Archive for Musings

BARSmarts LIVE, Seattle 2010 (2)

Posted in Left Coast Libations, Musings with tags , on May 5, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Part 2: Bar Smarts

It’s been just about one week since I was in Seattle for the completion of BARSmarts Advanced, the so-called Live day. My head is a bit clearer and it’s time to record my impressions of that experience, having already gushed about all the bars I visited in the days leading up to the event. (Aside: I realize that I’ve been referring to this program somewhat incorrectly as BARSmarts Live. It’s BARSmarts Advanced and the Live day is the culmination, when everyone signed up for the program and who’s passed all the on-line exams, gets together for one final day of instruction and insanity.)

I want to start by saying that BARSmarts Advanced (and to a lesser degree its on-line only kin, BARSmarts Wired) is a serious undertaking. There’s a lot of material to learn and cramming for the exams, especially the final written test, would be foolhardy. That being said, I feel the time and effort I put into this program (many hours over several weeks) was totally worthwhile. Through the workbook, the DVDs and the on-line testing modules my knowledge of spirits, cocktail history and even practical aspects of barkeeping were greatly enriched. Through the Live day I then had the opportunity to interact with some of the best and brightest people in the business: the BAR Partners(*), BAR alumini (**), and my fellow Advanced students. While the ultimate value of the certification (which not everyone is guaranteed to obtain) might be unclear, there is no question that this is an experience from which I have and will continue to benefit as a cocktail professional.

(*) – Paul Pacult, Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, Doug Frost, Steve Olson, and Andy Seymour are the six gentlemen who run Beverage Alcohol Resource, the organization who helped develop this curriculum for Pernod-Ricard.

(**) – Graduates of the week-long certification program given by BAR once a year in NYC. The alumni helped out through the day (often working behind the scenes) and served as judges during the practical exam.

I also want to send some props to the Pernod-Ricard production team. I think this was the very biggest Live event ever produced, with roughly 130 participants. The day went very smoothly, things were kept more or less on schedule, and if there were any major snafus, I was not aware of them. Thanks to you all!

How it works…

So first off, I should say that with the exception of the Live day, the BARSmarts Advanced and Wired programs are more or less identical. Participants in both programs are expected to learn the same materials (organized into four modules) and are tested the same way, via on-line timed tests. Wired students, having passed all four of the on-line tests then take one further on-line exam using a Flash-based ‘cocktail builder application’ which turns the process of making a drink into a series of multiple choice steps. Once that exam is passed, the Wired program is complete.

Advanced students, who must have an invitation to sign-up, are tested much more rigorously during the Live day. In addition to the on-line tests (all of which must be passed), there is a comprehensive written exam (including a small spirits evaluation) which recaps all four of the modules followed by a practical exam in which students are asked to make cocktails in front of a BAR judge. Not working behind a bar day over day, getting ready for the practical exam was the most challenging aspect of the course and, in fact, also the most rewarding. After all: how many times do you get a chance to make cocktails for the likes of David Wondrich, who turned out to be my judge. (Aside: It’s worth pointing out that even some of the pros taking the program found the practical pretty tough. You are expected to demonstrate not only that you remember how to make a given cocktail but confidence in your bartending skills and demeanor. The more confidence you showed, the tougher some of the judges were on you.)

The day Live day itself breaks downs into two parts: sessions with the BAR Partners in the morning and then the final exams in the afternoon. It’s a very full day for everyone involved. By the time I was brought into the judging room, I was pretty frazzled. I was also super happy when my practical was over. I was free to head into the hotel bar and have a cocktail on our hosts, the lovely folks from Pernod-Ricard.

Is this valuable?

One of the questions I’ve been asked several times since completing the course (besides did I pass) is whether or not getting certified has any value. I think by ‘value’ most people want to know whether the certification is recognized within the industry and would it help someone get a job.

To be certain, passing BARSmarts Advanced is not like getting a degree from an accredited university. However, judging from turn out, this is clearly a serious program, started by some of the most respected people in the business and which serious professionals are wanting to attend. That in itself creates intrinsic value around the certification. I suspect as more people learn about and complete the program, the value of saying you’ve passed will increase.

I would also say that there’s great value getting to spend a day meeting and networking with one’s peers and superiors. I met a lot of people I’d been wanting to meet and feel I made a lot of useful connections.

Could it be better?

Now that I’ve gone on about the best parts of the experience, I’d like to share a few things which I think could have been done better. Obviously this is a program still undergoing some significant evolution and rough spots remain. After mulling everything over for a week, I think there are four comments I’d share:

1- The second module, which covers all categories of spirits in one go, is massive and required reading it several times before I was confident I would remember enough to take and pass the on-line exam for it. It would be much better, I think, to split this module into two parts. Someone else in the course made the same observation during the Live day and suggested, quite reasonably, dividing that module into white goods and brown goods. Liqueurs, also covered in this module, could be made part of either half.

2- If you didn’t score perfectly on the on-line quizzes for each module, you were only told which of the questions you didn’t get right, not the correct answer to them. Worse, there are a number of questions of the form: “Which of the following is true:” or “True or False:” so you didn’t even know which question(s) you’d gotten wrong.

3- During the morning session we were given a couple of cocktails to try. It wasn’t really clear exactly why and to what purpose—i.e. did we really need to try a strawberry lemon drop? Since both were based on vodka, it came across as a bit of sales pitch to an audience possibly disinclined to sell cocktails based on this spirit. It was in fact the only time I felt ‘sold to’ during the event.

4- If feel the spirits tasting and evaluation section of the exam could have been better designed. In another life I was a very serious wine taster and attended biweekly blind tastings for many years. I found the format used for the written exam, a series of very specific multiple choice questions, to be less than inviting. I think the idea was that we were supposed to identify the primary characteristics of a given spirit by class (e.g. know that we’d been given a sample of gin rather than vodka). However, we all experience spirits (and wine for that matter) very subjectively and even experienced tasters aren’t always on their best game. Rather than making this part of the exam only about absolute right/wrong answers, I’d have found it more valuable if I had been asked to record my sensations of smell and taste as accurately as possible. Developing a good sense of ‘how’ a given spirit smells and tastes to us and learning how to communicate that seems every bit as important as the objective identification of a spirit tasted blind, which in practice will almost never happen when we’re at work behind a bar.

One last thing thing I’d add: the printed workbook contains numerous typos, grammatical errors and some seemingly contradictory information. It would be good for all of that to be remediated at some point.

P.S. As of this writing I have no idea if I passed. I *think* I made the cut but won’t know for a couple more days.

BARSmarts LIVE, Seattle 2010 (1)

Posted in Left Coast Libations, Musings with tags , on April 28, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Part 1: Smart Bars

I’ve been in Seattle for the past four days, here to attend the BARSmarts Live day which took place on Tuesday (yesterday). It’s certainly a relief to have the testing behind me, in particular the practical exam, which was certainly the most intense part of the program, least ways for someone like me not used to performing behind a bar day after day. More about all of that in my next post.

To be sure, when not studying or attending the Live day, I made what I think was very good use of my time here by visiting as many of the LCL bars and bartenders as I could. My guide was Ted Munat, the brainfather (?) of Left Coast Libations and the force behind Le Mixeur. (Ted’s also took BARSmarts with me so we liked to tell each other we were actually studying when we got together for cocktails on Sunday and Monday. Actually I just made that up. We had no such pretense.) Here now are some notes and photos from those visits.

Jamie Boudreau @ Knee High Stocking Company

Our first stop last night was the small and speakeasy-like Knee High Stocking Company where Jamie Boudreau is currently working. It was my first time watching him work (other than when he made cocktails for the Creme d’Yvette launch at Tales last year…we’re still waiting for product) and certainly the first time getting to try so many of his original cocktails. Most stunning of the batch was something he made for Ted using Pacifique absinthe in which an entire pineapple had been allowed to macerate ala Tequila Por Mi Amante. We tried some of this lovely stuff straight and it was simply delicious. The pineapple really complemented the herbaceous absinthe, the proof of which had been tamed by all the juice it had extracted from the fruit. I would definitely like to try this at home some time.

Here’s a couple of photos of Jamie at work. Note his incredibly swift and fluid stirring technique, just barely caught on camera.

Anu Apte @ Rob Roy

After consuming a few more of Mr. Boudreau’s ‘work in progress’ cocktails (one with topped with a delicious maple foam) we staggered made our way over to Rob Roy for a visit with Anu Apte who was working a solo shift. Anu and Zane bought Rob Roy a few months back and have been working really hard to turn it into a first-class cocktail destination. One of the things they’ve started doing is buying large blocks of ice which they then saw up to make “blanks” for carving ice balls for serving brown spirits. Here’s a shot of Anu making one for me:

In addition to the ice balls, Anu and Zane are also provisioning something you just don’t see in too many places any more, fresh cut seasonal produce in the urinals:

I can only assume this is organic or at least pesticide-free.

They’ve also seen fit to publish many classic cocktail recipes on the walls behind the urinals. Here, for example, is the recipe for an Old Fashioned:

Before I left Anu honored me by handing me one of the silver markers and allowing me to add a cocktail recipe to the collection. Visitors to the restroom will now note a recipe for the Brooklyn on the mirror to the left of the sinks.

Robert Rowland @ Oliver’s Twist

Ted used to live within walking distance of this bar, situated in the homey Phinney Ridge neighborhood of Seattle, across the river from the city center. The place has a definitely ‘locals mostly’ kind of vibe but Robert’s cocktail program really makes it a worthwhile destination. I had met Robert when he was visiting San Francisco the weekend we did the photo shoot for the book. He never seemed quite ‘at home’ when behind the bar at Flora or Beretta where he was guest bartending. But at Oliver’s he was clearly the master of his domain. Here’s a photo of him demonstrating his ability to adjust his opacity to suit any situation. Handy, dude!

Jim Romdall @ Vessel

There was a party at Rob Roy on Monday, hosted by Pernod Ricard for the BARSmarts folks. Quite the blast to be sure. A bunch of us remained cogent enough to head over to Vessel afterward. It was my first time there and I was not disappointed. However, I did fail to take a good photo of Jim or any of the cocktails I had. I know one was the Vessel 75 but I can’t recall the others. I think in part that’s because two spirits took possession of me while I was there. The first was half an ounce of LeNell Smothers’s legendary Red Hook rye. I had never even seen a bottle of this before. I knew it had been sourced from KBD, same as the Black Maple Hill bottles but Jim felt pretty sure it wasn’t from the same set of barrels. It was quite delicious.

The second was downing a shot of Fernet which had been ‘enhanced’ using Vessel’s Perlini Carbonated Cocktail System. Jacking the bitter bartender’s shot with CO2 gave it slight froth, a bit like root beer. Went down really smooth.

Oh, and this is kind of random, but Jim had mixed up some kind of potion using edible metallic powder from a baking supply store to make cocktails for some metal working/smelting group or thing or whatever. Anyway, when you swirl the bottle around it looks like a storm on Jupiter.

Andrew Bohrer @ Mistral Kitchen

I had really been looking forward to meeting Andrew. I loved making his cocktails for the book and I am a big fan of his blog, Cask Strength. Even after all the great drinking I’d done in the previous two days, Andrew’s cocktails were all standouts. Andrew started out by making me a couple of things from the menu: the Bergamot Blue Blazer (made with Earl Grey tea, served in a tea cup, accompanied by a couple of little shortbreads) and a Bee’s Knees, made with some kind of lavender syrup. Damn fine. (And what’s with the Seattle obsession with the Blue Blazer? No one makes these down here, let alone making them a regular offering on a cocktail menu.) The next two cocktails were even more exciting.

First I requested one of the cocktails from the Left Coast Libations, Ueno San, named in honor of the Japanese master bartender Hidetsugu Ueno, famous for, among other skills, his hand-carved ice balls. Andrew of course serves the Ueno San cocktail over a hand-carved ice ball, a skill he apparently learned from Ueno-san himself. (I should mention that Andrew buys ice with Anu and Zane for this purpose. He had a little freezer full of pre-sized blocks which he trimmed down as needed into lovely spheres or faceted gems.) Here’s a photo which unfortunately fails to show this drink off very well. There’s a long wide peel from most of one orange spiraled around the ice ball.

Second, I spied a bottle of the grappa-based liqueur from B. Nardini in Italy called Tagiatella, which is made with cherry and other flavorings and which has little or nothing to do with the similarly named pasta shape, tagliatelle. Andrew wasn’t content to simply give me a taste when I asked him about it. Instead he concocted what turned out to be an amazing flip. I was truly blown away by how good it tasted. I’m pretty sure the primary alcohol was the 6-year-old Russell’s reserve rye. I am definitely going to try to recreate this one at home.

Murray Stenson @ Zig Zag Cafe

After completing BARSmarts Live on Tuesday, most everyone found themselves at Zig Zag Cafe by then end of the evening where the legendary Murray Stenson was on task. I had never seen Murray work before and I have to say the man is something of a machine. There are like 15 or so seats at the bar plus all the folks milling around at the tables. Murray was handling all of it. I thought Andrew Bohrer works hard and moves fast (and, man, he does) but Murray puts him to shame.

Next: Part 2: Bar Smarts

Bergamot Sightings…

Posted in Exotic Citrus, Musings with tags , on February 18, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Dunno what it is about Bergamot orange this season but there’s certainly a lot of it about and everyone is using it. The following item was spied by a friend on the dessert menu at Delfina this week:

and then I saw this in the window of Almare Gelateria in Berkeley:

Any other Bergamot sightings to share?

Tales of an Outsider

Posted in Left Coast Libations, Musings with tags , on August 5, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

So Tales of the Cocktail 2009 has come and gone. I guess I should spend a little time blogging on though it’s hardly news at this point.

Tales. Hmm… New Orleans was hot and humid and I got out of the Vieux Carre far less than I should have (read: never got out). I also never really got in to Tales either. Most of the time it felt like it was happening all around me (esp. when sitting in the lobby of The Monteleone) but I was not invited in to play. Among other contributing factors was finding most all of the seminars were sold out before I could buy tickets and the lack of name tags. There were literally dozens of people to whom I would have introduced myself: LCL bartenders from Portland and LA whom I hadn’t yet met and writers who’s blogs and columns I had been reading avidly over the past year. Not knowing what they looked like and without name tags, it was a lost cause. If I could pass one note onto the organizers it would be this: have general registration (even if it’s free or close to it) and get people to wear name tags.

Meantime, I did manage to have something like a good time in New Orleans anyway. Here are the highlights:

  • Getting to taste all of the Del Maguey mezcals including the Pechuga.
  • Meeting Tom Bulleit and toasting him with a glass of his fine bourbon.
  • Trying the Bols Genever (mmm, malt) and learning more about how its made.
  • Sampling all the tantalizing goodies from Haus Alpenz and meeting Eric Seed.
  • Meeting Peter Schaf, one of the masterminds behind Tempus Fugit.
  • Trying any number of amazing absinthes on Sunday.
  • Chatting with Scott Beattie (“Artisanal Cocktails”) amongst a throng of drunken bartenders milling about on Boubon Street outside The Old Absinthe House.
  • Meeting the infamous Ted Breaux of Jade Absinthe.
  • Meeting Matt Rowley and yacking with him about creme de noyau.
  • Cocktails at Arnaud’s French 75 by Chris Hannah followed by a round of Cafe Brulot (and accompanying light show) courtesy of “The Fat Man” in honor of Martin Miller.

Cafe Brulot at Arnaud's French 75 Bar

  • Having Chris McMillian of The Museum of the American Cocktail recite Josha Soule Smith’s Mint Julep ode after dinner at Antoine’s (though no Mint Juleps were prepared or served at this event).
  • Hosting a highly successful LCL cocktail party; cleaning up after the same.
  • Trying Mozart Dry chocolate spirit, a bottle of which just appeared (and then disappeared) at the LCL cocktail party.
  • The unofficial underground swag-off (one of several I assume).
  • Meeting Paul Clarke of The Cocktail Chronicles fame.
  • Scoring copies of Charles Baker’s “A Gentleman’s Companion” from 1934 (both volumes) and “Burke’s Complete Cocktail and Tastybite Recipes” from 1936, thanks to Greg Bohem of Mud Puddle Books.
  • Oh, and having Jackie Patterson make me her award winning “Star-crossed Lovers” cocktail.

Jacking Patterson at Tales of the Cocktail 2009

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