Archive for May, 2008

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 »

May 21st, 2008

I say pimento, you say allspice

St. Elizabeth Allspice DramAnother lost cocktail ingredient is being found around Boston: pimento dram. I was served two different cocktails containing the stuff in the span of 24 hours recently.

First up was the Passenger Pigeon. Cocktail enthusiast Fred Yarm invented this drink for, get this, his International Migratory Bird Day party. As if winning the Drinking to Obscure Occasions prize weren’t enough, Fred and his consort, Andrea, put together an astonishing list of 20 cocktails named after birds — all classics except for two that Fred created and one by Robert “Drinkboy” Hess. Since I had only tasted pimento dram, a liqueur of Jamaican origin, at the Lost Ingredients session at Tales of the Cocktail last summer, I went straight for the drink that featured it. “Ah, that’s one of mine,” said Fred.

Passenger Pigeon
2 oz Calvados
1/2 oz pimento dram
1 dash Angostura bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

Fred says, “The concept of the drink started as a rye drink with the pimento dram, but rye did not work well with the flavors as it was; perhaps some sweet vermouth could have rectified that. Instead I substituted the rich-flavoredness of Calvados to balance things out.” Not a bad drink at all. The Calvados dominated the first few sips, but the allspice flavor of the pimento dram intensified as the drink warmed a bit.

That’s right: allspice. Pimento is the Caribbean term for this clove- and cinnamon-like berry. But since North Americans think “olives” or “loaf” or even “cheese” when they hear the word pimento, the company that reintroduced pimento dram to the spirits market, Haus Alpenz, is calling it St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. I think “pimento dram” is more poetic, but, alas, Haus Alpenz owner Eric Seed wants this product to appeal to a demographic beyond those who collect out-of-print bartender’s manuals and read Imbibe magazine. (See Misty Kalkofen‘s post about Seed on the Tales of the Cocktail blog.)

The next night, Michael O’Donovan of Highland Kitchen used the St. Elizabeth in a vintage recipe from CocktailDB:

None But the Brave
1 1/2 oz brandy
1/2 oz pimento dram
1/4 oz lemon
1/4 oz rum
1/4 tsp sugar
Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

“I think I’ve been making it with a touch more lemon, rum, simple [syrup], and have added bitters. It can, however, get overly sweet and allspiced very quickly,” said Michael. The drink he made me was good, and I’m certainly willing to participate in further experimentation.

If anyone knows the origin of this drink, please chime in, because I and others have come up dry. None But the Brave is the title of a 1965 movie, directed by and starring Frank Sinatra, about Japanese and American soldiers stuck on a Pacific island during WWII. But why would anyone dedicate a cocktail — especially one with these ingredients — to such a film? Anyway, it seems unlikely that a drink with such an unmodern combination of spirits would have been created as late in the 20th century as that.

The phrase goes way back, actually. “None but the brave deserves the fair” is a line in the 1697 John Dryden poem “Alexander’s Feast.” The poem depicts Alexander the Great celebrating at a victory banquet after conquering the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. The “brave” refers to the Greek king, of course; the “fair” refers to Thais, a famous courtesan who is Alexander’s date at the soirĂ©e. So, at least we’ve narrowed down the birth date of the None But the Brave cocktail to somewhere between 1697 and 1965.

Further reading: blogger Paul Clarke wrote recently about pimento dram in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Chuck Taggart, who writes the Gumbo Pages, came up with a good recipe for pimento dram a couple of years ago. He then created his own pimento dram cocktail, the Reveillon.

Boston mixologists, including Michael (above) from Highland Kitchen and Stephen Shellenbergers of Dante, among others, are making their own pimento dram.

And as more Boston bars stock this liqueur, you might want to order a …

Lion’s Tail
2 oz bourbon
1/2 oz pimento dram
1/2 oz lime
4 dashes simple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
Shake well over ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

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Posted in Cocktails, Liqueur | 10 Comments »

May 17th, 2008

World Cocktail Day – the photos

Pretty cocktail at Green Street

Cambridge photographer Matt Demers, whose fabulous work made the LUPEC Boston Little Black Book of Cocktails possible, took some terrific photos of drinkboston’s World Cocktail Day party at Green Street on May 13. Here are a few highlights. You can view the rest of the photos on my Flickr site. Thanks again to everyone who came by to celebrate!

Tom and the WCD crowd

Andy McNees at Green Street

Green Street proprietor Dylan Black

Misty Kalkofen, bar manager of Green Street

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May 16th, 2008

Thanks for a ripping bash

World Cocktail Day at Green Street, bar scene

If you couldn’t get into the sold-out World Cocktail Day party at Green Street on Tuesday, I’m sorry to tell you that it was a ton o’ fun. In fact, it was an evening I was downright thankful for. It marked the end of World Cocktail Week, whose frivolity contrasted unavoidably with a coinciding spate of tragedies: the cyclone in Myanmar, the earthquake in China, tornadoes in the U.S. (not to mention the continuing grimness in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, etc, etc). I’m not trying to bring anyone down here. I’m just saying there were times during the evening when I paused, soaked up the good vibe among the crowd and thanked my lucky stars.

Our guest bartenders, four knowledgable and talented New England gentlemen, each mixed a vintage cocktail of their choice, then went from table to table recounting that libation’s origins and moment in history. They time-traveled from 1870s San Francisco to an 1880s bartender’s manual to the Spanish-American War (1898) to an early 20th-century obsession with songs about maidens. The cocktails (below) were accompanied by flatbread pizza, beef tongue tacos and other tasty treats from the Green Street kitchen. We started with an innocent-seeming Maiden’s Prayer and ended with a brassy Remember the Maine, at which point the joke was whether anyone would remember the Maine.

Maiden’s Prayer
by Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli of Eastern Standard

3/4 oz Plymouth Gin
3/4 oz white rum
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz Cointreau
1 dash orange bitters
Shake well over ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a flower. Based on a variation (circa 1930) of the original (circa 1907), which may have been inspired by a hit piano tune of the late 1800s.

Nicol’s Secret Pisco Punch (without cocaine)
by John Gertsen of No. 9 Park

6 parts BarSol pisco
3 parts lemon juice
2 parts pineapple syrup
1 part water
Shake, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with pineapple. The recipe originated with Duncan Nicol, the proprietor of San Francisco’s Bank Exchange saloon from the late 1870s until Prohibition. The secret’s out: a wee bit of gum arabic (which comes in a white powder — get it?) makes this a silky sweet punch.

by Brother Cleve, cocktail historian and mixologist

1/3 Plymouth Gin
1/3 sweet vermouth
1/3 green Chartreuse
1 dash orange bitters
Stir well over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry or a lemon twist. A Golden Age cocktail dating back to Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual in 1882.

Remember the Maine
by John Myers, Portland, Maine-based bartender and cocktail historian

1 1/2 oz good rye whiskey or bourbon (i.e. Maker’s Mark)
3/4 oz sweet vermouth
1-2 tsp of cherry brandy
1/2 tsp absinthe or Pernod veritas
Stir well over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass with a lemon twist. Named for the rallying cry of the Spanish-American war, the cocktail is described in Charles H. Baker Jr.’s The Gentleman’s Companion (1939). Myers’ note: “Any absinthe substitute will work, but the ‘cherry brandy’ is up for some interpretation. Different drinks occur — but still work, so little is deployed — if Cherry Heering or maraschino are used.”

World Cocktail Day at Green Street benefited the Museum of the American Cocktail, which launched World Cocktail Week. Plymouth Gin, Maker’s Mark bourbon and BarSol Pisco were the evening’s sponsors. Many thanks to Green Street bar manager Misty Kalkofen, owner Dylan Black and everyone else in the kitchen, behind the bar and out on the floor for totally kicking ass.

Posted in Cocktails, Events, Gin, Pisco, Whiskey | 8 Comments »