Archive for May, 2010

May 26th, 2010

Vodka – now with flavor!


Click on’s “vodka” category, and you’ll find some words on the subject that aren’t too pretty. (I always wonder if vodka marketers who send me press releases and even bottles of vodka fail to notice this or if they just don’t care.) I’ve accused vodka of taking “hostage the imagination of all who serve or drink liquor” and described its favorite party dress, the Cosmo, as “Paris Hilton in a glass.” Then Karlsson’s Gold came along.

I first tasted it last fall at Craigie on Main when Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli was still managing the bar. He had recently acquired a bottle and made me try it. Now, I knew that if Tom, who is well acquainted with my taste in spirits, was telling me to taste a vodka, it was either going to be notably bad or notably … not vodka-like. Luckily, it was the latter. There was a bread-y fullness to it, and a clear hint of that really good unsweetened cocoa that makes a great brownie. Tom poured some chilled Karlsson’s in a martini glass and twisted a lemon peel over the top. Those cocoa notes, along with the lemon oil, resulted in something that struck me as a very stripped-down Twentieth Century. Which is kind of wild, because Karlsson’s is made of potatoes, water, yeast and nothing else.

Since then, Karlsson’s has been popping up in other bars around the city. Recently, I attended a tasting and dinner sponsored by Karlsson’s. (This is where I disclose that the company’s reps have bought me two fancy dinners and handed me a bottle of Karlsson’s Gold — their flagship and, so far, the only one of their brands available in the States). There, I met Mr. Börje Karlsson himself, who also happens to be the guy who created … Absolut?! That’s the vodka that started the whole flavorless booze-as-status-symbol quagmire we’re in today. That’s why it’s a bottle of Absolut that is reclining in a coffin in my Vodka R.I.P. series. Uh, sorry, Mr. Karlsson.

The thing is, Mr. Karlsson is like a brewer who made his career on developing the recipe for Bud Light, only to turn around and create some really funky, boutique beer with rare malt and wild hops. But in his case, we’re talking heirloom potatoes. There’s a little pinkie-nail of land on the southern coast of Sweden where a group of farmers are busily fending off golf course developers in order to continue cultivating several varieties of “virgin new potatoes,” which they pick before the tasty little tubers have even grown a skin. It takes, like, an IKEA hamper full of these things to make one bottle of Karlsson’s Gold ($40).

At the tasting, we sampled some of the single-variety potato vodkas, from different years, with which the distillery experimented on its way to developing the blend of seven potato vodkas that comprise the Gold. The intent was to create a vodka that evoked its raw material — and that raw material’s terroir — through a single distillation and with no carbon filtration to strip out flavor. They succeeded. Some of the vintages were amazingly vegetal, with hints, even, of scallion. And in succeeding, Karlsson’s utterly fails the “odorless, flavorless” criteria embraced by almost all of today’s super-premium vodkas.

Which is just fine by me. Perhaps the best description I’ve seen of Karlsson’s Gold comes from Jim Meehan of PDT, who calls it a “potato eau de vie.” However you describe it, vodka lovers and vodka haters might just be able to come together over a rocks glass full of this stuff. Mr. Karlsson recommends garnishing it with a little cracked black pepper. Skål!

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Posted in Vodka | 9 Comments »

May 19th, 2010

Manhattan Cocktail Classic 2010


It started with a festive gala amid the marble-and-granite splendor of the New York Public Library and ended (for me, at least) with a wee-hours dinner at the 1930s-Eurasian-exotica-inspired Macao Trading Co. In between, I …

  • Ate an exquisite smorgasbord at Aquavit with Karlsson’s vodka reps (that’s right, I said vodka) and a bunch of sassy bartenders from L.A. and San Francisco.
  • Drank punch at Death & Co. and tequila at the Summit Bar.
  • Heard Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing and Distilling chronicle his 15-year adventure in craft distilling and sampled his 100-percent-rye Old Potrero whiskies.*
  • Enjoyed Laird’s apple brandy cocktails at the “official bar of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic” and met the 230-year-old distillery’s vice president, Lisa Laird Dunn.
  • Took detours to McSorley’s Old Ale House and Jimmy’s No. 43 for a few rounds of beer.
  • Entered a phone booth at Crif Dog from which I slipped into PDT (Please Don’t Tell) for a Romeo y Julieta, a rich, woody concoction involving Ron Zacapa Centenario rum and tobacco essence.
  • Sipped a Mai Tai accompanied by exotica music and the squawking of live parrots at the exclusive (because it’s in somebody’s apartment) Rhum Rhum Room.
  • Heard the engaging story of how cocktails migrated from America to Europe circa 1870-1940 (thanks, David Wondrich and Fernando Castellon).
  • Checked out a special tasting of new and unusual rums, whiskies, aperitif wines and syrups at wd-50.
  • Drank a 1940s-era Scorpion Bowl out of a two-foot-long straw at an Appleton Estate Rum party at the brand-new Painkiller urban tiki bar.
  • Clinked vintage cocktail glasses with my writer girlfriends at the new, Victorian-parlor-inspired Raines Law Room.
  • Arrived too late to get a cocktail at the Tanqueray 10 party at the Kingswood and was grateful to be handed a glass of Haus Alpenz’ newest import, the aperitivo Cocchi Americano, instead.


So, as you can see, the opportunities for learning, schmoozing, tasting and debauchery at the first official Manhattan Cocktail Classic were slim.

But seriously … this four-day intoxinalia is clearly meant to rival Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans as a confab for professionals and enthusiasts alike to get acquainted with the latest products, recipes and industry knowledge and to hobnob with the illuminati of the cocktail and spirits world.

One of the advantages the MCC has over Tales is that there are many more serious cocktail bars in New York than in New Orleans, and those bars hold their own seminars in addition to the events taking place in the Astor Center — and in addition to being open during regular business hours. Also, every event featured real glassware, and the vast majority of the cocktails were well made despite being cranked out for thousands of people. The hospitality infrastructure in New York quite simply gets the job done.


The disadvantages of the MCC vs. Tales have to do with all those things about New York that get under people’s skin: the frenetic pace and social jockeying involved in a typical night out, the difficulty of getting into exclusive speakeasy-style bars and, of course, the expense. Tickets to MCC events start at $50 (the gala was $100). Add lodging, cabs and dining out and … whoa. Still, it was a blast.

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Posted in Booze in the news, Cocktails, NYC | 7 Comments »

May 12th, 2010

Highball Highlights


Thanks to all who came out to Trina’s Starlite Lounge for the Highballs! bash and partied like it was 1965. Highlights:

Two people thanked me for having this particular party on Mother’s Day, because their moms drank highballs.

A guy told me he wanted to drink his way through Embury and blog about it.


The Starlite staff and most of the guests showed off their vintage party clothes — nice.

I hobnobbed with a bunch of drinkbostonians, both new and familiar.

Starlite co-owner Beau Sturm made his own gingerale, and bartenders Emma Hollander and Dan Beretsky mixed it with Buffalo Trace Bourbon (for a traditional highball) and with Old Overholt Rye and seltzer (for a Presbyterian).


Chef Suzi Maitland was convinced that her giant, nut-covered port wine cheese ball would outlast the evening. We proved her wrong.

Co-owner Trina Sturm poufed her hair and greeted guests with trays of pigs in a blanket, Swedish meatballs, vegetable dip on melba toast and corndog bites.


Some old friends surprised me.

Bourbon Belle, Saucy Sureau, Gin Rickey, Pinky Gonzales, Hanky Panky and Hot Toddy of LUPEC Boston were in the house.

People danced.


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Posted in Events, Whiskey | 2 Comments »

May 9th, 2010

Let’s hear it for barbacks


If you think of a night out at a bar as theater, barbacks are the seasoned stage hands, making sure that the show runs smoothly and that the actors (aka the bartenders) have all their props for stellar performances. Just as theatergoers never really think about what’s going on behind the scenes, bar customers don’t pay much attention to the bodies whizzing behind the bartenders, tapping kegs, stocking liquor bottles, replenishing ice bins and delivering food. So I asked some veteran bartenders for a few words on the importance of a good barback — and whether great barbacks go on to be bartenders.

Any bartender out there who wants to give a shout-out to a great barback, by all means chime in with your comments!

Josh Childs – Silvertone, Trina’s Starlite Lounge. “I have been lucky to work with some great barbacks, from Junior who saves my ass by pretty much doing all the work Tuesday evenings at Silvertone, to Henrique at the Beehive. While Henrique was technically the barback, he really was the best bartender there — he bartended and barbacked. What makes these guys great is the little things, like, when you have just poured the last of an obscure bottle, right beside you is the backup, waiting.

“I think you know someone is a great barback when the bar staff has given them a great nickname. In the case of [Trina’s] Starlite Lounge, we have Trina’s cousin, Joey Vegas.

“Right of passage for a new barback: coordinate with another bar [on the premises] first, then, during a busy part of the evening, tell the barback that you have just broken a glass in the ice well. Send them to get a ‘glass magnet’ at the other bar, where of course, the customers and staff are eagerly waiting (and giggling) for their arrival.

“I believe the restaurant/bar business is one of the last apprentice systems where, yes, a barback can become a bartender. Speaking from personal experience, a barback can even end up owning a bar.”

Danielle Marshall – Green Street. [Danielle recently left Post 390, where she worked with the barback she praises here.] “His name is Magno — not Mango, as he is playfully called. I have no specific example, because I do believe he is the example. Magno has been exceptional every time I have worked with him. He brings his game as well as a positive attitude that almost always ensures an easy, productive night. Magno anticipates my needs and allows me to focus more on the guest interactions and less on dishes, stocking or running food. What separates Magno from the pack is his willingness and ability to speak to guests and management or handle service tickets, but without ever overstepping his bounds. He has a knack for what he does, and it’s truly appreciated by this bartender.”

Scott Marshall – Drink. “A great barback is invaluable. I would say the best I have ever had is Henrique who worked at the Beehive. Every time I had a bottle that emptied, he was one step ahead of me and had the replacement open and ready as I turned around to head to the liquor room. He understood completely that his job was to keep me facing the customer and making money, because that would lead to him making more money. I don’t necessarily believe that great barbacks make great bartenders, because there hits a point when they want to bartend and lose the focus on backing. With a 20-percent cut at the Hive, Henrique made the exact same as the four bartenders, so there was no financial incentive to move up, which kept him plugging along, content to not interact with the public and make just as much money!”

Kevin Martin – Eastern Standard. “A great barback knows the ins and outs of what makes a bar run smoothly and efficiently. My right-hand man knows what I need before even I do, and a great back can even anticipate a guest’s needs. He or she knows the menus and is able to field guest questions, making the tender’s life just a little easier and the guest experience that much more special. A good barback is fluid, on his or her toes and is calm and fast. A great barback can absolutely become a bartender, and a good bar will know when to make this move.”

Bob McCoy – Eastern Standard. I want to sing my praises to the boys in black at ES. I don’t know if I could sum up in one sentence or by one example how important our barbacks are. They’ve saved my ass so many ways, so many times every night, whether it’s getting that bottle or syrup I really need on the fly, taking a plate of dishes off my hands, or just greeting new guests and getting them a glass of water and a menu to buy me some more time. But if there’s one thing that continues to amaze me time and time again, it’s that they have the keen ability to anticipate what you need at any given moment, sometimes before you even know it, and deliver it time and time again. We have such a great team at ES, but special thanks have to go out to our two senior backs, Chris Olds and Nick Korn.”

Posted in Bartenders | 5 Comments »

May 2nd, 2010

Nips – 5/2/10

clio-menuA friend of mine told me that an old flame put the moves on him recently after plying him with drinks. Acknowledging the futility of the attempt to rekindle, the old flame apologized for her brazenness. But she offered this excellent excuse: “It’s spring, and I’m a mammal.”

Well, it’s spring, and I’m a blogger. So here’s some link love…

» LUPEC Boston reviews Todd Maul’s new bar menu at Clio, which leaves all previous bar menus at Clio in the dust.  “The 80-plus drinks … run the gamut,” say the Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, “from aperitifs ($9) to drinks for two ($25) to tiki drinks & daiquiris ($13), and feature a blend of pre-Prohibition and modern classics.” Many of the offerings are designed to pair nicely with the raw delights at Uni, the sushi bar adjacent to the Clio bar.

» Speaking of tiki drinks … doesn’t the balmy spring weather make you thirsty for the serious Donn Beach/Trader Vic-style versions of these rum-tastic cocktails? Sure, you can get them on demand at Drink, Eastern Standard and now, of course, Clio, among a smattering of other spots. But could somebody open up a REAL tiki bar in Boston, already? This city was once a tiki mecca, and, well, how ’bout sprucing up down-on-its-luck Downtown Crossing with a ridiculously fun bar? Silvertone and Stoddard’s (yes, it’s finally open!) can’t do it all by themselves. Sheesh.

» Speaking of LUPEC Boston and new joints, one of the Ladies, Jane Robertson (aka Pinky Gonzales), does an astute write-up of Harvard Square’s new Russell House Tavern for Joonbug (which reviewed drinkboston’s Bartenders on the Rise event not long ago). She pretty much echoes drinkboston’s first impressions of the place: it’s got some baggage to overcome, but its bright spots — including the cocktail list and the horseshoe-shaped, marble bar downstairs — make us root for the place.

» Congrats to these talented barmen and women — who work in some of drinkboston’s fave joints — for making the Improper Bostonian magazine’s long-running Boston’s Beloved Bartenders list: Trina Sturm of Trina’s Starlite Lounge, Scott Marshall of Drink, Corey Bunnewith of Coppa and Ned Greene of Hungry Mother.

» Dan Okrent, whose Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition was recently reviewed on drinkboston, will talk about his book at an open-to-the-public lecture at the Boston Athenaeum on May 27. So much material here for us history-minded imbibers — reserve your seat starting May 14. And by the way, yours truly will be serving a Prohibition-era cocktail at the post-lecture reception (which also features wine, beer and cheese from Capone Foods).

» Speaking of alcohol, history and lectures, I’m also attending Boston Beer: a History with Michael Reiskind at the Boston Public Library on May 12. Oh, and speaking of beer, don’t forget that the annual American Craft Beer Fest is coming up at the Seaport World Trade Center June 18-19.

dean-martin-highball» If you like to drive your car to Boston-area bars but don’t want to risk a DUI (or worse) on your way home, Boston’s Designated Driver is a good service to know about. I haven’t tried it out yet and would love to hear from anyone who has — leave a comment, will you?

» Hey, did you know that drinkboston and Trina’s Starlite Lounge are having a Highballs party on Sunday, May 9? Reserve your ticket at 617-576-0006 or and come party like it’s 1965. See you there!

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Posted in Bartenders, Beer, Booze in the news, Boston bars, Nips | 10 Comments »