Thursday, August 18, 2011

TOTC2011: Nonstop to Tokyo

As I mentioned previously, my favorite thing at Tales of the Cocktail this year was the Nonstop to Tokyo. It was by luck, and the kindness of my friend Nathan Luchansky, that I was even able to attend - the event was completely sold out at least two months ahead of time and Nathan gave me a ticket.

Here are some pictures from the event, as well as some details to give a sense of why it was great.

Departing NOLA
Starting out, we headed into a suite and were given a boarding pass for our trip to Tokyo. The event was sponsored by Suntory , and featured a variety of their whiskys (they don't use the "e") as well as a few other spirits that they handle in Japan. My friend Neyah White, now an ambassador for Suntory, but formerly head barkeep of one of my favorite places in San Francisco, was there as our tour guide.

On entry, we were given access to two side rooms - one where a cocktail with Hibiki 12 was being served, and one where we could sample a variety of Japanese whiskys and play a little putt-putt golf.

One of the spirits we were invited to taste was called "Chita." Not available in the US on it's own, it is used as part of the blend in the Hibiki whiskey. It's a really interesting, delicious spirit - made from 100% Japan-grown corn, and aged in used bourbon barrels. It tastes like a fine aged rum and was quite sippable.

The Main Event
After while, we were invited into the main room of the suite, where there was small bar with seven or eight seats. Hidetsugu Ueno from Bar High Five in Tokyo greeted us, and presented us with a menu of cocktail options. And then, essentially, he made us cocktails and told us a bit about cocktail culture and cocktail making in Japan.

Some of the highlights:
  • He cracked ice by hand, using a three-pronged ice crusher
  • He carved an ice block into a diamond-shaped cube for one of the cocktails
  • One of the cocktails was served at room temperature in a tulip glass, with undiluted honey in the bottom, so that the drinker could adjust sweetness to taste by swirling the glass.
  • The techniques he used, and the fluidity of his motions, were beautiful to watch.
A couple of trivia bits I learned:
  • Both Midori and Southern Comfort are very popular in Japan.
  • It is common to use knives completely up - the knife he used on the ice block was used for other things in the past, but the blade has shrunk over time and now it is only good for carving ice.
Thiswas a truly unique experience, and a wonderful introduction to the cocktail culture in Japan. And, I got to try a couple of new whiskys and get a couple of good ideas for cocktails, too.

Thanks again to Nathan for finding me and giving me the ticket!

Friday, July 22, 2011

TOTC: Day 2 Hijinks

Another great day at Tales, filled with lots of great conversations, drinks and good times. Here are a few highlights from day two:
  • My friend Nathan Lutchansky absolutely made my Tales by offering me a ticket to the Nonstop to Tokyo event. After a false start, we were able to sit at a tiny bar and enjoy wonderful drinks and conversation with master Hidetsugu Ueno from Japan. We tried some wonderful spirits from Japan not available here, as well. It was fantastic, and I'll write a more detailed post about it shortly. Thanks Nathan!!
  • Great company, conversation and punches at the Spirited Dinner I attended with a good friend at Bourbon House (delicious drinks and entertainment by Bridget Albert and Jeffrey Morgenthaler). I wasn't planning to go to an official dinner, but my friend graciously secured a seat for me. It was the most fun I've had at a Spirited Dinner, despite the weirdos at our table (more on that below).
  • I learned a few things from the seminars. Like, for example, that it was illegal for women to work behind the bar in Chicago until March 1970. Yes, you read that right, 1970.

And just one lowlight:
  • Some guys showed up to the spirited dinner already three sheets to the wind, and one of them was especially obnoxious. To the point where it was required to say to him "how old are you? are you 8? because you're acting like it right now." They left, but not before popping some balloons and making them whistle, and having one more go at harassing the single girls at the table. Amateur (and immature, etc.).
It's raining in NOLA today, so it's especially sticky out. Good thing I get to stay in the Monteleone most of the day!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

TOTC: The First 24 Hours

After arriving in NOLA yesterday, I hit the ground running in the parties, drinks and good time departments. Perhaps a bit more than I should have, in retrospect, given that it's early on in my TOTC tenure.

Here were some highlights from Wednesday:
  • Running into many friends from many places, many of whom I haven't seen in quite awhile. This was honestly my favorite part.
  • Sipping Lagavulin 16 at the Diageo "Behind the Distillery Doors" panel. The event started late, and wasn't quite what I expected. However, I very much enjoyed the Scotch and learned a few things about how other spirits makers handle issues, and how they search for innovations.
  • Wonderful cocktails and dinner at Sylvain with a good friend. Several writer friends recommended it, and they were absolutely correct. Go there. Now.
  • The drinks at the Old Absinthe House have improved, from the looks of it. I still had a beer, but I actually considered getting a cocktail.
And a few lowlights:
  • The Pimm's Cup at the Napoleon House was not as good as I remembered. Tasted like bad sour mix, actually. Did not even finish it, even.
  • The elevators at the Monteleone are even slower than I remembered. More people in them this time around.
All in all, a great first 24 hours. Now, off to a seminar!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Planning for Tales of the Cocktail 2011

It's a bit crazy for many folks in the spirits/cocktail/bar business, as we are preparing for our pilgrimage to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail. It will be a week of great cocktails, great food and great times with incredible people. And also, hot and humid weather, crowded elevators, and upset stomachs. What's not to like?

Here are a few things I'm really excited about, as well as a few things I'm not so sure about. I'll report back on both, once I see how they turn out.

Hopes are HighJury's Out
  • H2O Cocktails - meaning cocktails made with water. Water that you infuse with stuff. I am a bit dubious about this one, but open minded and interested to see what they're doing. Is this going to be cool, or is it going to be like the "low-cal" rum and vodka that came out awhile back, where they just lowered the alcohol content?
  • From Grain to Bottle - the detailed description sounds great, but there is no indication of who will be speaking. The moderator is a brand ambassador from a (very) large liquor company, but he's never been a distiller.
  • Spirited Dinners - some of them look fantastic (most of those are sold out), but there is one that is only vodka drinks, and one that has drinks only made with a certain whiskey flavored liqueur. My experience with them in past years has been good but not great, so this year I'm treating myself to a nice meal out with whatever I choose to eat & drink instead.
What are you excited about at Tales this year? Think I'm wrong about any of these?

We shall see...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Illinois Liquor Tax Saga - Over for Now

Since I wrote about the increase in the Illinois liquor tax a couple of years back, the challenge leveled by Wirtz Beverage was successful at the appellate court level. This week, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against Wirtz and reinstated the liquor taxes, along with a host of other taxes and fees to pay for the rest of Governor Quinn's package of projects. Alas, no tax refunds for anyone, and video poker coming your way soon.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Hello Again, and Independence Day Drinks

Well hello there! Long time no write. It's been very busy at the distillery the past few months, and this blog is one of the things I've let slip. But, I'm back now and ready to get back to blogging. And, just for fun, I changed the look of the blog, too.

Have you made your plans yet for Tales of the Cocktail? I'll be there and will be blogging about all the great drinks, seminars, events and stories. So, if you can't go, you can experience a taste of it through me. But really, why aren't you going, again?

At any rate, here are a couple of ideas for cocktails for this Fourth of July holiday. One of 'em we served at the distillery tasting room this weekend, and the other was inspired by a recommendation from my new friend J. over at Words, Words, Whisky to make some raspberry syrup.

Watermelon Fizz
Independence Day makes me think of watermelon, so this one uses fresh watermelon puree.
1-1/2 oz Vodka (North Shore)
2 oz Fresh Watermelon Puree
1/4-1/2 oz Fresh Lime Juice (depending on relative sweetness of watermelon)
1/4 oz oz Simple Syrup (or Raspberry Syrup)
Fresh Mint
Club Soda
Muddle several mint leaves in a mixing glass. Add vodka, puree, lime and simple. Shake with ice. Strain into chilled coupe glass, and top with a splash of soda. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Hum Blush
This is a takeoff from the Maiden's Blush, replacing the absinthe with a liqueur called hum. In the interest of full disclosure, we actually produce the liqueur for the Hum Spirits Company at our distillery, who markets and sells it. It's a lovely liqueur, with hibiscus, cardamom, kaffir lime and ginger.
2 oz Dry Gin (used our No. 11)
1 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
1/2 oz hum
1/2 oz Raspberry Simple Syrup
Dash of Grapefruit Bitters (Scrappy's)
Shake ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of lemon and a fresh raspberry.

Raspberry Syrup
To make the raspberry syrup, here's the recipe J. gave me:
Puree three cups of fresh raspberries. Pour into a saucepan, and add one cup sugar and one half cup of water. Bring to a simmer, then allow to cool. Double strain through a fine sieve or cheesecloth, then store in the refrigerator.

And, if you want another great drink for that raspberry syrup, try the Albermarle Fizz, a variation on a gin fizz that is delicious on a hot summer day. You can find a few more ideas for Independence Day drinking in my post from a couple of years ago on the subject.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Chicago Drinks News

Lots of great things are happening in the Chicago cocktail world, but I often forget to write about them. Every night, fantastic drinks are being made all across this city, and it's wonderful to be part of this growing, thriving culture. This month, three of our most accomplished mixologists brought home some more awards and honors:

Charles Joly - James Beard Award Nomination
In addition to winning a variety of cocktail competitions over the past months, Charles has just been named a nominee for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional by the James Beard Foundation. Congratulations to Charles on this great honor, and thanks for continuing to help build the profile of Chicago's mixology scene! You can find Charles behind the stick at the Drawing Room. (photo from The Boozehound)

Bridget Albert - Good Eating Award
Loved by everyone in the industry, Bridget Albert is truly the inspiration behind much of what has happened in Chicago in the last five years, not to mention throughout the country. She is an expert on spirits, cocktails and bar operations, and continues to mentor and guide most of the best bartenders in Chicago. Last week, when the Chicago Tribune announced their 2011 Good Eating Award winners, Bridget was among them. Congratulations to Bridget, and thanks! (photo from Chicago Tribune)

Debbi Peek - National Mixing Star for Disaronno
Late last year and early this year, the folks at Disaronno solicited recipes from bartenders across the US, and invited many of them to seminars and in-person competitions. Besting some great competitors here in Chicago, Debbi's cocktail advanced to the national round. And she won! Debbi's Italian 57 sounds delicious, and this certainly isn't the first time she has won a competition. Way to go Debbi! You can find Debbi behind the stick at The Bristol. (photo from Imbibe Magazine)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

More Ginger Beers - Goose Island, Diet, and More

One of the most frequently searched topics on this blog is "ginger beer." A couple of years ago, I wrote a review of our comprehensive tasting of ginger beers. You can find those posts here:
  • Taste Test Ginger Beers Part I, listing and describing the contenders, which included the following ginger beers: Cock 'N Bull, Bundaberg, Barritt's , Ginger People, D&G, Fentiman's, Reed's, Sioux City, and one ginger ale: Fever Tree
  • Ginger Saga Part III, where we added Blenheim's into the mix, and liked them, but they didn't edge out the Bundaberg.
Since then, I've continued using ginger beers in a variety of cocktails, and have tried a few more varieties. Here are some additions to the list, with comments:
  • Goose Island Spicy Ginger Soda - this brand is owned by a Chicago company that makes some great beers, so we tried it out. And we liked it. It's made with cane sugar, but with "natural flavorings," so not necessarily any real ginger in there. Nonetheless, it has a nice balance of sweet to spice, and makes a good Moscow Mule and appeals to a wide range of palates. We also like it a lot in the drink below, which we served at a recent cocktail pairing dinner. Plus, it runs about $4 a four-pack and is fairly widely available in the Chicago area.
  • Fever Tree Ginger Beer - much better for cocktails than their Ginger Ale, which I wrote about previously. Made with ginger root, as well as "natural flavor," and cane sugar. Nice, bright and versatile. Harder to find though, and more expensive.
  • Maine Root Ginger Brew - found at Whole Foods, this ginger beer is very spicy and rich. While we really like it, it is a bit too much for some folks because of it's intensity. I don't have any on hand right now, so I can't tell you the exact ingredients, but they use cane sugar and at least some real ginger.
  • Gosling's Diet Ginger Beer - various reports have indicated that Gosling's ginger beer is a repackaging of Barritt's. It is very similar to Barritt's in taste and ingredients, so that might very well be the case. I found the diet version to be about as good as diet tonic. Which, suffice to say, is not so great. If you are worried about calories, and are OK with a rough approximation, then go for it. Otherwise, just take it easy with some of the ones that have sugar in 'em - it'll taste better.
  • Housemade Ginger Beer at Heartland in St. Paul, MN - Peder Schweigert, the head bar man at this fantastic restaurant, brews his own ginger beer from scratch. While it can be extremely carbonated (read: opening a bottle resulted in a wide spray all over my hubby), it is absolutely delicious and one of our favorites of all time. Rich ginger, spice, a balance of sweet, with lots of bubbles. Wonderful, and totally worth asking about if you're in the area.
If you see the Goose Island Spicy Ginger Soda, we'd recommend giving it a try. Same for the Fever Tree Ginger Beer and Maine Root. Apparently Bundaberg makes a diet version also, but I've never seen it. Have you?

Here's a fun cocktail we served at a recent event, adapted from this cocktail over at Cocktail Virgin Slut:

Parisian Mule

1 oz Sirène Absinthe Verte
1 oz Housemade Orgeat (also good with Trader Tiki orgeat)
1/2 oz Rosehip Liqueur (also good with Orange Curacao)
1/2 a lime, cut into wedges
Ginger Beer

Muddle lime wedges in glass. Add absinthe, orgeat and liqueur. Fill with crushed ice, then top with ginger beer. Garnish with lime wedge.

Our friend Cleetus Friedman at City Provisions paired this cocktail with a chocolate almond waffle with honey whipped cream and candied ginger. Yum!

Picture of drink is by Christina Noel Photography.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Ilinois Liquor Tax Saga Revisited

Back in 2009, I wrote a post about the quickly proposed and passed increase to the liquor tax rates in Illinois, which was rather dramatic. In my second post, on August 25th, I wrote that Wirtz Beverage had challenged the constitutionality of the law.

Recently, the Illinois Appellate Court actually agreed with Wirtz and ruled the "Illinois Jobs Now!" act was unconstitutional. The Illinois Constitution requires that any new legislation address a single subject, and the court found that a bill covering as wide an array of topics as was included in this law did not satisfy the requirement. (Full text of opinion here - loads as a .pdf)

If the opinion stands, Wirtz stands to receive a significant tax refund. Of course, the State of Illinois is appealing, and the Supreme Court has granted a stay, pending the appeal. Which means the liquor tax, as well as the other taxes included in the package, are still being collected for now.

The tax is/was assessed on the wholesaler, who in turn collected it from the retailer (who passed it on to the consumer, in most cases). If they get a big fat refund, do you suppose Wirtz Beverage will pass that back to the retailers?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Trusting a Blogger

Earlier this week, in one of the industry update emails I receive, I noticed the following headline: " Wine drinkers trust merchants over bloggers." I scanned the article, thought to myself "huh" and kept going. Yet, for some reason, during the "Blizzard of 2011" here in Chicago, I kept coming back to this article in my head. So today, I actually pulled the article, as well as the press release on which it was based.

Provenance of the Claim
The email I received said the article was from "Harpers." So, I was thinking Harper's, you know, the magazine that's been around since the 1840's. No, in fact, it was in Harpers Wine & Spirit Trades Review, which appears to be an industry magazine published by a UK publishing company. The article was a summary of the press release put out by the folks at Wine Intelligence, a UK-based company "[c]reating value for wine businesses through strategic advice, branding and research."

The Gist of the "Research Results"
The Harpers article was pretty much a retelling of the press release, in which the following conclusions were asserted about US wine consumers:
  • 20% of regular wine drinkers trust what independent bloggers write about a wine
  • 80% of regular wine drinkers trust what their wine merchant tells them
  • 66% of wine drinkers look for wine information online, and 33% of them use social media to do so
  • The most used websites are those run by "wine shops, newspapers and smaller wine producers"
The summary quote says that "It looks as if the trust levels built up over time by local wine merchants are transferring into the growing power of the Internet, while word-of-mouth recommendations are also migrating into the Facebook era. Clearly bloggers will have a role to play in this new world, but this research shows how important it is to build up trust levels among your audience."

And So What?
The tone of the press release, and the article, clearly imply that bloggers are not widely trusted, and at least one writer took it as an attack. Another responded by pointing out why in fact some bloggers should not be trusted. I happen to agree with him in some respects - there are some bloggers out there who don't really know what they're doing. That's pretty much true of everything.

I also think there is another way to look at this discussion. In a study, by a UK-based company that works and is likely funded primarily by larger wine interests, and likely to have used a very broad brush in the study (we've only got the press release, after all, it's ₤1,300 for the full report), they're saying that 1 in 5 drinkers trust a blogger for information on what to drink! 1 in 5! Of the group comprising all regular wine drinkers, you've got all those people who love white zinfandel and/or other things most wine connoisseurs would not touch, and all those people who don't use computers regularly, let alone read blogs. Yet 20% of the audience not only reads, but also trusts, at least one blog! And of course that number is growing, as everything moves online.

It's a Question of Trust
Just as the press release, as well as the other writers, point out, the fundamental issue is trust. People take recommendations from those they trust. There are good bloggers, and bad bloggers, just like there are good retail wine folks and bad ones. Most people aren't going to trust Joe Schmoe liquor clerk who just started working there part-time. But they should (and I do) trust our guy at the local wine store, Keith, who is one of the most knowledgeable, thoughtful guys we've ever known in the wine business.

Bloggers can build up trust - many have already done so. It takes time and effort, just like building up a reputation as a trustworthy retailer does. And those folks have had many more decades to do so than the blogging community.

Go bloggers!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Crickets and a Cocktail Competition

Well, it's been crickets chirping here for a few months. I cannot believe how fast time flies by - it's just like my parents said it would be. Well, I'm going to do better on the blogging front, and I'm starting off with a post about a recent cocktail competition here in Chicago.

42 Below Vodka sponsors a cocktail competition each year in a variety of cities around the globe, and the Chicago round was last week. Unlike many competitions, this one is judged based primarily on the taste of the drink and the competitor's performance while making it. I've missed the competitions in past years, but have heard stories of costumes, singing throughout the 5-minute time limit, and various other stunts to win. So I had to go this year and check it out.

The event did not disappoint - it was fun and fast-paced, with a variety of cocktail styles and performances. Since the sponsor is a vodka brand, of course all recipes involved vodka, and interestingly, many used the straight version, not the flavors, which are a bigger differentiator for the brand (Manuka Honey, Kiwi, Feijoa, etc.).

A quick recap of the ten competitors and their drinks:

James Keener from the Signature Lounge
"The Beet Martini" made with the straight vodka, beets, caraway syrup, grapefruit zest, and creme fraiche caviar. Much to my surprise, it did not taste very "beet-y," which was a good thing because I don't like beets.

Milan Mijatovic from the Silversmith Hotel
"Fall in Loooooooove" made with cinnamon and cranberry-infused vodka, fresh lemon, bitters, and agave syrup. Delicious and seasonal, with dominant cinnamon notes. Milan wore a fantastic mask, and managed to make all of his drinks on time and without spilling, despite the mask.

Edith Rubicala from the Signature Lounge
"The Black Widow," made with the manuka honey flavor, horchata and some other ingredients that I unfortunately missed. It was a classic dessert-style drink, sweet and creamy.

Andy Gold from Bonny's Bar a/k/a the "Boston Brawler"
Andy was fun to watch, he was witty and funny while making "The Pigeon and the Squirrel." He used the straight vodka and Koval rose hip liqueur, Chartreuse, fresh grapefruit and egg white. It was herbaceous and complex, with nice texture.

Dante LoPresti from Double A
I missed the name of Dante's drink, but he used Bonal Gentiane-Quina, jasmine tea, and egg white, with a fresh orange zest garnish. The drink was balanced and tasty.

Andre Cunningham
Andre was quite funny and energetic during his cocktail-making session, and had the crowd laughing. For his cocktail, he used the plain vodka infused with pear skins, Luxardo Maraschino, red chili simple syrup, rhubarb bitters and fresh lime juice. His garnish was a bruleed pear in vanilla sugar.

Bryson Ryan from the University Club
Bryson's "The Sweetest Light South of the Equator" contained an unusual combination of ingredients, using the plain vodka, blanco tequila, creme de banana, spiced rum, and icewine. I must admit I was skeptical on hearing the ingredients, but it was better than I had expected. Sweet, but with some interesting, complex flavors.

Tim Lacey from the Drawing Room
Tim was the only competitor to bring on-stage assistants, and he took the event's "Cocktail Carnival" theme to heart. He brought his very ow n carny with a bull horn, as well as a lovely assistant making cotton candy garnishes (played fantastically by his wife Lisa). Tim used the Manuka Honey flavor, as well as honey syrup, lemon juice, apricot liqueur, ginger beer and tiki bitters. His "All Sales are Final Void Where Prohibited by Law" was delicious, balanced, and complex, and seemed to actually play to the flavor of the vodka.

Sergio Serna from the Drawing Room
While he didn't have on-stage help, Sergio instead brought Capoeira dancers to accompany his drink making and music, and they were great. He used the Kiwi flavor, along with fresh lemon, green tea syrup, falernum and a flamed thyme garnish (soaked in Chartreuse). Unfortunately, I didn't get to taste this one - I'm sure it was great.

Tim Williams from Province
While he didn't have dancers or stagehands, Tim was funny and witty, and brought his mom along for good luck. Tim used the plain vodka, ancho chile-infused honey, Cherry Heering, fresh lemon juice and candied lemon peel for garnish. His "The Federale" was spicy, smooth and complex.

And the Winner Is....
The competition was fierce, and the judges had some tough decisions to make. And the host made it tough on the two Tims when he announced the winner. He said it's "Tim........." and drew it out for a long time. Luckily, the winners were Tim Lacey AND Tim Williams.

Congrats to Tim and Tim, who are off to New York City next month to fight for the national title and a trip to New Zealand!