Tag Archives: cocktails

Bitter Delights and New Upstarts

Here’s something we’ve been keeping more or less under wraps: Basically since putting the final wrapper on Movers & Shakers, I’ve been at work on another super-secret plan to take over the world. Or a portion of the drinks market.

Vervet is our company name, and you can find us on Instagram and in the distillery. We’re making cocktails and canning them, because why would you not do that if you could?

We didn’t want to make just any old canned G&T’s however. I mean, a gin&tonic is fine, it’s great, it’s whatever if you have the proper gin and the proper tonic (so important! so frequently overlooked!), but my partners and I wanted to try something different. We have several different ready-to-drink drinks on the way, and they’re all a step beyond the 2-ingredient drink, or “highball.” I wanted to make fizzy drinks with depth and character for people with the same. More on that, later. I promise it ties in.

Adjacently: I love a bitter drink. Not bitter like, say, psychedelic tea, but bitter like folk medicines flavored with herbs and sugar to make them more palatable. Humans, we are weird and clever primates. A plant manufactures a chemical defense mechanism for itself like bitter flavor or fiery capsaicin, but because of its nutritional or intoxicant value, we bulldoze past these seemingly unpleasant defenses and in the process convince ourselves we love them. Sometimes our bodies adapt to make us feel good after eating them, just to seal the deal. I am personally great at convincing myself that things are fine when they’re not, or that I like things that I don’t, which I think makes me especially amenable to bizarre foods and strong drink, though prone, at times, to questionable life choices.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love a negroni, an Americano, a Rome with a View. They spark massive joy for me. Whenever I’ve served a negroni to a first-timer at a bar, I tell them to close their eyes and imagine biting into very dark chocolate. Something bitter, but also pleasurable. Something with a longer payoff.

The bitter in these cocktails comes from a particular type of red aperitivo. It’s Campari, or Aperol, or more likely these days, a homegrown red bitter from some upstart distillers in the US. I like classics, but I love innovation, particularly when it tastes good.

As part of our recipe development, we did tasting after tasting, in bars, at home, at the homes of our friends who, Stockholm-syndrome-esque, went along with it.

Top to bottom: the sweet one, the dark horse, my KRB, and the O.G.

And I have to say, there are some rock solid options out there. Some are colored with bugs, some with Red 40. Some are minty, some are sweeter. For mine, I wanted it medium-bitter with a strong citrus bite, with some native SoCal plants making up the green notes and a comforting finish of spice and bark. Spicebark. I love bark.

After over a year of trial and error (and error), through a variety of steeping methods and ingredient lists, through poring over countless books on the topic (more on that, later), we have something that I’m happy to say is pretty killer. 

So that’s what we called it. It’s a Killer Red Bitter. KRB for short. And it’s coming y’alls way along with the whole Vervet lineup.

But that’s a story for another time…

Rewatching Cheers as an adult who has since been to a bar

In honor of achieving my lifetime bartender win by serving a drink to Ted Danson, I thought I’d share some thoughts I’ve had about watching the epic, childhood-filling sitcom that launched him to stardom.

The show shuttered in 1993, and I clearly remember the frenzy leading up to the final few episodes, but the early years are hazy.

So I started again.

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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.

R&D Night at MessHall

It seemed odd, at first, to be “guest bartending” at a bar where I already work. But the MessHall bar houses an amazing array of spirits and fresh ingredients, and we love playing around with new recipes, even if it doesn’t all go on the menu. So last night I clocked in as “guest” and served some off-menu drinks. 

  

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

Every week, MessHall opens its patio bar to someone to try out some new recipes or showcase a spirit. 

MY R&D NIGHT

Having just published this here article on PUNCH about Skinos Mastiha Spirit, I decided to use some of the recipes I collected from Athens cocktail superstars Spyros Patsialos and Thanos Prunarus to further prosthelytize my love of liqeurs made from tree sap. Additionally, I had some drinks of my own I’d been cooking up for a while and wanted to test them out on some unassuming Wednesday night diners in Los Feliz. 

Here was the menu:

The copy was hastily written. So sue me.

    

The first and last drinks are riffs on the Skinos recipes. I didn’t have all the ingredients handy for Spyros’s Mantequilla, so I substituted blood orange syrup for his passionfruit syrup,  and Branca Menta as a similarly minty-ish-herbal-oddball bittering agent comparable to the Underberg bitter. The result, after a little tweaking, was awesome. 

 

The Ruby Jane (my own recipe) and the Mantequilla #2 (original recipe c/o Spyros Patsialos of huntingspirits.tv)

 

Prunarus’s Jalisko Flower was the other hit of the evening. Skinos and celery bitters are a natural match (carrots and celery!), and the tequila really brightens up the mix. Not having the time to do an infusion with the tequila, I snagged some of MessHall’s handy Kaffir Lime tincture and used it to rinse the glass and add a spritz to the nose. Just wonderful. 

 

Jalisko Flower, recipe c/o Thanos Prunarus, Baba au Rum, Athens

 

I think the winner of the stirred drinks was Colabórame (not pictured), a perfectly clear mix of pisco, dimmi, and salers apertif with a drop of mole bitters, which when combined somehow tastes of a really good espresso–a very subdued note in the ingredients by themselves, but somehow thrust to prominence when they are stirred over ice and sprayed with a little grapefruit oil. 

Guest bartending is like moving, though, in that unless you’re a celebrity you really only get one or two goes at it before your friends stop feeling obligated to come support you. So maybe I’ll do this again, if they let me, but not for a while. It was a blast while it lasted, though. 

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. 

What I’ve been doing

Well, whatever. I’m not much of an updater. Mostly I’ve been doing this:

http://greatbooisup.tumblr.com/

Esperanza2DaiquiriInDaWorks

Abelinkon

PassionWhiskySour

IE, making myself fancy drinks at home, taking pictures of them, and writing too-wordy-for-Tumblr posts on how they came together.  Actually, I’ve been enjoying it a bunch. Writing about food and drinks is way more pleasurable than thinking about that novel that’s not going to write itself.

Please check it out. The Mason Jar Shaker** tumblr was basically me looking up and tinkering with the recipes from posh bars so that I can be a fancier hermit. I’m sure many of you can sympathize. The fact that I live down the street from a Goodwill thrift store that always had a plethora of natty drinkware is key.

But I do have to change the name. Because it is misleading. I originally chose “Mason Jar Shaker” because I’d lost my cocktail shaker and was making all these drinks in empty canning jars. But then I went out and got a new shaker. And I don’t even serve the drinks (that is, to myself) in canning jars, cause how twee is that?

Any suggestions? Best name gets a jar full of delicious infused booze from me*

*Over 21 only. May not be valid if you live somewhere I can’t get to.

**UPDATE: So I went ahead and renamed it without any suggestions. As the above link illustrates, the page is now called “Great Boo’s Up.” If you do not get this reference, you are not nerdy enough. Didn’t think THAT was possible, eh?

Musins and Drinkins: Recipe Time!

The price of consumer off-premise liquor in California is far lower than that of my home state, New York. This is due to a number of factors, all of which are too boring and opaque to get into. It was a tremendous selling point for me, and a complete culture shock, that in California, one can purchase strong spirits in grocery stores, gas stations, or, if you prefer, your local CVS, and not just at designated licensed stores that may or may not have sales counters flanked with bullet-proof glass. Cheap booze flows in the streets, here, it seems.

Interesting fact, though, that the price of prepared beverages, IE drinks you buy at a bar, is pretty much evenseys between the giant city where I used to live and the one where I now reside. In both places, t’s an easy thing (particularly in the age of plastic currency) to waltz into a bar, blink, and spend fifty or sixty bucks.

What a revelation, then, to find that for that same fifty or sixty bones, one can dance on over to the Trader Joe’s and stock one’s entire home bar!

So I’ve been mixing at home, I guess is the point of all this. I mean, I went to bartending school. At Columbia. (Recipe after the jump, y’all)

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