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September 21st, 2008

Five lessons from a Slow Spirits workshop

Slow Spirits 2008 workshop

By Jacqueline Church

Jacqueline Church, a freelance food writer who pens the Leather District Gourmet blog, recently attended one of Slow Food Nation‘s first Slow Spirits workshops. Jacqueline explains, “The essence of the Slow Food movement is to re-connect us with our food producers. The ‘Slowies’ want us to savor regional, sustainable food, to build fair food systems, and to talk, eat, drink and share — over food and wine. But what about cocktails?”

I attended the Slow Food Nation Come to the Table event over Labor Day weekend in San Francisco. I enjoyed some sips and learned quite a bit.

1.  You can spot a “meeting” anywhere. You know what kind of “meeting” I mean.

All the “respecting anonymity” stuff aside, I could spot these guys a mile away. Several cheery hellos! and then, finally, a guy said to me, “Are you one of Us?”

Then I knew I was right. It was an AA meeting. After successfully dodging conscription, I made it to my meeting. How ironic that the Slow Spirits workshop was scheduled in the same building, at the same time, as an AA meeting. Of all the gin joints…

2.  Spirits just graduated from the Slow Food kiddie table.

Slow Food Nation needed persuading that spirits should be allowed to Come to the Table, literally. Imagine, they had to defend their right to be there. (More about rights in a moment.) As much as wine (which Slow Food invited to the table from the beginning), spirits are a product with direct consequences for the environment, the workers that produce it, and the people that consume it.

Allen Katz, Slow Spirits 2008 workshop

Allen Katz, board chair of Slow Food USA, and Gregory Lindgren, owner of Rye Bar in San Francisco, note that leading bars began furthering the art of the cocktail by using fresh, seasonal fruit. If that doesn’t exactly make them Slow Food Royalty, it does elevate the cocktail from an Archie Bunker brew to a quality culinary experience. Our Prairie Mary, for example, was made with organic, local Early Girl tomato juice, ancho chilies, rosemary and Prairie Organic Vodka (distilled in Minnesota with local, organic grain).

3.  The Godfather of the American Cocktail was Jeremiah P. Thomas.

“The Alice Waters of his time,” according to Katz. He was, by all accounts, quite the entertaining and industrious barman. He wrote one of the first bartenders’ guides, called The Bon-Vivant’s Companion (1862), and invented cocktails (and claimed to have invented even more). He is credited with elevating the bartending occupation to where it has recently returned.

4.  There is something called a “Universal Right of Pleasure.”

Maybe that was covered in the poli-sci class I never took. A universal right? Really?

That was actually part of the workshop title: Slow Spirits — Food, Justice and the Universal Right of Pleasure. The “Food, Justice” part was more palatable for me than the so-called “Universal Right” part. It’s a nice idea, but I’d hate to look a starving child in the face and tell him about my universal right to have a cocktail. Then again, if I had to look a starving child in the face, I’d need a cocktail. Probably several. Mother Theresa, I’m not.

5.  Demonstrating the validity of slow spirits’ right to be, we learned about parallel aspects of food and spirits’ production.

Just as some farmers are farming organically without paying for the certification process to acquire the official label, so it is with liquor producers. Safe to say many workshop participants were surprised to learn that the second of our tasting samples was Maker’s Mark — not a brand that touts its green cred by selling its story with a green spin.

Maker’s Mark uses locally grown grains (corn, wheat, barley). Their distillery sits on a state-certified nature preserve, and they return water to their spring cleaner than when it was extracted. They re-use or recycle the spent grain (keeping local pigs and cows happy) and harness the energy of anaerobic digestion to power their stills. Kudos to Maker’s Mark for not bludgeoning us with how green they are. But they are!

This was a well-rounded evening. Like any good night at the watering hole, I walked away happier and with insights I didn’t have before the evening began.

Jacqueline provides more details on the spirits featured in the workshop here.

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Posted in Cocktails, San Francisco, Vodka, Whiskey | 1 Comment »

June 1st, 2008

I drank San Francisco

OK, assuming you’ve read parts 1 and 2 of this series, you’ve gathered that I drank San Francisco. But I haven’t even told you about all the bars yet! I just want to show you a few more pics and say this: San Francisco’s a great drinking town not only because it is the West Coast nexus of the craft of the cocktail but also because it has so many great, old watering holes. These are places that, for some miraculous reason, no one has seen fit to transform into tourist attractions or quasi-sports bars. Here are just the few that I managed to squeeze into my visit.

House of Shields bar, San FranciscoHouse of Shields: Reportedly, there’s a tunnel that runs from the basement of this bar (est. 1908) to the plush Palace Hotel across the street. It is rumored that when President Warren Harding died in 1923, he did not do so in his suite at the Palace Hotel as was officially announced, but in the House of Shields. Given that this was during Prohibition, goes the rumor, Harding was secretly transported underground to the hotel in order to avoid scandal. It’s a fine, old bar that Progress has simply left alone. Over an afternoon beer there, I admired the straight-backed, dark wood booths, the decades worth of dust on the sculptural bronze light fixtures, and a photo — probably circa 1940s — of trench-coated, hat-wearing men drinking at the bar.

Bix bar, San Francisco

Bix: I heard that this bar has roots in the Gold Rush, when men would exchange pouches of gold dust for drinks. Well, it is on Gold Street, a narrow alley on the edge of Chinatown. Bix is a time capsule to a 1930s supper club. A spacious, lively room with a balcony for extra dinner seating; large, colorful murals decorating the walls; bartenders in short-waisted white jackets; a silver punch bowl filled with martini glasses chilling over crushed ice … I took it all in over a Negroni and a bowl of bar snacks.

The Hotel Utah Saloon, San FranciscoThe Hotel Utah Saloon: Another bar established in 1908 (two years after the legendary ’06 quake), it’s got “saloon” right in the name. There’s an elk’s head mounted on the wall, and the staircase to the “upper deck” is flanked by a replica of a ship’s stern. Online reviews mention the Utah’s “friendly bartenders,” and this was certainly the case — although I found most SF bartenders to be friendly.

Tonga Room, San Francisco

Tonga Room: The ritzy Fairmont Hotel opened this tiki palace in 1947, and, even as tiki went from cutting-edge to kitsch, lovingly kept the place going. We arrived at 5:00 p.m., as soon as happy hour began. Ordered Mai Tais — notable here not so much for their quality as for their strength — and feasted on wantons, fried rice, etc. from the exotically lit buffet. Enjoyed a tropical storm of fake thunder and lightning, with rain falling into the lagoon that is the Tonga Room’s centerpiece. Alas, at that early hour no musicians were playing on the small ship that floats in the middle of the lagoon.

Pisco Punch at Cantina, San FranciscoCantina: OK, this is not an old bar. In fact, it’s only about a year old. But as you see from the accompanying photo, it’s a place that appreciates San Francisco history. A much talked-about addition to the city’s craft cocktail scene, Cantina specializes in Latin America-inspired drinks, both classic and new. Co-owner and bartender Duggan McDonnell’s drink list and bartending skills earned him two nominations for this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirit Awards. He has an amazing selection of cachacas, rums, piscos and tequilas. But even more amazing to me was an antique bottle of Pisco Punch displayed on an upper shelf. You may recall my writing recently about the origins of Pisco Punch, which was served at drinkboston’s World Cocktail Day party. Well, here was a real-life bottle of the stuff, its seal still intact, with “According to original formula of Duncan Nicol” right on the label. This one’s for you, John Gertsen.

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Posted in San Francisco | 7 Comments »

May 28th, 2008

Live from San Francisco II

Bourbon & Branch

The last two days have been a carnival ride of great bars and cocktails, the highlights being Bourbon & Branch and Savoy night at the Alembic. What fun.

Bourbon & Branch sits in an actual Prohibition-era speakeasy marked only by a lighted sign that says “Anti-Saloon League, San Francisco Branch Est. 1920.” It’s a sort of West Coast counterpart to Milk & Honey in Manhattan. To sit at the main bar, you have to make a reservation and utter a password when you arrive. For the bar in the “library,” reservations aren’t required, but a password is.

In the words of an industry person familiar with the San Francisco cocktail bar scene, Bourbon & Branch is “one of the most polarizing places.” I get it. Any bar that cultivates exclusivity and establishes a very high standard of mixology and service is setting itself up for a backlash: accusations of snobbery and preciousness, gripes over the inevitable instances when standards fall even slightly. All I can say is that, as a visitor from out of town oblivious to any of this context, I had a fabulous time there.

This was partly because Jamie Boudreau, who made a name for himself at Vessel in Seattle and on his Cocktails and Spirits blog, was a guest bartender during my visits. (Jamie has left Vessel and is planning his next venture.) Bourbon & Branch’s menu offers any drinker a comprehensive and sophisticated selection of vintage and vintage-inspired cocktails, but Jamie upped the ante by having a whole ‘nother menu of esoteric mixtures right in his head. Drinking there was an embarrassment of riches about which I can only offer an impressionistic snapshot — I was enjoying myself too much to be a nerdy notetaker that night. Rye whiskey, canteloupe-infused gin, cherry and lemon bitters, thyme essence, flamed citrus peel… Barstools made from tractor seats… Red velvet wallpaper… Happy, quirky people stepping out for a smoke… Sigh. We could use a bar like this in Boston.

Speaking of embarrassments of riches, I headed back to the Alembic Bar last night for Savoy night. On the last Tuesday of every month, the bar staff accomplishes the astounding feat of procuring or making all the ingredients required to mix any of the roughly 1,400 cocktail recipes found in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail book. Fifteen or so copies of the book circulate around the bar as patrons — drunk on possibilities as much as alcohol — pore through the tome in search of their next time-capsule-in-a-glass.

Erik Ellestad and Lauren Clark

Sitting nearby me was Erik Ellestad, a San Francisco blogger who is drinking his way through the entire Savoy book and writing about it on the Underhill Lounge. He’s somewhere in the H cocktails — the guide is organized alphabetically and by type of drink — and he served as our unofficial guide. “What do you think, Erik, should I get an Artist’s Special Cocktail?” “Here, taste my St. Germain Cocktail.” “Ewww, I can’t believe you tried the Earthquake Cocktail.” Also with us was Camper English, a freelance drinks writer and publisher of Alcademics. He was sampling cocktails containing sherry as research for an upcoming trip to Jerez, Spain.

If you have a copy of the book, play along — here’s what I tried: Tantalus, Cafe Kirsch, Resolute, Peach Blow Fizz, St. Germain Cocktail, Whiskey Smash, Artist’s Special Cocktail, Twelve Miles Out, Chicago and Cinzano Sparkling Cocktail. What a trip.

Posted in San Francisco | 4 Comments »

May 26th, 2008

Live from San Francisco

Josey Packard at the Alembic Bar

Going out on the town in San Francisco with Josey Packard would be fun even if she didn’t know every great bartender in the city. She and her missus, poet Jill McDonough, are smart, funny good-time girls whom I feel I’ve known much longer than the brief time we’ve spent bar-hopping.

A senior staffer at the Alembic Bar in Haight-Ashbury, Josey is something of a celebrity in West Coast mixology circles. (In another life, she was a member of the band Chelsea on Fire.) I spent Sunday afternoon witnessing her busy brunch shift. The Alembic has a worn-in, saloon-like vibe, with a display of vintage pharmacy flasks and three very long shelves of liquor bottles: dozens of different types of rye, bourbon and Scotch whiskey dominate the shelf space, though anything you need to make a vintage cocktail, including house-made grapefruit wine and infused syrups, is also on hand. The cocktails, made with hand-cracked heavy ice cubes (a cocktail-friendly form of ice not yet found in Boston bars) and served in beautiful German glassware, are mostly priced at a very reasonable $9.

Toronado beer barWhen I took my stool, Josey announced, “The white peaches are in. I can make a proper Bellini.” Honestly, I’ve never had a Bellini that grabbed me, but I trusted her and was rewarded with a blushing, sparkling, fresh-peachy potion that was delicious. Then Jill came in and ordered a Mint Julep. Josey proceeded to fill an ancient-looking canvas bag (“She sewed it herself,” Jill whispered to me) with the hard ice cubes and whack the hell out of it for about two minutes, in order to have the ideal crushed ice for the Julep. Jill told me that once, a guy at the bar looked on incredulously at this violent bashing, causing Josey to quip, “We have a mouse problem.”

After Josey finished her shift, she donned her New England Patriots ballcap (see last paragraph) and off the three of us went. First stop was the Toronado, a must-visit beer bar with great West Coast brews from Russian River, Moonlight, Anchor, etc. The place was crowded, the bathrooms were predictably smelly, the bartender had long, grey hair, and snarky, stick-it-to-the-man bumper stickers covered the wall behind the bar. Perfect.

Next was Nopa for dinner and cocktails. This swanky, spacious new joint was chock full, but we were ushered to a booth as soon as the bar staff recognized Josey. Restaurants in San Francisco are all about using local flora and fauna for their cooking. We were served the chickeniest roast chicken I’ve ever tasted, along with some yummy beans, asparagus and farmer’s cheese. I had a fine cocktail called a Minero: Quebrante Pisco, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh lemon juice, egg white and “sunshine bitters,” about which the only thing I know is that they were made with a copious quantity of peppery cardamom (“Hippy-ass” homemade bitters, Josey and Jill conjectured).

Beretta cocktailsWe ended up at a brand-new place in the Mission district. “Word is that the best action is now happening at Beretta,” Paul Clarke of Cocktail Chronicles told me. The action was impressive indeed. Beretta’s a sleek, modern-looking place with a long, communal bar just behind the main bar. It reminded me a little of NYC’s Death & Company. John and Jill, the husband-and-wife owners, are well known in the craft-bartending scene and were both mixing cocktails (with the same type of Kold-Draft ice used at the Alembic). I had an Improved Whiskey Cocktail (inspired by a recipe in Jerry Thomas’ famed bartening guide): rye, Dubonnet, absinthe, maraschino and bitters, straight up. Good medicine with which to end the evening.

Luckily for me and all my fellow Boston-area lushes, Josey and Jill are moving back to Beantown, where they spent several years before moving out west. That means Josey will likely be mixing drinks at a bar near you come autumn. But in the meantime, stay tuned: There’s lots more bar-hopping to do while I’m here: Bourbon & Branch, Cantina, the Tonga Room, etc., etc. Not to mention Savoy Tuesday at the Alembic, at which Josey and her colleagues scrap their regular cocktail menu, put a copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book on the bar, and encourage patrons to choose any of the 1,000+ cocktails listed within. Looking forward to that insanity.

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Posted in San Francisco | 4 Comments »

November 2nd, 2007

Project Savoy, Operation 1919 get press

Ellestad's project SavoyErik Ellestad, who hosts the Spirits & Cocktails forum on eGullet.org, recently sent me a link to the second in a series of profiles he’s doing on San Francisco bartenders. He was partly inspired by drinkboston.com’s bartender profiles, but his profiles differ from the ones found here in their connection to a particular quest. Erik explains:

“Yes, I am making ALL the cocktails from the Savoy Cocktail Book in alphabetical order. I am currently on ‘D’. When I can get it together enough to work with a local bartender, I give them a choice of something like the next dozen cocktails and we taste a couple of them together. So far it has been pretty cool.”

I’ll say. His latest profilee, Josey Packard of the Alembic Bar, mixed up the Diki-Diki and the Devonia, in addition to offering a few other cocktail and biographical tidbits. Check it out. Apparently, Josey has ties to Boston, because she says she created the signature cocktail for the Boston Athenaeum‘s 200th anniversary in 2006. I’m intrigued, since I’ve been involved, along with Misty Kalkofen of Green Street, in creating a cocktail for the Athenaeum’s Roaring Twenties party later this month. (Sorry, but the party’s only for Athenaeum members.) Josey, I don’t know you, but if you come across this post, email me!

Erik’s Savoy project is the framework for “Resurrecting Spirits,” a recent San Francisco Chronicle article about lost cocktail ingredients like absinthe, pimento dram, falernum and Batavia Arrack. The article’s author is Camper English of Alcademics. I’d like to send a heartfelt thanks to Camper for mentioning in his article my post, Operation 1919, about reviving lost cocktail ingredients in the Boston area.

Posted in Books & resources, San Francisco, drinkboston in the news | 2 Comments »

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