sazerac.

Comments always welcome or feel free to e-mail us at drinkaweek [at] gmail [dot] com.