A Companion for the Young Imbiber

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(( 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.

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(( 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

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(( New Stuff ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on August 23, 2007

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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.

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