April 16th, 2011
Little did I know that, as I was ordering the last drinks of my L.A. trip at The Varnish last month, Liz Taylor rolled a seven. Had I been aware of her passing at Cedars-Sinai just a few miles away, I might’ve gulped down my expertly crafted cocktail and rushed over to the West Hollywood gay bar Taylor frequented in her final years. Alas, I was oblivious until I caught Headline News at the airport the next day.
I’m not one to worship celebrities, but I loved Elizabeth Taylor. She was captivatingly gorgeous, elegant, slutty and vulgar (that last word being one she used to describe herself). No movie star has ever been bigger, and she basically said, “I’m having fun with this, bitches. Pour me another drink.”
An admirer of that attitude, I knocked L.A. back with gusto, not unlike the first time around. Oh my, but has the bar scene changed in five years — cocktail joints are everywhere now, and they’re the place to be. So I went…
La Descarga, East Hollywood. This was recommended to me as THE hot cocktail bar in L.A. We managed to slide in early on a Saturday night after chatting with one of the valets outside who informed us that Katherine Heigl had been there the week before. Up a flight of stairs … into an antechamber where a hostess with a mini-dress and a Slavic accent opened the doors of a wardrobe (complete with empty hangers) … onto a wrought-iron catwalk with a spiral staircase … and behold: a two-story back bar full of rum. The place is a Bacardi-backed venture (with other rums and spirits invited into the mix) launched by the same team responsible for the brand-spanking-new Harvard & Stone (below). Bartenders in white shirts and black ties serve classic rum drinks (and the occasional Red Bull and vodka) to a fashionable crowd entertained by live Latin jazz and burlesque performers. Think: Old Havana nightclub meets warehouse party. This being L.A., the look of the place is all expert set design, from the cracked plaster to the random-seeming burnt-out light bulbs. Yep, the name of this bar means “the discharge.” I have no idea.
Caña, Downtown. Yes, another hot rum bar. Intriguingly located in the back of a parking garage, Caña occupies the space formerly known as The Doheny, a private cocktail club with a $2200 membership fee. Caña is also a private club, but membership only costs $20, and all you have to do is check into the place on Foursquare to waive that. I was lucky enough to visit Caña with L.A. Drinking Ambassadors Chuck Taggart and Wes Moore, who know every good bartender and tippling joint in the city. We had a couple rounds of finely crafted drinks from this menu. The Royal Oil, Misti Dawn Swizzle and Good Word were particularly outstanding.
The Varnish, Downtown. We really, really wanted to have a French Dip at Cole’s (est. 1908) before heading to the back of the restaurant and opening an unmarked door into the speakeasy that put L.A. on the craft-cocktail map. But the kitchen closed at 10:00 — jeez, Downtown L.A. rolls up the sidewalks early on a Tuesday! So we headed to The Gorbels (a cool restaurant by Top Chef winner Ilan Hall) for some bacon-wrapped matzo balls before closing out the evening at The Varnish with Chuck, Wes and Ron “LushAngeles” Dollet. Vintage tile floor, wood-paneled walls, a saloon piano player and a compact bar make this a place that you’d want to be your second living room. Oh, and the drinks ain’t bad either. This is where I got my whiskey fix with a shimmering Emerald (Red Breast Irish whiskey, Carpano Antica vermouth and orange bitters) and a tasty Talent Scout (bourbon, curacao, Angostura bitters) from Chris Bostick. Unfortunately, I missed seeing Woburn native Devon Tarby, one of the top broads of L.A.’s cocktail scene, behind the bar. Next time.
R&D bar at Harvard & Stone. Photo: Caroline on Crack
Harvard & Stone, East Hollywood. Another craft cocktail bar amid an Oscar-worthy interior designed to look like, as the L.A. Times put it, “a mix of industrial steampunk warehouse and a 1940s boiler room.” Also responsible for the rum-focused La Descarga (above), the team behind Harvard & Stone decided to skew domestic for its booze selection and minimalist for its cocktail menu. The night we were there, the smaller back bar, aka the R & D bar, was featuring Aviation gin from Portland, OR, and offering a list of about five not-too-complicated drinks. I appreciated that kind of limitation, as well as the casually hip staff and clientele.
Notable cocktails were also had at:
- Comme Ça, West Hollywood. A Penicillin and a Doe-Eyed Doll (cognac, Aperol, lemon, straight-up).
- Library Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The buzz about this place generally focuses on head bartender Matthew Biancaniello, but we got perfectly delicious libations from his colleague Chris Hewes, most notably a Mexican Rocket (tequila, agave syrup, lime and arugula shaken and served over a big rock). I was delighted to find out that Chris is the son of Jim Hewes, who has tended bar at Washington D.C.’s famous Round Robin bar (which I visited last spring) for many years.
- Hungry Cat, Hollywood. I loved the Coney Island High: Applejack, rosemary caramel syrup, lemon, a few drops of absinthe, on the rocks.
In between cocktails, quality beer drinking occurred at the wonderfully retro Red Lion Tavern in Silver Lake — a German beer joint with an outdoor garden and a neighborhood vibe — Father’s Office in Santa Monica and the Venice Ale House on the beach. Finally, an early afternoon and an early morning were spent at the louche Kibitz Room in the famed Canter’s Deli.
Thanks, L.A. It was fun.
Permalink | 3 Comments | Filed under Cocktails, L.A. | Tags: Cana, Elizabeth Taylor, Harvard & Stone, Kibitz Room, La Descarga, Red Lion Tavern, The Varnish
March 30th, 2011
“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month,” said Henry Van Dyke. That’s why we have cocktails and dancing.
» Opus Affair Presents: the WAITIKI Festival of Music & Cocktail, Russell House Tavern, April 10, 6:00-10:00 p.m. Opus Affair, Graham Wright’s non-profit social networking group for young professionals interested in the fine arts, and the exotica orchestra WAITIKI are planning “a night of all-out tiki to launch us into spring,” says WAITIKI bandleader Randy Wong. Imagine classical musicians, tiki geeks and cocktailians getting loose on rum-tastic drinks and grooving to sultry soundscapes by — and inspired by — the legendary Martin Denny. The godfather of exotica music, Denny would have turned 100 on April 10. Inbetween sets of live exotica, Brother Cleve and his friends Jack Fetterman and Gina of the Jungle will assume DJ and MC duties. All the while, barman Aaron Butler will lead his Russell House staff in mixing classic and original tiki cocktails featuring rums by Montanya, El Dorado, Folly Cove and Chairman’s Reserve. No cover charge for this shindig, but a donation of $20 is suggested for the musicians. More details here. Anyone remember Boston’s first WAITIKI Fest back in ’07? I do. Barely. See you on April 10!
» Bulleit Rye. I was recently mailed a small sample of rye by the makers of the well-regarded “frontier whiskey” Bulleit Bourbon. Bulleit Rye’s grain content is a whopping 95% rye (by U.S. law, rye whiskey must be at least 51% rye), which makes for an estery nose and a spicy, dry character. A Bourbon Blog review compared the finish to “cinnamon red hot candy.” In an Old Fashioned, that trait, along with the heat of a 90-proof spirit, evoked the velvety raspiness of a kitten’s tongue. I really liked the stuff and am looking forward to trying it in cocktails around town. Bulleit Rye should be available very soon and, like Bulleit Bourbon, is fairly priced ($28 or so).
» Cocktail Wars. Woodward at the Ames Hotel is doing another round of Cocktail Wars starting this Sunday, April 3. The Ames PR folks call it “an Iron Chef-style bartending competition taking place every Sunday where two of Boston’s best mixologists go head-to-head to create the best cocktail using a series of secret ingredients (typically a spirit, a fruit, an herb, or a vegetable) in the allotted time. The creations are then judged by some of Boston’s biggest industry experts.” Posing as one of those industry experts, I’ll be judging the April 24 contest. These contests are quite lively — last year I judged the finals — so swing by for a look.
» New Boston-area bars. Crikey, I’ve been so busy visiting new bars around town that I forgot to write about them. Here are some very short reviews:
- Bergamot: This well-reviewed restaurant in Somerville where EVOO used to reside has a small bar and real cocktails executed nicely by ex-Craigie on Main bartender Paul Manzelli and crew.
- Citizen Public House: Another success story in the Franklin Cafe/Franklin Southie/Tasty Burger constellation. Bar manager and all-around whiz Joy Richard of LUPEC Boston assembled a crack team of bartenders and instituted Boston’s first comprehensive American whiskey menu.
- Erbaluce: Chef Charles Draghi now has a bar program commensurate with his revered cuisine, thanks to Nick Korn (formerly of Eastern Standard) and Robert Hoover (formerly of Upstairs on the Square). The two are working magic with a cordial license and will soon be offering homemade vermouth.
- The Gallows: Well-made, approachable cocktails at a jumpin’ South End bar with killer food. Helmed by some of my fave barwomen, including April Wachtel and Danielle Marshall.
- Local 149: Stumbling upon this new Southie outpost where the Farragut House once stood is like stumbling upon a beehive in a quiet meadow. Lots of room at the bar, good-looking eats and a solid cocktail list written in part by ex-Craigie on Main wunderkind John Mayer.
- Temple Bar: OK, it’s not new. But after helping put Russell House Tavern on the map, Alex Homans is breathing new life into this warm Cambridge bar whose cocktails have historically been pretty ho-hum. Woo hoo!
Permalink | 7 Comments | Filed under Boston bars, Events, Nips, Whiskey | Tags: Bergamot, Bulleit Rye, Citizen Pub, Cocktail Wars, Erbaluce, Local 149, Opus Affair, Russell House, Temple Bar, The Gallows, tiki, Waitiki, Woodward at Ames
March 7th, 2011
Hey, cats and kittens, something very cool launches TONIGHT at Think Tank in Kendall Square: Drink This! With Brother Cleve, the godfather of the Boston cocktail world. Join drinkboston, Classic Mixology and the Boston Shaker at 8:00 p.m. for Lundi Gras cocktails as we kick off “a new event series that will put me back behind the bar for the first time since 2001,” says Cleve. Here’s his write-up about the series:
“I’ll be featuring a different set of classic cocktails and new libations of my own creation every Monday, plus selecting the musical soundtrack to pair it with. We’ll be featuring appetizer specials and drink/food pairings from the kitchen, and I’ll hold a little seminar to explain the history of the drinks and assorted cocktail lore. As many of you know, I’ve been studying this stuff for a long time, and we now live in amazing times for spirits drinkers, with so many formerly “lost” liquors, bitters, syrups etc available again for the first time in decades. When Combustible Edison first hit the road in ’94, in search of the “Cocktail Nation,” you were lucky if you could get a decent Martini anywhere. Now, great cocktails are ubiquitous around the globe!
“Our launch date, March 7, coincides with Carnival — Lundi Gras is the Monday before Mardi Gras in New Orleans, so in honor of the occasion we’ll hold a pre-Lenten bash with Cleve’s Ninth Ward cocktail (a “best of show” libation at Tales Of the Cocktail in 2008, now served in select bars around the country), the Ward Eight, Boston’s best known drink and the inspiration for the Ninth Ward, as well as the Sazerac, the venerable favorite that has been designated the Official Cocktail of the City of New Orleans. There will be a soundtrack of classic New Orleans R&B, funk and jazz for your imbibing pleasure.
Cleve brings his knowledge and passion for mixology to these weekly seminars, in which he’ll share classic as well as “lost” recipes from his vast bartending library (collected over the past 25 years) along with new concoctions of his own creation. Each week will showcase a different theme or spirit, and will also feature music and videos culled from Cleve’s personal collection. Special menu items from the kitchen will also be available, and certain evenings will highlight food/cocktail pairings.”
No cover, no reservations, just show up. See you there!
Permalink | 7 Comments | Filed under Cocktails, Events, New Orleans | Tags: Brother Cleve, cocktail history, Monday, seminar, Think Tank
March 3rd, 2011
Much of the Boston fine-dining scene still neglects to put the kind of pizzazz into the bar that comes out of the kitchen. Todd Maul is changing that. With his tattooed forearms, Mercury-era NASA spectacles and tendency to recite from Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you’d find behind the slab at one of the city’s more haute dining rooms — Ken Oringer’s Clio. But he has in fact put that little bar on the map as a destination for serious and inventive cocktails.
I first met Todd when he was honing his chops and trying to sneak vintage potions like the Lion’s Tail onto the drink menu at Rialto, in Cambridge’s Charles Hotel. When his efforts hit a wall, he moved to Clio, where he steadily gained creative license. Chef Oringer told him, “If you can think it up, and it tastes good, do it”– oh, and don’t be afraid to raid the kitchen. With that mandate, Maul does things like “use ice as a garnish.” For gin and tonics, he’ll deposit loomi — dried Middle Eastern black lime — into patterns he drills on square cubes (see above), or he’ll put a cylinder of violet-infused ice in a Todd Collins (Old Tom & Old Raj 110 gins, lemon, seltzer, Benedictine-soaked cuke) so that it slowly turns your drink bright blue while you sip. In the past couple of years, Clio has gone from a brief list of mostly vodka-based mixtures that blended into the background to a fun, 80-item menu (with retro font and graphics) of both faithful and fanciful interpretations of classic recipes. It’s like an album of Great American Songbook standards, some sung by Frank Sinatra and others sung by Bjork.
Maul’s other passion is furniture making; he studied the craft at the prestigious North Bennet Street School. He compares knowing various types of wood and how to build a table with them to knowing, for instance, different types of whiskey and how to build a cocktail with them. “Had I not gone [to North Bennett Street], I probably wouldn’t have paid attention to bartending the way I did. It’s a trade — you’ve got to work at it.”
Past bartending jobs
Rialto, Boston Park Plaza, Four Seasons.
First drink you ever had
Genessee beer. It’s an upstate New York thing.
Favorite bar in Boston other than your own
No. 9 Park. I have always liked what they do there.
The drink you most like to make
One for a regular.
The drink you least like to make
The first/last drink for someone that you know is going to be a problem.
What you drink at the end of your shift
If you weren’t a bartender, you’d be…
A furniture maker. My shop misses me.
Most beloved bartending book
If you’ve ever sat at my bar you already know: David Embury’s Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.
The best thing about tending bar in a fine dining setting is…
The conversations (it’s a little more mellow, so you can actually hear the person across from you), and seeing the milestone events in people’s lives.
The worst thing about tending bar in a fine dining setting is…
People can be intimidated by what they perceive as the culture in these restaurants.
People drink too much ________
What I call “lifestyle beverages” — when someone orders marketing, not booze.
People don’t drink enough ________
Old Raj 110.
Unlikely drink for a cold winter night
The best thing about drinking in Boston is…
I can get a drink from Joe McGuirk somewhere where they don’t mind if my kid throws something on the floor.
The worst thing about drinking in Boston is…
That you can get spoiled by the other people on this list, and realize that they only work in Boston. The standard they set doesn’t always travel.
Permalink | 10 Comments | Filed under Bartenders, Cocktails | Tags: Clio, Ken Oringer, Todd Maul
February 16th, 2011
When it comes to tequila, I plead ignorance. If I’m lucky to be in the hands of a knowledgeable bartender or agave enthusiast, I happily let him/her guide me toward whatever’s right for a given cocktail (be it a traditional margarita or a Jaguar) or neat nightcap with beer chaser. But when I find myself confronting, without a lifeline, that overgrown jungle of tequila bottles on the back bar of your modern-day high-end Mexican restaurant, I balk — especially when the bartender can only describe what’s in each bottle with various synonyms for “awesome.”
So I asked a few experts to break things down for me: Misty Kalkofen, Drink bartender and cocktail consultant who has studied agave spirits extensively; Andrew Deitz, sales rep with the wine and spirits wholesaler M.S. Walker; and Phil Ward, owner of the NYC tequila bar Mayahuel.
First, it’s widely agreed among spirits aficionados that 1) only rubes drink Cuervo Gold — a mass-marketed “mixto” (a mix of agave-based spirit and neutral alcohol akin to rum) masquerading as premium hooch — and 2) only poseurs drink Patron, which pioneered the premium-tequila category but is now an overpriced shadow of its former self.
Kalkofen says that the Cuervo, Patron, Sauza, Herradura and Don Julio brands make up about 90 percent of the U.S. tequila market. Patron, she adds, was a distinctive tequila when it was produced by the Siete Leguas distillery in the 1990s. But in 2002 the brand opened its own distillery, which now produces a smooth but unremarkable tequila whose price tag ($50 for añejo) is based entirely on its earlier legacy and classy corked bottle. Deitz, who recently advised the new Fort Point cantina Papagayo on its extensive tequila selection, says he would choose, for instance, the very reasonably priced Lunazul Blanco ($25) over Patron.
Sauza, of course, can be found in the well of any bar that bangs out margaritas of the frozen-strawberry or sour-mix-in-a-pint-glass variety. And if you thought Don Julio and Herradura were artisanally legit, think again — they’ve reportedly both been dumbed-down by their fairly new owners, the liquor conglomerates Diageo and Brown-Forman, respectively.
The hot growth in demand for 100-percent-agave tequila has attracted large producers and their often corner-cutting ways, and a lot of trusted brands are changing. “Good tequila is a dying breed,” laments Ward, who points to Herradura as a case in point. “Herradura is the saddest story in the world,” he says. The once-family-owned distillery produced a sizable quantity of reasonably priced, quality spirit. But Brown-Forman replaced the traditional method of extracting agave sugars — slowly roasting whole agave hearts, or piñas, in a large oven — with diffusers, in which the piñas are shredded raw before being “basically microwaved,” says Ward.
In a good tequila, Kalkofen says she is “looking for roasted agave flavor. With a diffuser, the flavor gets watered down.” Of course, that “watered down” flavor is exactly what many new labels hoping to cash in on the premium-tequila market are going for. A bland spirit in a nice bottle is intended to win over the brand-conscious vodka drinker.
Connoisseurs tend to judge a brand of tequila by its unaged version, e.g. blanco, silver or plata. Reposados (aged 2-11 months) and añejos (aged 1-3 years) “are only as good as the juice being put in the barrel,” says Kalkofen. Deitz agrees that wood-aging, while important, is not as big a deal as either the production process or the terroir — whether the agave comes from the highlands or lowlands, or from the primary tequila producing region of Jalisco vs. the lesser-known Tamaulipas. As for the extra-añejo classification (aged more than 3 years), Deitz says, “It can be a bullshit category, as many of the uber-expensive bottlings are actually artificially flavored.”
So, what brands do these connoisseurs recommend to people who are looking for good-quality, flavorful tequilas? Here’s your cheat sheet, amigos, with prices for each brand’s blanco and some helpful tasting and terroir notes thrown in by Deitz:
- Chinaco ($50) – from Tamaulipas. Briny, citrusy.
- Don Roberto ($47) – masculine, powerhouse style.
- El Tesoro ($49) – highland tequila, known for high acidity and aromatic, herbal components.
- Lunazul ($25)
- Milagro ($25)
- Ocho ($55-$70) – producer of unusual single-vintage tequilas.
- Partida ($41) – lowland tequila, known for round, rich fruit character.
- Pueblo Viejo ($28)
- Siembre Azul ($35)
- Siete Leguas ($36) – highland tequila, known for high acidity and aromatic, herbal components. Highly regarded in Mexico.
Permalink | 21 Comments | Filed under Tequila | Tags: agave