A Companion for the Young Imbiber

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Falling Off The Radar

Posted by drinkscompanion on May 4, 2008

This blog was never really meant to be a serious thing, more like a way to reiterate in words the things I had been learning.  That’s how I reinforce education, by writing about it, taking notes, or talking about it with people.  When this blog was created, I didn’t have an outlet for that – I simply didn’t work at bars where I could geek out with customers and coworkers.  Now that I do, I find that most of my free time is spent reading books about spirits and cocktails, blogs, and on the occasional night off, visiting friends at their bars.

For the first time in a while, I have three days off in a row.  I quite literally have no idea what to do with myself.  And then I remembered I had a blog once, back in the day when I was a teenager, before I had status and before I had a pager.   It was fun, but then I got busy (read: lazy) and just couldn’t keep up (read: drinking too much).

That’s all.  I haven’t given up completely, but almost.  


Posted in General Discussion | 4 Comments »

(( Cocktail Techniques ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on January 13, 2008



The Exciting World of…Stirring!

That’s right, I’m back with some more technique discussion.  Dreadfully boring or informative?  I’ll let you be the judge.

Now, I’m of two minds when it comes to stirring.  One, the guy who sometimes just wants to chill the cocktail down and get on with the drinking already, tends to shake off the snobbery of proper technique, method, and specific utensils.  The other side (which wins more often) sticks pretty rigidly to guidelines, if only to make the customer’s experience more consistent.  What are these guidelines and why do they help in both chilling a cocktail and getting a desired texture?  To answer this, let’s chat about stirring in general.

Why do we sometimes stir and why do we sometimes shake?  Though there are many variations, and certainly no one way is correct, the rule-of-thumb goes something like this: If a cocktail is primarily spirituous (meaning with liquors, liqueurs, fortified wines, syrups, bitters, etc), it should be stirred.  Mixing these ingredients doesn’t require brute force from shaking, and the texture that results is silky and smooth, cold liquid sex on the tongue.  I’m not much for sexual metaphors, but a properly made Manhattan is a sensual thing.

Conversely, should your cocktail have juice, cream, fruit (solid or puréed), or egg, it should be shaken.  The introduction of air into the liquid, and the violent use of ice as a blender (of sorts), mixes these ingredients together while diluting and chilling.  Naturally, there are exceptions to these rules, but most cocktaillian bartenders walk the Party Line.

A lot of bartenders scoff at those who shake when they should stir.  Ok, I get it: I don’t want my Sazerac shaken.  But it’s not as simple as that.  There are also those who think the whole stir/shake debate is ridiculous: if you let a shaken Manhattan sit for a minute, the air bubbles will subside and it’ll be close to its stirred counterpart.  I’ll buy that, sort of.  I think, though, that from watching bartenders and cocktail-interested friends, the real answer more easily diagnosed; most people probably don’t have an efficient method of stirring.  It can be an awkward learning curve, figuring out a method for swirling the spoon inside a mixing glass with ice and not introducing any air into the cocktail.  Seriously.  It can take some time.

But then there’s the question of which method.  There are probably many more methods than the ones I’m listing here, but as a basic outline, I see stirring techniques in three camps: American stirring, European stirring, and Japanese stirring.   The name association is not necessarily geographic or nationalistic, and holds no sinister meanings.  It’s just an observation.

A note on spoons: I tend to use two different types of spoons.  One, the standard bar spoon with a twisted handle (though I prefer a disk on the end for herb bruising) works more as an ice crusher, breaking apart cold draft ice to create more surface and get the cocktail to a quicker chill.  The one I actually use to stir is a twist-less spoon.  Boy is it nice – smooth, quick, and sexy.


First, American stirring.  This is the way I see most American bartenders stirring.  It’s pretty basic, and seems to have evolved out of the use of the twisted bar spoon.  You know, that one you’ll find at almost any bar: a single piece of metal, twisted in the very middle.  Bartenders often bend the whole spoon in a long arc to make stirring quicker and more efficient.  As pictured, the spoon usually rests between the thumb and the index finger while the stirring is guided by the space between the ice and the inner surface of the glass.


Second, Japanese stirring.  I’ve now worked with a bar program that employs Japanese bartending techniques (the Hard Shake, for example), and have found that the Japanese method for stirring is by far the most useful.  I now use it every time I stir a cocktail because of its efficiency and noiseless stirring.  As pictured, the main difference is how the spoon rests on the hand, sitting between the ring and middle fingers.  Think of this method less as a wrist or arm motion (as can sometimes be the case in American stirring), and more of a push back and forth between the ring and middle fingers.  

As your fingers push the spoon’s stem back and forth, the spoon head will follow the inner surface of the mixing glass.  At the most basic level, you’re really just pushing these fingers back and forth, allowing the glass to guide the spoon head along.  While this is similar to the American style, your wrist never really moves and you can keep a solid pivot above your drink. Why does this matter?  The whole point of stirring is minimize air getting into a cocktail, preserving a certain liquid texture.  In stirring this way, you shouldn’t hear the clank of metal on ice or glass — just a smooth, quiet whirling.  (This description is still a little vague.  Maybe more pictures can be put up…soon.)


And finally, European stirring.  Ok, this one is a bit of a farce.  I’ve just seen more Europeans using this technique (or lack there of) than I have anyone else.  It’s the cheater way.  Simply, you invert the spoon so the handle is in the mix, eliminating the drag from the spoon and make the whole bit of business that much easier.  I’ve even seen bartending books that tout this as the best method.

And with all this talk of stirring, it’s time for a drink.  The tools were already out on the counter, so why not make a tasty beverage?  I chose a Manhattan variation using Old Forrester bourbon, Punt e Mes, and a dash of chamomile tincture.

 the process


Posted in Cocktail Techniques | 15 Comments »

(( Culture of the Drink ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on January 5, 2008

Home for the Holidays,

And How the West Really Is Best

 I was lucky enough to travel back to the West Coast twice over the last two months, once for Thanksgiving and once for Christmas.  This in itself is very unusual as I tend to travel back once a year if lucky.  But this was a special year, when circumstance worked out just right and I was able to get some good quality time with some damn fine folk. 

Our Thanksgiving adventure started with a trip to Seattle. My travel companion and I did the usual touristy things (his first trip to the Pacific Northwest, after all), then moved on to what I really wanted: a visit to Murray at Zig Zag.  Before my trip, the boys I work with promised an introduction to the man, and so after various bi-coastal emails I had me a date.  Naturally, I had to bring some nice bonded Lairds as a gift from New York.  After a quick jaunt through Vessel – Mr. Boudreau wasn’t working, sadly, but our barman was quite good – we had some tasty West Coast Mexican food and then headed down to Zig Zag.  After being treated like kings – enjoying Murray’s famous hospitality, trying my best to take note of his impressive control and skill as a bartender – we stumbled awkwardly out the door happy as could be.  You are prince, sir.

Then down to Bend, Oregon for family fun and as much Deschutes Brewery beer as I could reasonably pour down my throat.  I focus a lot on spirits, but when I go home to Bend, it’s all about the beer.  Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Cascade Golden Ale, Black Butte Porter: these are the foundation of my first interest in quality drinking.  As teenagers in Bend, we’d sneak beer from our parents’ fridges just like everyone else, but our choice was always the sweet, sweet deliciousness that is a Pacific Northwest microbrew.  Ok, we drank plenty of Bud too, but when burnin’ stump in the woods, if you could shoulder-tap a sixer of Mirror Pond along with the case of Bud or some Beast, the night was lookin’ up – lookin’ up, indeed. 

But enough of this potentially incriminating nostalgia, I’m here to talk about big-boy drinking.

My second trip back, this time for Christmas, got me thinking more critically about the differences in American drinking cultures and attitudes.  New Yorkers like to say that they built the cocktail kingdom, that they have historically had such a high influence on the craft because, quite simply, the city’s culture is organically intertwined with social drinking.  Mass transit, an enormous number of people living in a geographically small area, and a general attitude of work-hard-and-play-harder, all contribute to the proliferation of bars and many a health drinking habit.  If you’re done with work, you don’t have to drive anywhere.  When you’re home in that tiny studio in the East Village, wouldn’t you rather go downstairs to the bar or, god-forbid, walk a few blocks for a drink or two?  It’s the reason why being a bartender in New York is a viable profession, and not necessarily the kind of temporary job that other locals may require.

But while out West I started thinking about the potential of other cities.  Yes, New York is amazing and it’s hard to escape its appeal, but it is a city that exists only because it imports nearly everything.  It is a massive economy all its own, built from the ground up not only by imported goods, but also by a constantly rotating cast of characters.  In that way, it’s cultural perspective is always in flux, always evolving and changing – the symphony that is social assimilation. 

There really isn’t much that is Made in New York, unless you count attitude and an inability to take shit from anyone.  Sure, that’s a broad stroke, I know, but I generalize only to make a point about the West (and maybe areas I just haven’t been to yet).  All up the West Coast, there are a lot of micro-distilleries cranking out some damn respectable stuff.  Many people who pioneered the microbrewery movement have now begun experimenting with stills, and boy do I enjoy it.  Fresh, seasonal ingredients and, frankly, a particularly fresh and active perspective on life dominate the West – you don’t have to sit in your apartment and watch TV.  You can go biking, skiing, sailing, or get in your car and be in isolated nature within a few minutes, or at most an hour.  Sure, you can do some of this in the East, but it’s much more difficult.  Too many people, high density of metropolitan areas, and puny little hills they like to pretend are mountains.  How cute, but ultimately pathetic.

I bring this up only because of my own New York-centered mentality.  I’ve lived in the city for almost four years, thinking it to be the center of everything and anything I’d want to be a part of.  As a professional bartender, that mentality got me feeling very stuck. As I think about leaving New York some day, it’s good to know that there are places outside New York (or London or Tokyo) that are doing incredible drink programs with unbelievable local spirits, beers, wines, and ingredients. 

Two weeks ago a bar opened up in Bend called Decoy.  I was meeting some old friends there for a drink, not more than two days after they opened, expecting the same kind of “Bar and Grill.”  But alas, they had a cocktail list.  And on that cocktail list?  A Rye Manhattan, an Aviation, a Hemmingway, and a Sazerac! Granted, they were poorly executed (Manhattan shaken, Aviation sans maraschino, Hemmingway I-dunno-what-the-hell, and the Sazerac shaken, straight-up, with at least a quarter ounce of Pernod, and a large twist in the glass), but they were trying.  That’s how popular cocktail culture has become: my hometown of lil’ ol’ Bend Oregon has a bar trying to make classic drinks!

And to my real point: Anyone wanna open the best cocktail bar ever in Northwest Portland?  I’ll take investments starting…now.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

(( Tchuß, ’07 ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on December 30, 2007

For me, this last year has been full of new experiences, discoveries, friends, and libations.  It’s been a particularly interesting year in regards to booze , a time when I’ve been able to overcome my distaste for certain spirits and set the foundation for a lifelong interest in a good, quality drink.  As the last few days of December unfold, I feel at least a little responsibility to do a nostalgic post about this past year, so here goes.

This has been, at least from my perspective – where I live, this particular time in my life, etc – as a damn fine year.  Last January, I was managing a club-ish bar on the LES side, mostly occupied with the mechanics of a business and less so with the quality of the product going across my bar.  We had a menu, mind you, but it wasn’t great.  At the time, I was living in the East Village, and when a certain new cocktail bar opened around the corner, I did my 23-year-old duty and checked it out.  I’ve posted about this experience in the past, so I won’t get too teary-eyed.  No, it was an eye-opening adventure, the result of which nudged me down a so-far terribly enjoyable career path.  Over the following months, I studied and transformed the bar, eventually raising the eyebrow of those great and wonderful industry people who liberated me from Hell Square and put me behind two very, very intelligent bars.

This year has also been marked by the democratization of cocktail culture – at least from the perspective of my three-and-a-half years behind the stick – where the once highbrow snobbery of the Few has been replaced by a more, err, pedestrian interest.  It wasn’t long ago when the staunch vodka drinker wouldn’t dare venture outside that comfortable realm, but now they will.  And this isn’t just at cocktail lounges.  On recent trips across the country, I’m noticing more and more bars attempting classic, well-thought out cocktails that jump away from the “-tini” model – syrups, sugars, purees, and pre-made everything is being replaced by fresh ingredients and experimentation with spirits. 

Not that many are succeeding, but still.

Our “high-end” and “internationally recognized” cocktail destinations have been very successful, given notice by more than just drinks enthusiasts (Frank Bruni gushing over D&C, anyone?).  It’s amazing seeing the most powerful restaurant critics in America saying “Hey, this is where I spend time when I’m not working and want to enjoy a drink.”  To me, this sends a powerful message: the cocktail is being regarded as a culinary interest all its own.  It has transcended post-prohibition stereotype as solely an inebriant, and entered a more widespread cultural and social role as a thing to be savored and pondered.  Does anyone remember their first well-made Sazerac?  That drink took me a good hour to drink, not because whiskey was still new (it was), and not because it was too strong, but because it was so damn good and need a whole lot of ruminating.

I sure do, and it happened this past year.  A damn fine year, indeed.

I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions, but I’m gonna do my best to post more.  And not self-interested, sum-me-ups like this last one.  Sorry

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

(( General Discussion ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on October 24, 2007

Spoiling The Kids

I keep hearing we’ve entered the second great cocktail renaissance, a time when the craft of bartending is returning to a professional prestige of the 1890s, that much-loved and heralded Golden Age. That was a time when the craft of a bar was a thing of wonder: tall gentleman in pinstripe shirts and bow ties mixing drinks for their customers, consulting a library of spirits and an arsenal of house-made bitters, all the while being earnestly watched by an apprentice. These were not the bars of our modern era, by and large. No, these were meant for a higher echelon of society, the caste of cosmopolitan culture imbued with their Old World traditions of formality and pedigree. The Bar Man, it seems, lived up to that expectation with his professionalism and knowledge, his depth of skill and a profound passion for the craft. It’s sad – so miserably depressing – that those Debbie Downers of the Temperance League ruined what had been such a fine party. Thanks to the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment, the profession was thrown to the perils of bootleg liquor (with its substantial impurities) and the exportation of the industry’s finest bar men to foreign lands. And then it really started getting bad.

But things seem to be recovering from Prohibition – finally. According to people who’ve worked much, much longer in the industry than I have, a remarkable transition in the last ten or so years has occurred; customers, by and large, are much more likely to consult a specialty cocktail list than ever before. They’re willing to experiment, to talk with their bartender about what’s going on in the glass, and ultimately to learn what cocktails can do past being an inebriant. We’re coming to a time again, I’m beginning to feel, when the bartender is not only getting more respect, but is holding up his or her end of the bargain. He is the beacon of knowledge in the room, the bad ass that can have extensive discourse on the virtues of large ice, the importance of bitters, how great whiskey is, and always willing to share other places a customer can get a good drink – all at the same time, and with different people. It’s an art in its organization, research, and finesse, and I find it amazing when it comes across as effortless.

It’s this customer-bartender relationship that has allowed so many cocktail-centered bars to open up. They fuel the forward progression of each other, obviously, and I’m very excited to be working in two places now that are at the forefront of that movement in slightly different, though connected, ways. There is an expectation at that level to know your shit – to really know your shit – because the customer knowledge base now is so vast.

Here’s looking at you, fellow internet cocktail geeks.

I’m not trying to pat myself or anyone else on the back. I’m just really happy that there are more and more places popping up that employ dedicated and passionate bartenders, and that they are successful because people want them around. Simple economics – supply and demand – and it’s awesome.

I’m wondering now about the next evolutionary step. At what point do we as bartenders cease being mere booze slingers, and become more like a cook in our practice and education? We find ourselves in the kitchen more and more these days, using the cook’s techniques and consulting the chef on flavor combinations, so why not bridge this gap even more? Eben Freeman’s work at Tailor is a good example of this, where the kitchen and the bar work very, very closely together. Perhaps this is my own personal inclination and interest in the world of cooking, an interest that often has me reading Michael Ruhlman’s and Anthony Bourdain’s books with the intensity of a Harry Potter novel. How lame, I know, but I can’t help myself. It’s like crack.

The mentality of a cook, and the determination with which cooks address their work, either fits with our profession or just my personal ethos – I’m not sure which. If bartenders were trained as cooks, or in the same manner and philosophy as cooks, I think the industry would evolve in absolutely amazing ways. Can you imagine if that particular barrier between front- and back-of-house were broken down in some way? If you’ve ever seen the beauty that is an efficient line during service, you probably know what I mean – God damn it’s inspiring.

And yet the bartender already exists in an odd world of server/cook, expected to provide strong service and produce a quality product at the same time, but I think for myself something more can be done. As I look to the future of my own career, I can’t help thinking about what I can do to be different, to be special. I want to have such a vast understanding of not only the stuff that would normally be found at a high-end bar, but also have an understanding of flavors so deep that I can pick from the hat of classic culinary education in my work. I want to conquer the go-to formulas for cocktails and branch outward. I’m really not sure how to do it, but there are vague murmurings somewhere in mind. Should I think seriously about culinary school? Beg the kitchen to let me work with them? I’m not sure…

Ultimately, I want my customer to take a sip, eyes widen slightly, and stare into their glass, if only for the slightest moment, with the look of Wow.

That’s my utopian idea, and that’s my personal nirvana.

Posted in General Discussion | 3 Comments »

(( Cocktail Techniques and Spirits ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on September 4, 2007

Maraschino Liqueur and What The Hell Kind Of Career Is Bartending?

I’m of the firm opinion that few ingredients bridge the gap between passive-cocktail-drinker and cocktail-enthusiast better than maraschino liqueur. Maybe this is just my own experiences, but there’s something about the complex flavors involved that invariably take a mixed drink down a funky, flavorful, and potentially dangerous road. To me, a few too many drops can render an otherwise interesting cocktail undrinkable. But when used correctly, there are few ingredients that bring to the table such complexity and that throw instant kindling on the barroom social fire – oh my! What is this? Here, you try it!

Just like many other people, my introduction to maraschino liquor was with the Aviation. I guess I should be grateful to the bartender who made it so well, because that particular cocktail was something of a revelation in my life. I know – I know! – that’s stiflingly dramatic, but it’s true if only in the hazy hindsight that comes with too much bloody time around drinks.

I’d never tasted anything like it. Before, I had worked in a high-volume rock’n’roll bar, and probably was happy hanging out in its carbon copy down the block with happy nights of beer. Sometimes hard liquor would come into the picture, but never something I thirsted for, never something that interested me from a culinary point of view. From somewhere (I honestly have no idea to this day) I heard the name Aviation and thought it clever and intriguing, so when that badass Death and Co. opened around the corner, an Aviation was the first off-the-menu drink I had the courage to order.

(That’s right, kids, I’ve only been a geek about this stuff for a short, short while. Goes to show what a mix of OCD and far too much free time can do to a boy.)

So I ordered it from the bartender. We met that night. To this day, that bartender (who shall remain nameless ‘cause I’m not completely tacky) holds a special place in my heart. Never mind he’s a great guy and fantastically talented, but that Aviation lit up my eyes and stuck a bright and shiny light bulb directly over my head: Holy shit. This is amazing.

From there I began immersing myself into what had been a college bartending job that lingered far too long after graduation. Basically, I started regarding the profession of bartending (different than tending bar) as sophisticated and something I could really enjoy.

And thus was my first night with maraschino liqueur and the path it took me down. Sure, an Aviation is almost passé at this point, but it still works the same wonders on the uninitiated as it did for me. Plus, with the re-introduction of Crème de Violette, we here in New York are able to drink and make classic Aviations without going to a small number of cocktail lounges the nation over or spending too much money on frustrating mail order or flights to Europe. I hear the Bay Area is next.

Over the last year, I’ve been privileged enough to manage a bar where the owner allows me to do almost anything I want. Consequently, I now have three maraschino liquors at my nightly disposal. From my understanding, these three are the only current mass-production maraschinos. In fact, I personally don’t know of any others.

    Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur Maraska Maraschino Liqueur
    Stock Maraschino Liqueur

Just as a quick oversight, maraschino liqueur has traditionally been distilled from ripe marasca cherries, their crushed pits, sprigs and leaves, honey, and other “secret” ingredients.

Some historically interesting stuff for your next cocktail soirée: Dominican monks first made maraschino in the 16th Century. The original Luxardo distillery was built in a town called Zara – for a time part of the Austrian Empire, then after WWI annexed to Northern Italy, then almost completely destroyed by the bombardments of WWII, and finally settling just behind the Iron Curtain and changing its name pinko-style to Zadar. The distillery was rebuilt after the war by the only surviving Luxardo family member in the town of Torreglia in postwar Northern Italy. The original Zara distillery was rebuilt by the communists and marketed as Luxardo. After some legal battles, the distillery was eventually re-branded as Maraska.

And there we have it. The two most widely used maraschino liqueurs. And yes, information was pillaged almost exclusively from wikipedia.

In my opinion, Luxardo and Maraska are the only maraschinos worth using. The Stock maraschino, while having a maraschino-esque flavor and smell, doesn’t really shine through in a cocktail the way Luxardo and Maraska will. I think the common comparison goes something along the lines of: Stock is to Luxardo and Maraska as is Triple-Sec to Cointreau. There’s some wisdom there.

While I’ve gotten favorable results with both Luxardo and Maraska in a wide range of cocktails, I’ve taken to using one over the other in specific drinks. I’m still developing my use of both, but in general I’ve found the Luxardo to have a funkier presence. It’ll cut through other dominant flavors and make its presence known in a big way while not being the cocktail equivalent of a drunken elephant in a small room. This is especially important when mixing drinks with a long list of ingredients: more to compete and play with. As an example, the following is a cocktail I’ve had on The Back Room’s menu for some time:

    The Vostead 18
    1 fresh strawberry, lightly muddled to break fruit apart.
    2 oz Bombay Dry
    0.5 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
    0.5 oz St-Germain Elderflower
    2 dashes Maraschino
    Shaken, strained into a chilled cocktail glass. Topped with prosecco (~1.5 oz)

In trying both Luxardo and Maraska side-by-side in this particular cocktail, I’ve noticed that the Luxardo comes through much better. It’s such a small amount, but it makes the cocktail all the more interesting. The Maraska just doesn’t have the gusto in this case.

Now, in a cocktail that has only a few ingredients that in themselves are clean and simple (as in an Aviation, for example), I find myself reaching for the Maraska. Its subtler flavor allows the other ingredients to come through on the palate, wherein the Luxardo needs to be reined in so much or it’ll take over completely. Doing this with the Luxardo creates the taste-impression of maraschino liqueur, but pulls back from texture and an aroma presence in comparison to the other ingredients. The drink, to me, becomes unbalanced due to the compromise.

For my Last and Final Words, I switch it up depending on the customer and my initial impression of their taste. In some cases, I want the Green Chartreuse and the gin or rye (respectively) to come through more (Maraska). In other cases, the cocktail might benefit from pulling the Chartreuse back and asserting the maraschino (Luxardo).

As much as I’ve over-drank maraschino cocktails – and for a period cringed at the taste of ANYTHING with the stuff – I’ve come back to them. They’re always a crowd pleaser when made correctly, and almost always a gnarly mess when overdone. The sweetness of the liqueur can act as a pleasant balance against strong and sour ingredients wonderfully, but it must be done with the utmost precision. A free-pour of maraschino makes me cringe in the same way a Manhattan without bitters does.

At least that’s how I feel.

Posted in Cocktail Recipes, Cocktail Recipes — Original, Cocktail Techniques, Spirits | 10 Comments »

(( Cocktail Techniques ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on August 28, 2007

Flash: Egg White Technique Update!

I’ve discovered a new thing – new to me, anyhow. I really have no idea if other people are doing this, but I find it really, really helpful in maximizing every last protein in my egg white cocktails.

If you haven’t read my post about egg whites and cocktails, check it out here. As a slight but possibly crucial update, I’m going to modify Step 7. Strain the drink into a chilled glass as usual, but instead of shooting seltzer into a clean tin or glass and then pouring it slowly into the patiently waiting cocktail, use the small, empty end of your Boston set (in this case) and spray some seltzer in. The charged water instantly reacts to the thin layer of drink still lining the glass/tin, frothing nicely. Now you’re ready pour some of this foamy seltzer in your cocktail as described before, but also to scoop some very, very nice foam directly on top with a bar spoon.

In this way, you’ve taken advantage of the egg white to its fullest. It’s key to do this quickly, though, as the proteins from the egg are still aggravated.

Posted in Cocktail Techniques | 2 Comments »

(( New Stuff ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on August 23, 2007


Adventures in Molecular Gastronomy From Behind the Bar

For about five months now, I’ve been “on staff” with a new restaurant that’s very soon to open. There’s been a ton of press, notable principles, and a whole lot of hoopla – all without the doors even opening. Now, after months of waiting, it’s about to start.

In the coming months, I’ll do my best to write about this adventure in all things molecular. The chef is well known, but the bar manager is really the draw for me. He’s been around for quite some time, gaining a notable reputation for pushing this industry of ours to innovate – never to stagnate. As someone who’s rooted in the classics (almost to a fault), I’m excited to learn these new techniques and flavor combinations.

Posted in General Discussion, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

(( Bitters and Tinctures ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on August 15, 2007


Fun With Tinctures,
One Day I’ll Do Bitters

I’m in this slightly ridiculous phase where I can’t stop buying books about spirits and cocktails. It’s almost pathological. I really wish there was more out there in the way of scholarly work, but the efforts of Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller at Martini Place (and of course everyone involved with The Museum of the American Cocktail) has been really fantastic in reinvigorating the profession of bartending as a respectable field. And, mostly, making me dorkier than before. After reading the first volume of Mixologist: The Journal of the American Cocktail, I started taking my job a lot more seriously. I wouldn’t be surprised if at work I scowled at my mixing glass, trying desperately to make it work in my favor with all the seriousness I can muster.

I probably look like a jerk. Or constipated.

Having spent a few nights at Pegu Club, I always wondered what the bottles of various amber colored liquids were behind the bar – you know, those small ones with the dasher tops. I asked the bartender, was told they were tinctures, but didn’t have an opportunity to really get at what this was all about. I didn’t actually see the bartenders using them, so off the word “tincture” went to the back of my mind. The four successive cocktails probably didn’t help, either.

When I first bought Volume One and looked at the table of contents, Audrey Saunders’s name popped out immediately. Obviously I know who she is, and I certainly know the legend around her. I love Pegu so help me god, and am absolutely inspired by everything they do, so it was an easy impulse that made me jump away from the linear norm and read her article first thing.

Now, I write this only to explain why I decided to make tinctures. I’m aware of the Jerry Thomas etymology, but really it was Audrey’s article, “Twenty-First Century Cocktails”, that pushed me into this. As part of her call for modern experimentation with old, forgotten techniques, the use of tinctures – macerating spices, roots, or really anything in neutral grain alcohol – would allow a bartender to push flavor complexity to a whole new level. With these highly concentrated flavors, one drop (or a collection of drops) could transform a cocktail into a totally different experience.

I’ve even heard of highly knowledgeable bartenders taking droplets of various tinctures and creating bitters on the spot. This got me excited. Mostly, I’ve wanted for a while now to make my own bitters, but haven’t had the chance to really learn enough to make it more than a crapshoot.

As I looked through various bitters recipes, trying to find the base ingredients that I wanted to use as individual tinctures, I started thinking more about bitters. I’ve followed a few threads on eGullet, but most lose me for some reason.

Then there was that Times article. I quickly emailed a future boss of mine (details later – but it’s gonna be sweet!), trying to see what he had in mind for the upcoming restaurant. Are we gonna make our own bitters? Any ideas for a guy interested? Basically, I was told to play around, but always to have in mind a use for what you’re making, a directive in your formula.

In Harold McGee’s On Food And Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (my go-to guide for anything about food science), bitters are described as containing “[p]urely bitter ingredients” (such as angostura, Chinese rhubarb root, and gentian), and “plant materials that are both bitter and aromatic” (such as wormwood, chamomile, bitter orange peel, saffron, bitter almond, and myrrh). McGee goes onto confirm what we all surely know, that bitters “are complex mixtures…” made by macerating these “plant materials or by distilling it along with the source alcohol” (p. 770). When you taste any aromatic bitter on it’s own in small drops, you get a gaggle of flavors, all bundled together in a burning assault on your tongue. But in a good way. It certainly is complex, McGee, no kidding. Sure, certain things are distinguishable, but my palate is not even close to developed enough to pick out every single element. And so this brought me back to the idea of tinctures. I want to break down these aromatic bitters components, isolate their flavors in a concentrated form, and begin training my taste buds to recognize their flavor, how they interact with one another, and how they might enhance/detract/whatever a spirit.

A few weeks ago I went to a local Indian market and picked up as much as I could remember. I only bought a few small jars to macerate them in, so my first batch includes the following:

1. Juniper Berry
2. Clove
3. Chamomile
4. Lemon Peel, no pith
5. Star Anise
6. Lavender
7. Cardamom
8. All-Spice

I based my proportions on Audrey’s updated Clove Tincture formula, though a little more concentrated: 1 oz (by volume) of ingredient to 4 oz (by volume ) of alcohol, in this case Christiana vodka. I wish I had a higher proof and more neutral alcohol to use, but at least vodka is finally getting the hell out of our liquor cabinet.

A week in, the tinctures are coming a long nicely. I can’t wait to make more.


On a side note: just after I bought all the ingredients, they were sitting on the counter next to a fresh grapefruit. I looked at the pile of spices, then at the grapefruit. I quickly ran to my computer and looked up Drink Boy’s Grapefruit Bitters recipe, noticed I didn’t have everything I would need. Dammit!


Oh hell yeah! I just threw a bunch of stuff in with some grapefruit skin (no pith) and vodka, going particularly heavy on the Lavender. I let it all sit for a few weeks, added some burnt sugar syrup after multiple passes through a filter, and bottled it. You know what, it ain’t that bad – and the lavender has a nice affinity for gin. So, basically, I did exactly what I didn’t want to do: jump into bitters impulsively.

My Grapefruit and Lavender Bitters

Posted in Bitters | 20 Comments »

(( Cocktail Techniques ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on August 14, 2007

…and Equipment

Not Just Boston and Go

This seems painfully obvious: put the booze in the glass or tin, add some ice, put a top on it, and shake the crap out of everything, right? You’d think so, but no! Well, yes, but there are many ways to shake, and a ton of options for equipment, none of which are right or wrong – just different. I’ve spent a lot of time at some amazing bars here in New York, and if there’s one thing I can say, it’s that there is no dominant shaking method. Sure, certain places instruct their bartenders to shake a particular way, but I see that as more of an operational consistency, an intended way of doing things to plant an overall impression of professionalism.

So this post is dedicated to the shaker and the various ways we all use it.

First, let’s look at the gear. There are two basic shakers: the Boston shaker and the Cobbler shaker. No need to linger on this, because it’s probably over-kill to anyone who’d actually read this, but there’s a variation I’ve come to like a lot.

Like most American bartenders, I use the Boston shaker. Sitting atop most bars you’ll find two metal tins accompanied by a pint glass. The small tin has a capacity of 16 ounces, the larger 28 ounces. That pint glass is, well, a standard pint glass (16-ounce) but occasionally with some thicker glass. I think we all know how this works.

Over the last year, I’ve noticed certain places using a different sized shaker in place of the small, 16-ounce tin. At Pegu Club, Death and Co, PDT, among other places I’m sure, they use jiggers for everything directly into an 18-ounce metal tin. In comes large ice, and the 28-ounce tin goes on top. The 18-ounce tin sticks out much like a pint glass does in a classic Boston shaker setup, but doesn’t add a top-heavy weight. It creates a really nice balance that feels right when shaking. If you’re just free pouring, and count on the glass to gauge your measurements, the 18-ounce tin probably isn’t a good option – this setup is intended for jigger use.

Also, the 18-ounce tin is beveled slightly inward. Because of this, the tin will seal perfectly with the larger tin every time. After a non-beveled tin has seen some days, they usually start to get a bit dinged up on the edges. These little gaps become a total nightmare when making an egg-white cocktail, spraying everywhere when dry shaking.

Why are these places breaking from the standard? There must be a reason, right? From my understanding (thanks to the fine folks on the eGullet forums), the use of metal-on-metal for shaking allows the liquid, the ice, and the metal tin to come into a quicker thermal equilibrium. Room temperature glass, by comparison, absorbs more thermal energy (giving off its heat) and therefore won’t chill as quickly, resulting in further dilution. This is why you’ll see these same places using a chilled mixing glass when stirring drinks (a topic I’d love to come back to later): the chilled glass with its high thermal transfer is actually beneficial when chilled because it transfer thermal energy to the liquid.

It took me a while to track down these 18-ounce shakers. People talk a plenty about the Bowery with its great restaurant supply stores. Poppy cock! While that might be true for some areas of the restaurant, the bar gets the shaft. A friend directed me to barsupplies.com, which I’ve been using now for a while. Once you sift through the gimmicky crap, they actually have some good stuff. And they’re not even paying me to say so.

(Side note: barsupplies.com, feel free to pay me. I’m perfectly comfortable wearing a T-Shirt. And I’m told I’m quite fetching. Mascot? Surely!)

Now onto technique.

The most common type of shaking I’ve seen is the standard over your shoulder, back and forth shake. Essentially, you’re pushing the ice from front to back, hitting at two points within the shaker. It’s a nice rhythm, and is very easy to get comfortable with.

Then there’s another method I’ve seen used by bartenders like Dale DeGroff (see this video, about two thirds of the way in). See what he’s doing? It’s not just a back-and-forth method, but seems to get the liquid swirling on the inside, making it have more contact with the shaker and, I’m guessing, cooling and mixing everything more efficiently.

And then there’s shaking from the side (as shown here, about six minutes in, by the totally awesome Robert Hess). Personally, this method seems more for the home bartending – a bit lazy, I guess, and also inefficient if you need to be shaking two cocktails at once or need free range of your other hand for whatever reason. But, let’s be honest, any shaking is gonna look painfully awkward on video.

If you’ve spent time in Japan, or even bars staffed by traditional Japanese bartenders (Angel’s Share here in NYC, for example), you’ve probably noticed their affinity for Cobbler shakers. It’s not just that, though, they also shake a little differently: the fabled HARD SHAKE. I can’t find any video of this, but here’s a pretty terrible translation of the technique by its founder, Mr. Kazuo Uyeda. It’s complicated, and I’m more than a little confused as to the actual scientific foundations for the Hard Shake, but the basic idea is this: when you do the Hard Shake, you make the liquid consistently hit four points within the shaker. You hold the shaker by putting your left hand palm up and your elbow at a ninety-degree angle, put the shaker on top of your hand so it is horizontal and the top is pointing towards your chest. Leave enough room so your fingertips can curl up and cup the end. Now, bring the right hand in, putting your thumb on top of the shaker and your fingers and palm on the shaker’s body. Wing your arms out, like you’re praying. Shake forward once, down once, and down a little lower for the final shake – a one-two-three count. Go slow at first. I’m told that the Hard Shake should sound like a steam train building up to a fast pace, then slowing down.

Tat – tat – tat
Tat – tat – tat
Tat – tat – tat
Tat – tat – tat

Any thoughts?

-by APD

Posted in Cocktail Techniques | 42 Comments »