Tag Archives: bars

They Still Make You?

I love working the bar at special events. It means I get to be part of something really special, minus the oppressive need to small talk. I also like getting to work with a different crew almost every time–that ADHD brain need for variety satisfied in every way.

But there’s always the risk of bad eggs when the cast of characters rotates that much. Continue reading

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Rookie Bar Gaffes to Avoid

Watching the latest Game of Thrones season (I’m not going to expound on GoT. It’s just a TV show), my boyfriend pointed out how much Bran-as-Three-Eyed-Raven sounds like all of us after our first year of college. That I’ve been out in the world, I’ve learnt things about philosophy and hidden histories and now I can enlighten all you old people aura of smugness. We have all been guilty at one point or another of “schooling” an elder on the reality of things.

This reminds me of what it was like to be a craft bartender the first few months after training. Six weeks of memorizing drink recipes and scribbling tasting notes about spirits and all of a sudden I KNEW EVERYTHING, and I wanted to drop this wisdom in every bar I graced with my presence.

Ugh, the memories of trying to order a Bijou from some hotel pool bar, then trying to walk the flippant woman behind the stick through an inevitably wretched concoction. That was the start of a realization, that just because I made fancy-pants cocktails didn’t mean I could expect everyone else to make them for me, or be grateful for my definitely-not-annoying schooling.*

As time went on and I spent more time behind my own bar, I learned more about what it meant to be a good customer.  I’m all on the side of capital-H Hospitality, here, and definitely don’t think a guest at a bar should be eye-rolled or belittled, but if you’re in the industry, you should hold yourself to a higher standard than civilians. Here are some of the most annoying things bartenders do to one another, trying to show off how in-the-know they are. I state these in full knowledge that I may have perpetrated any number of them over the past five years.  Continue reading

Serious Chops

“You went to Columbia?”

“Yes.”

“What field is your MFA?”

“Fiction.”

“So you’re writing a book?”

“Kind of.”

“So what do you really want to do?”

(Look at shaker tins arrayed artillery-like in front of me) “This.”

I have this conversation at least once a week. Mostly while I’m making hand-chipped ice balls with a bread knife or simultaneously building four to six no-shortcuts cocktails behind a 34-seat bar in a 180-seat restaurant. The regular customer chit-chat loops from “How long have you been in LA?” to “Why aren’t you using that expensive master’s degree?” in no time.

I’m not sure why a near-stranger would ask this. Most of the time, I don’t think they mean to make me feel bad. There’s simply an incredulity to it, no one can believe that, with the credentials to at least get a decent desk job writing ad copy or reading slush piles, I would choose to be their bartender. There’s an even greater disbelief that I would go through all the drama and expense of a private university MFA and not be banging away at some hopeless writing project 24/7. I have a hard time believing it sometimes. But the truly surprising part, for these strangers and for me, is how little it seems to bother me these days. How, when I actually think about it, what I want to do is make drinks and talk to them about whiskey.

One of the redeeming aspects of my graduate school experience was getting to learn about books from Heidi Julavits, Deborah Eisenberg, and Stacey D’Erasmo. The other was that I started working in the hospitality industry again after an eight-year hiatus. And that, as the over-used line goes, has made all the difference.

Some of these concerned customers become very intent on introducing me to their friends who work in TV or advertising or whatever. I’m very grateful for their intentions. But unless it’s a freelance situation I can do between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m., I’m not interested. Because I really like bar tending. I like being able to concoct things and experiment with new booze. I like the prep that goes into it, the meditation that comes with tedious physical labor that you hope will result in a transcendent taste experience. I like making something heretofore unsampled for someone and seeing that look of surprise and delight. That I love this moment. I like this about writing, too. Other than calming the voices in my head, the major perk of writing is creating something that someone else might find stimulating. Trying to contribute some joy or awe to the world.

The first time I tasted a Last Word felt a lot like the first time I read Grace Paley. That experience of consuming something so simple and perfectly built that made me want to do THIS, THIS, THIS. I would have had neither of these experiences if I hadn’t gone through the period of my life when I attended Columbia. Not to be too gross about it, but those two moments were worth the work of getting the degree. It’d be nice if it had cost something more in the range of what I would earn over the entire rest of my life, but that’s a discussion for a different time.

So no, lovely, well-meaning customers, I’m not pining day after day over the time spent behind the stick and not at my computer, not thinking woe is me, if only I had a nice office job where I could finish my magnum opus. I make more money at the bar than an adjunct professor, and I like the company better. I did the sit-down job thing for eight years, and haven’t missed it since. I’m not ruminating on regrets, I’m thinking of the satisfaction I get from your enjoyment. So shut up and enjoy your drink.

Lemme talk about pisco for a sec

We went to Lima last week. I’ll probably write something about it at some point, after I’ve had time to digest the last of the ceviche and the feelings and stuff. 

What I want to talk about now (for a change) is booze. [Obligatory food-and-drink-piece-meaningless-generalization]: Thanks to the cocktail resurgence of the past 15 years or so, people seem more than ever to be up to discovering new liquors. Gin is showing its boundless flavor possibilities, fruit and herb liquers are gaining traction, tequila and Irish whiskey have emerged from the ghetto of shooters with strong showings as delectable sipping and mixing spirits, mezcal has gone from scary-worm-booze to delightful artisanal tipple. It only makes sense that pisco, the unaged grape brandy that is the national spirit of TWO South American countries, would come on board. 

Some of the good stuff. Pisco puro quebrantas.

National Tresasure

Brazil has the caipirinha, Argentina has Fernet and coke, and Peru has the pisco sour.  Chile also has the pisco sour, although the spirit is different, and the drink recipe is different, and there is all this contention over who invented it, but you know what? I only went to Peru. And I prefer Peruvian pisco, it turns out. Peruvians are hard-asses about pisco production: it can only be made from eight types of grapes, it has to be made without adding any water, meaning it’s once distilled to proof. THIS MEANS that pisco from Peru is all grape juice; fermented into wine and then distilled ONE TIME into a clear eau-de-vie (or aguardientes) that lands…BOOM…into the bottle at around 80 proof. 

Think about it this way: vodka is generally distilled five times. This makes it the most neutral of neutral spirits, taking out all the “impurities” (aka things that impart flavor) through a shit-ton of boiling and condensing. Whiskey is distilled two or three times and aged in wood casks to add flavor and color (I like to think of brown spirits as wood-infused. In a good way.). Pisco gets one trip through the still, then rests in non-reactive containers. So all you’re tasting is the grapes and the yeast. Depending on the grapes used and the production style, it can be super clean and silky or it can be real fiery or flowery or funky. The best part about all these intense regulations is that by law, you can’t add a bunch of fillers or artificial crap into . Pisco is just pisco. 

So?

I mean, there is the uncontestable pisco sour. Persian limes (special limes), egg white for froth, a little sweetness, and the fiery aguardientes have been making this drink a bar staple since the 1800s. One of a few origin stories for the cocktail centers around the historic Hotel Bólivar in central Lima, which today makes a version with pisco macerated with coca leaves for a distinctly vodka-redbull-without-the sugar-headache tingly feeling. [NOTE: despite unrefined coca’s complete illegality in the US, I like to quote author Mark Adams from his  travel memoir Turn Right at Macchu Picchu on its potency: “coca leaves have about the same relationship to cocaine that Sudafed cold tablets have to crystal meth.” We were perked up, but nobody wanted to talk ecstatically to strangers and dance on tables all night. The leaves lent an herbal note to the sours that, combined with the silk of the eggwhites and the quebrantas burn, was exceedingly pleasant. 

Coca Sours at Bolivarcito in Lima – breakers of language barriers

 You can get a pisco sour just about anywhere that serves alcohol. We had one at the coffee shop. We had one at the cevichería. We had one at the sushi resto and the club-y bar. The sour is frequently accompanied on menus by the Chilcano–a long drink with lime and ginger ale/beer over ice (mule style); and the Capitán, a short, stirred drink with sweet vermouth and bitters (Manhattan style).  However, having the privilege of drinking at some of Lima’s most interesting bars and restaurants, all I wanted was to see what the mixologists were up to. 

  

Clockwise from top left: Shilico from ámaZ, Tobaco y Chanel and Capitán Cacao from La Barra, pisco puro (neat) from the very puzzled waiters at the sushi spot, Edo.

We went to Ámaz early on, which was good, because it was fantastic, but also bad, because I really had no idea how fantastic until I’d had some time to decompress. The Amazonian food menu has had people cooing for some time, but the bar has all the fixings to make a cocktail snob go all squishy with excitement. My selection: Shilico — Pisco, camu camu, bianco vermouth and Aperol. Translation, respectively: 1) the national spirit, 2) Amazonian berries, 3) the forgotten (and subtly tastiest) vermouth, 4) Campari’s more easy-going cousin. Boom. Pow. What. Up.  

At La Barra (the casual-ish arm of the sooo famous Astrid y Gastón) we had a twist on a capitán with punt-e-mes and creme de cacao (a liqueur that seems much more at home in South America), a gin and tonic with melting spun sugar and lavender ice cubes, and a rum drink with tropical fruit and honey served in a maté gourd with a metal straw and a side of burning pipe tobacco for el nariz. Fricken wonderland. 

Every other place we went, I kept trying to try new piscos, just for sipping–a habit that my Peruvian hosts found funny and a little worrisome. The neat pour does not seem as pervasive as it is stateside, but I’m thinking with the rise in popularity of satiny and aromatic mosto verdes, this might change. But what do I know. I was only there for a week. 

Yeah, but soooo?

Lima’s bartenders have shown that pisco is mixable in just about every way you can think. Long drinks, short drinks, infusions, flaming theatrical pieces.  They have the heritage and the raw materials. And with the investment-backed juggernaut of Pisco Portón pulling a Jameson on the marketing landscape, I have the feeling you’re going to see more and more pisco in US bars. Which is exciting. Because it’s an approachable white spirit that’s more interesting than vodka. Don’t argue with this. It is. 

So go drink some fricken pisco. Here are a couple I like that you can get in the US: 

Capurro – a legit Peruvian pisco available mostly (I believe, somebody correct me if this is wrong) as an acholado or blend. I like blends. It means somebody really took the time to think about how it should taste.

Campo de Encanto – Puro? check. Acholado? check. Multiple grape varietals? Indeed. This stuff is pretty sweet. 

Any other recs? LMK.