Monday, June 27, 2011

Classical education, Part III

Although I did not have to work the morning shift again on Tuesday, I did wake up early again because I wanted to attend the Botanical Bartending seminar that began in the morning.  When I got there, it was nice to run into Elizabeth at the seminar, who I had met the day before at the Aging seminar.  When we first sat down, we were greeted by a lovely cucumber gimlet that looked and tasted as if it came straight from New Age spa retreat in Sedona.  It certainly a great way to start the morning, though, with something so deliciously light and refreshing.

Cucumber collins with Hendrick's, yuzu, lemon, simple syrup, soda and cucumber slices pickled in mirin and blueberry juice

I was certainly surprised by the sheer scope of the seminar.  Sponsored by Hendrick's gin, the seminar consisted of 13 bartenders having been each assigned one of the 13 botanicals found in Hendrick's to create a cocktail that accentuates that botanical.  As you may easily gather, the first botanical featured was cucumber, for which Hendrick's is quite famously known.  From there, we moved through cocktails that featured juniper, coriander, caraway, cubeb, chamomile, elderflower, yarrow, rose petal, orange peel, lemon peel, angelica root and orris root.  One interesting fact was that unlike the Tanqueray from the day before that puts all the botanicals in a basket to infuse with distilling, Hendrick's uses a basket for most of the botanicals, but that the rose and cucumber are added after distillation.  In many ways, this protocol makes sense to me since one would not desire a "cooked" rose or cucumber aroma or taste.

Hendrick's place mat showing all the botanicals

While there were too many to go through individually, I would just like to highlight a couple that were my favorites.  First, the cocktail featuring cubeb, a spice similar to allspice and black pepper, was so unusually delectable that I quickly finished off the sample.  Created by Nico de Soto, the cocktail contained Hendrick's, Dubonnet, cubeb distillate, sugar and egg white.  Unfortunately, it is by no means a drink that I can recreate, lacking the rotavap needed to make the cubeb distillate that is essential to this drink.

The place mat now covered with the 13 cocktails

Second, I was rather drawn to the angelica root cocktail, despite the creator, Ivy Mix, mentioning that she does not find angelica root to smell pleasant.  Perhaps it is because angelica root reminds me of Chinese apothecaries and grandmotherly remedies, but I rather enjoyed the smell and taste.  Sadly, I was not able to catch the recipe.

After this seminar, I had wanted to go to the Science of Taste talk given by a number of Bostonians.  However, since it ended up starting late, I was not able to attend since I had to tend to my volunteering duties yet again.  This time, I was assigned to ticket checking duties at the beginning of each seminar, so I was able to wander around and chat during the time between events starting.  As the Classic as a whole was coming to a close, though, things got a little more hectic with cleanup.  At one point, I had run across the street to buy disinfectant, and on my way back to the Astor Center, I ran into Shingo of Angel's Share on the sidewalk.  Since we were both busy at the moment, we made plans to meet up later.

Having finished tidying and cleaning at the Classic, I set off to find Shingo since it was his night off.  A PR person for Tanqueray had mentioned the day before that Tanqueray and Esquire were hosting a lounge into the evening, so Shingo and I decided to meet up there.  I took a cab up to the Andaz Hotel on 5th Avenue right across the street from the NY Public Library, where I made my introduction to the hostess and was promptly whisked up to the penthouse suite.  There, Angus Winchester and Steve Olson were entertaining behind the bar, alongside a barber offering hot shaves in the adjacent room.  In addition to meeting Shingo there, I also happened to run into Ali whom I had met volunteering the day before, as well as a couple Danish gentlemen, Henrik and David, from Copenhagen.

Right before we left, Angus treated us to some special nips.  One was a gunpowder rum from New Zealand, the likes of which I had never had before.  The nose smelled very much like a combination of molasses and firing range while the palate came across with a lot of flinty minerals and charcoal in addition to the more traditional taste of dark rum.  The other was a replica of the Mackinlay scotch found intact in Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic hut a hundred years after his expedition.  A sample of this scotch was extracted and tested at Whyte and Mackay, the current holding company of the Mackinlay distillery and apparently a replica was blended by the master distiller.  The replica was so smooth and had significant notes of peat, smoke and spice, but richly honey as well.  I must again thank Angus for his hospitality and generosity.

As the festivities at the Tanqueray lounge wound down, Shingo offered to take me to see B Flat, the bar opened by Angel's Share's previouds bartender.  Not one to pass up the opportunity, we went straightaway.  I had never been before and was looking forward to it, as I could not think of anybody better with which to go.  In many ways, B Flat does remind me somewhat of the ambiance of Angel's Share, with the dark wood, jazz and Japanese staff.  One difference I noticed immediately was that most of the signature drinks of the menu seemed to skew quite sweet.  Wanting to make an appropriate comparison, I ordered a Jack Rose, which I have had at Angel's Share many times before.  I do not know whether it is a personal bias or whether the ingredients varied slightly, but I swear that the Jack Rose at Angel's Share was more fragrant and delicate than that of B Flat.  Of course I cannot say with certainty or rigor that Angel's Share is absolutely better than B Flat, but I am quite comfortable saying that Angel's Share will remain my bar of choice in New York.

By this point, it was getting late, and I had not gotten a proper dinner yet.  A little cheese or hors d'oeuvres here and there can tide me over, but in the face of the drinking I need food.  Shingo came to the rescue by suggesting a visit to his favorite spot for ramen in New York.  We headed uptown again to a place called Moco.  With its modern lounge-y atmosphere it did not look at all like a place to get good, traditional ramen, but Shingo told me that the chef will occasionally make top-notch ramen.  The all-Japanese staff should have been another clue.  We started with teba gyoza, or chicken wings stuffed like a dumpling, and quickly moved on to big, steaming bowls of shio ramen.  Perhaps it was simply the hunger speaking, but it really was some of the best ramen I have ever had.  Rich, meaty broth, toothsome noodles with good bite, tender charsiu and other delicious toppings.  Washing it all down with shochu, I could have called it a night then and there.

While I did have to part ways with Shingo, I had one more destination before the conclusion of this epic trip.  Hopping onto the 4 train into Brooklyn, where I had never ventured before, I found myself outside the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building at One Hanson Place.  Had it not been for the stream of people entering, I would have thought that I was at the wrong place.  Incidentally, I ran into Justin, a fellow Classic volunteer, outside, so I knew for certain we were at the right place.  Entering the main room with its high, vaulted ceilings, arches and art deco mosaics, the space was quite impressive and overwhelming.  This was the Anti-Gala, the closing party for the Classic, which brought together all the volunteers, bar fellows, liquor reps and organizers that had put the whole weekend together.  It was an opportunity to let of steam, relax and just party.  As a result, there were no cocktails, just beer and shots.  Mind you, though, the shots were certainly not trivial.  I remember rounds of Michael Collins single malt and Hibiki 12, but there were others as well.  Oh, there was also absinthe and brûlée ice cream.

Final drink tally for that Monday:
Hendrick's seminar
-Cucumber collins
-Sample of 13 botanical cocktails
Astor Center main bar
-Devil Point
-Yamazaki, cointreau, tarragon, lemon
Tanqueray Lounge
-Tanqueray and Tonic (2x)

B Flat-Jack Rose


-Shots of whisky (4x)
-Dos Equis (2x)

 Lastly, I would like to thank again all the people who made this trip such a wonderful experience.  In no particular order: Shingo, Angus, Ted, Jamie, Kristen, Tim, Justin, Elizabeth, Robert, Rich, Ali, David, Henrik, Jake, Jaimie, Georgia, Monica, Stephan, Allison, and many more I'm sure I'm forgetting.  A special thank you to Pat who let me stay so graciously at her apartment and being such a bother, especially since I visited just before boards!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Classical education, Part II

After the Campari fête, I headed straight to bed since I knew I had to wake up relatively early the next day.  As I mentioned before, I had volunteered at the event, and so I was instructed to show up at 10:30 to help set up and get organized.  When I arrived, I was assigned to man the front desk for check-in and greeting duties.  Since it was a Monday morning, however, it was very quiet.  If it weren't for the guy running a blender to make liquored smoothies with Ben & Jerry's, you could hear a pin drop.  Having settled in and with little traffic, I helped myself to a coffee "corrected" with a bit of fair-traded Fair Café liqueur.  One nice benefit of it being very quiet was the chance to chat with my fellow volunteers, including Justin and Ali, and bar fellows.

 Very, very quiet.

A lot of free time on my hands

After having worked the morning shift, I was free to attend any of the afternoon seminars.  I was drawn to a couple seminars in particular: Gin is In! (sponsored by Tanqueray) and Age: The Final Frontier - Barreling Spirits and Cocktails.

In the first, the seminar really became about Tanqueray and little else.  While I cannot say that I was surprised, I do wish that the presentation had a bit more breadth given the title.  However, it was quite interesting to hear how Tanqueray is made, especially since Tom Nichol, the master distiller of Tanqueray was there in person.  My overall impression from Mr. Nichol is that gin distillation is very much an art, perhaps more so than the distillation of other spirits because of the careful balance of botanicals to which one must attend.  Sourcing the botanicals can become a rather ponderous endeavor given variations between harvests.  For instance, the crop of angelica root from Saxony this year was of inadequate quality, so instead the remainder of last year's harvest is still used to produce this year.

Additionally, I was interested to hear that different batches of Tanqueray No. 10 have very slight differences in taste that Mr. Nichol can recognize.  Differences arise since the whole citrus fruits that go into the basket of a given distillation run are purchased individually the morning of.  Another nice tidbit that I learned was that the citrus notes in gin can often come predominantly from coriander.  Although citrus peels often do find their way into the list of botanicals added to gin, coriander itself brings a very noticeable citrus note to stand up to the juniper.  While we were treated to a number of cocktails as well as tasting the standard Tanqueray and Tanqueray No. 10, the most special part of the seminar was tasting the undiluted, unadulterated distillate from the "Old Tom" still, which was rather powerfully botanical.

Tanqueray seminar with Angus Winchester, Tom Nichol and Steve Olson (from L to R)

In the second seminar on barrel-aging, I heard about the effect of wood and atmospheric conditions on the aging of spirits and cocktails.  I must briefly digress here to say that from a pedagogical point of view, the presentation could have been more appropriately arranged since I felt like there were long periods of speaking followed by short, rapid periods of tastings.  If tastings were more evenly spaced through the course of the spoken presentation, I feel that I would have gotten more out of it.  Anyhow, that minor point aside, it was certainly a very interesting experience.

We first heard about the history of barrels and how they are made, as well as how climate can affect the aging process.  Then, we had a chance to sample a number of aged tequilas (Excellia) to compare and contrast.  I must admit that I had not heard of the Excellia brand prior to the tasting (the same parent company as G'Vine gin, with which I am familiar), so the experience was entirely novel.  The tequilas we had to taste included the unaged spirit, one aged in Sauternes casks, one aged in Cognac barrels, one reposado blend and one añejo blend.  I found it truly remarkable how different all of these were, owing their differences almost entirely to aging conditions.  Unfortunately, I had regrettably consumed so much liquor by that point that I was forced to spit for most of the spirit tastings in order to maintain a sensible palate.

After tasting the spirits alone, we then moved on to the aging of whole cocktails.  Ted Kilgore had initially introduced me to this fashionable process through an aged Negroni variant, so I was already somewhat familiar with the idea.  What was nice about this seminar though, was the side by side comparisons between aged and unaged cocktails.  We first tried the Hanky Panky cocktail in unaged, Cognac cask aged, and new oak barrel aged forms.  Although oxidation and evaporation will tend to improve many cocktails, I had my doubts in this case as I felt like the unaged version was the most balanced.  The aged versions were dominated by wood and menthol, the latter from the Fernet Branca that seemed to become overpowering.  Second, we were served a pair of aged and unaged White Lady cocktails.  Since the White Lady calls for lemon juice, which oxidizes to an unpalatable form, the aged version was made with lactart (lactic acid) instead of lemon juice.  The resulting aged cocktail was one in which I could not get past the disconcerting texture that was simultaneously both watery and powdery.  Delicious or not, however, the seminar was certainly an interesting exercise that allowed for a rather effective exploration of the effects of aging.

Aged spirits and cocktails

While I had planned on swinging by the Indy Spirits Expo afterwards, my liver protested.  Thus, I grabbed a delicious dinner at my friend's establishment, Xi'an Famous Foods, before hightailing it home to rest before the final day of the Classic.

Final drink tally for that Monday:
Astor Center main bar
-Caffé corretto
-Suffering Bastard
-Something with ice cream, tequila, goji liqueur, fernet...
Tanqueray seminar
-Punch with Tanqueray No. 10, mezcal, oleo saccharum and tea
-Tom Nichol
Aging seminar
-Hanky Panky
-White Lady
*Unfortunately, as I write this over a month later, I have completely forgotten what goes into the Xibalba and sadly have no notes for it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Classical education, Part I

Back in mid-May, I went down to New York for a few days for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic.  I had gone to the previous year's Classic and rather enjoyed it, so I had been looking forward to this year's for a long while.  Unlike last year, I decided to volunteer at the Classic this year as a chance to get more involved and meet more people.  Additionally, the trip can be quite a drain on the pocketbook, with the cost of seminar tickets added on top of the usual transportation and boarding expenses, and volunteering can at least offset the ticket costs.  I am also quite thankful for my dear friend in New York who was kind enough to host me while I was there.

There was a slight snag in the original plan when I learned that the BGSO formal was on the Saturday during the same weekend of the Classic.  Given my obligations to BGSO, I had to skip the Gala, Saturday's events, as well as the majority of Sunday.  Rousing myself out of bed in time to catch a morning bus down, though, did give me the chance to catch the tail end of Sunday's festivities.

When I arrived Sunday afternoon, my first stop after dropping my things off was to stop by the Astor Center, headquarters of the Classic, to check in.  Besides, I was a bit too early to go straight to Angel's Share, but more on that in a bit.  Unfortunately, my timing did not work out well enough for me to sit in on a seminar that afternoon, but I did have a chance to indulge in a couple cocktails and say a quick hello to friends Ted and Jamie Kilgore from St. Louis, who were quite busy as Bar Fellows.

However, I did not linger long because I definitely wanted to stop by Angel's Share.  No trip to New York is truly complete without at least a few hours spent enjoying the absolutely fantastic experience that is a seat at the Angel's Share bar.  I had arrived just as they had opened, so I immediately snagged a seat at the bar right in front of Shingo.  As I had not been since January, there were quite a few cocktails on his menu that were new to me.  Shingo was also working on his new summer seasonal menu and let me take a peek at his draft.

As I had started with gin over at the Classic's main bar, I decided to try the Velvet Scene off his new menu.  Described as a concoction of Tanqueray, kiwi, lavender, grapefruit juice and honey inspired by the pâtissière over at ChikaLicious, this cocktail did not fail to charm.  The use of fresh fruit and herbs is a hallmark of Angel's Share's signature menu, and undoubtedly grounds the seasonality of the menu.  Although I was not able to confirm with Shingo, I would hazard a guess that this cocktail is named after a Coltrane piece, which really would fit the vibe of Angel's Share quite appropriately.

Next, I asked what Shingo was excited about making these days, and he directed me to the Speak Low, made with Pampero Aniversario, Osborne Pedro Ximénez and matcha.  He apparently had some chadō experience, which he demonstrates with a touch of theatrical flair while preparing this delicious cocktail.  The rum donated caramel and vanilla notes, while the sherry brought raisins and a luscious mouthfeel.  What astonished me about this drink was how the matcha grew and evolved in the glass with time.  The last few sips were more balanced and rounded by the tea's tannins than the initial introduction that was dominated by the sweetness of the rum and sherry.  Given Shingo's penchant for naming cocktails after song titles, I would not be surprised if this was named for yet another jazz standard.

Speak Low

After a lovely time at Angel's Share, I had to run off to meet a friend for a Campari fête at the Box.  Before I went there, however, I made a quick stop by Cocoron, a tiny soba shop on Delancey that had recently received a good write-up in the New York Times.  As the evening had gotten cool, I had a tsukemen-style soba, and it was indeed both quite delicious and fortifying.  The broth was richly flavored, and the soba noodles had a great bite that Taiwanese would call Q.

Filling up on soba turned out to be brilliant given my next stop at Campari's "Spirited Fête for the Senses Inspired by Padma Lakshmi."  Hosted by Padma Lakshmi and a cadre of excellent bartenders, Campari was the center of attention with a handful of cocktails that featured it.  After being ushered in by a pair of flappers, I was handed a dainty cup of Campari Punch by Jacques Bezuidenhout.  At this point, my memory began to get fuzzy, and I can't say I remember the details of the punch aside from the thought that I have lodged in my mind that it wasn't quite as balanced as I thought it should be.  By this point, the crowd around the main bar was four deep, and having waited some time to get one of Jim Meehan's East Indian Negronis, my friend and I made our way upstairs.  Apparently there was passed hors d'oeuvres that were paired with each cocktail, but I somehow managed to avoid all of these.

 From Metromix

We were also told that a show was about to start and that balcony seating would offer a good vantage point.  Although the show did not actually begin for another hour, the upstairs bar tended by Francesco Lafranconi was not quite as packed.  The specialty there was the Taj Milan, which I do remember as being strongly flavored with curry and coconut, the Campari getting somewhat lost in the mix.  When the show finally did start, it consisted of a few short burlesque and acrobatic acts that certainly had the audience quick enraptured.  Perhaps the best part of the evening though was perching near Tony Abou-Ganim's section of the bar after the show had ended.  With the crowd beginning to dwindle, Tony kept supplying me with a steady stream of expertly made Negronis until the house lights were turned on to signal the end of the night.  While I had been informed of what the Box experience entailed, I was still somewhat thrown off by everything from the stirrups in the bathroom stalls to the barely clothed contortionist on a trapeze suspended above the bar.  At least the Negronis were damned good.

Final drink tally for that Sunday:
Astor Center main bar
-Gin fizz of some kind
-Corpse reviver #2
Angel's Share
-Velvet Scene
-Speak Low
Campari Fête at the Box
-Campari Punch
-East Indian Negroni
-Taj Milan (2x)
-Negroni (at least 4x)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Summer classics

While I have a couple of lovely things from back in May that I have yet to share, the past few days have given me a chance to dive into a few classic cocktails that I have the impulse to post.

2.5 oz gin
1 oz lime juice
1 oz simple syrup

Pegu Club
1.5 oz gin
0.5 oz Cointreau
0.5 oz lime juice
2 dashes Angostura

I love when I shake so much that the outside of the tin frosts over. Nice, cool and delicious.

Monday, June 6, 2011


As I have previously mentioned, one real benefit of buying a whole duck is how much more you get out of it.  Even a couple months after having eaten the majority of the duck, the bits that I had preserved were still tasty.  The cured duck breast was still tasty on its own, but I ran into trouble at the ends where my admittedly mediocre knife skills prevented me from safely slicing thinly.  Not wanting to let any go to waste, I tried to think of ways to utilize these bits.  While I initially thought it best to think of dishes that traditionally involve prosciutto, I quickly decided that it was not too inappropriate to consider what I had to be approximate to guanciale.

With guanciale in mind, I thought to use my leftover cured duck in a sauce over pasta to make the most of it.  Lacking good tomatoes, canned or fresh, I ruled out amatriciana, which left me with carbonara.  I have had rather mixed results with carbonara in the past, often failing to capture the right texture to the sauce that I want.  Nevertheless, I forged ahead, dicing the cured duck, as well as a quarter of an onion, which I know is not traditionally correct for carbonara, forgive me.  I crisped the duck in a bit of oil and duck fat, saved from the confit, and then browned the onion.  After, the fettuccine reached al dente, I drained, then added a bit of the water to the browned onions.  I tossed the pasta in a mixture of whisked eggs and finely grated parmesan to coat before pouring it into the slightly simmering onions, stirring briskly.  Seasoned with fresh black pepper, topped with the crisped duck and served alongside roasted asparagus. Happily, the consistency of the sauce was quite creamy and without lumps.  Moreover, the duck, despite being little in quantity, was quite present in the dish, a delicious success if I may say.

Pasta alla carbonara con asparagi arrosto

In addition to the cured duck breasts, I had also preserved some of the duck by way of making confit of the legs.  When refrigerated in the fat used to confit, the duck stays quite well preserved for months.  I had been saving the confit legs for cassoulet, but that failed to materialize despite the ridiculously long winter.  Instead, I decided to pan fry the confit legs for dinner one day in some of the duck fat to heat it through and to give it a wonderful crispy skin, frying up some sliced potatoes in the same skillet as well.  Served alongside is some quickly blanched shaved asparagus.

Confit de canard poêlé, pommes de terre à la sarladaise, rubans d'asperges

 As you may have also noticed, I have been eating a lot of asparagus.  It is definitely one of my favorite spring vegetables after months of eating a lot of winter greens.  This is especially true this year since I have been so depressingly unable to get my hands on any fiddleheads or ramps.  At least the asparagus is still delicious!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A quick rant

I've been seeing more and more "nitrate-free" cured meats being sold around town, even at the local farmers' market last week.  This is nonsense.

First, a lot of products claiming to be "nitrate-free" cured meats do actually contain nitrate.  If a product contains celery powder, then that is the delivery vehicle for the nitrate instead of the sodium nitrate seen in conventional cured products.  That's just misleading marketing since chemically, a nitrate ion is a nitrate ion no matter where it comes from, and using celery powder is just a way of masking since the word "nitrate" no longer appears amongst the ingredients.

Second, every article I see railing against nitrates as carcinogens with such vim and vigor always targets cured meats as the sole source of nitrate.  Why does no one say to stop eating vegetable sources of nitrate?  Many vegetables, from lovely leafy greens, like spinach and cabbage, to roots and tubers, like beets and radishes.  Nitrates are a fundamental part of nature; its everywhere.  If people are afraid of the nitrates in bacon, then why are the perfectly fine to eat vegetables.

Last, "nitrate-free" cured meat will not taste like their conventional counterparts.  Just as I've mentioned before with the "nitrate-free" corned beef from Whole Foods being neither as tasty or as visually appealing as my home-cured corned beef made with a touch of pink salt.  One could make salt pork without nitrites to cure, but if you've ever had real salt pork, its quite a bit saltier than bacon.  My understanding is that a greater amount of salt is needed to cure meat in the absence of nitrites, primarily as a safety precaution against botulism.

Anyhow, I just think that this whole "nitrate-free" marketing of late is just another example of marketers taking advantage of consumer ignorance.  Its like herding sheep when it comes to eating habits. Trans-fats, omega 3/6, antioxidants, etc. Its all a bunch of fear mongering to direct consumer spending. Brings to mind the idea of "nutritionism" that Michael Pollan has brought to the fore.

All things in moderation.