Archive for April, 2009

La Belle Epoque C’Est Arrivé in San Francisco

Posted in Spirits News on April 26, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

I don’t expect to be doing this kind of post too often but I just felt this news was too good not to share. J. Walker in San Francisco is now carrying the Marteau La Belle Epoque absinthe, in part because I asked to them to look into it. It’s not been available in this market before. I don’t know how many bottles they have left but there was at least one left on the shelf when I went in to pick mine up. Enjoy!

Marteau La Bell Epoque


Two Days, Five Bars, 50 Cocktails

Posted in Left Coast Libations on April 22, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

Part 2: At Flora, Behind the Bar

Apology of sorts…

Clearly I’ve been distracted since Part 1 of this story was posted over three weeks ago. I think in general I’ve had good excuses for that: reviewing and selecting the photos from the shoot, finishing up all my testing notes and getting them off to Ted, hiring a graphic designer for the LCL logo, taking care of various bits of our burgeoning business. Oh, and I did manage to post two other pieces to my blog in the interim so maybe things are not as bad as they seem.

Clearly however, I should try to finish up this story in Part 2 so I don’t have to come back in three more weeks needing to write more, which is becoming harder as the memories of the shoot become increasingly hazy. That’s starting to be a lot of cocktails ago!

Here we go…

Despite the many many hours I’ve now logged making cocktails for the LCL project and all the careful preparation in the days leading up to it, I knew nothing was really going to prepare me for the photo shoot at Flora. Here I was going to be standing behind a real bar, making drinks that needed to look as good as possible, being watched by professional bartenders, and as it turned out in some cases making the very drinks they created right in front of them. Nervous? Shit, at times I was totally flustered.

On the other hand, what a joy it was to work those two days, making all of those drinks in a real bar armed with a battery of mixing tins, jiggers, fine strainers, bar sinks and an endless supply of lovely hard cubes from a Kold Draft machine. I was quickly spoiled, especially by the ice. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied by what can be made at home again. (However, I have since hit upon some new ways to make fist-sized plugs of ice at home without a lot of fuss.)

Cocktail making and the shoot went pretty well, all in all. The first few drinks took practically forever to shoot (and me stressing about melting ice, wilted garnishes and condensation on the glasses the whole time). Then we got up to speed and wound up shooting 27 of the 50 drinks we needed for the book by 8 PM on the first day. Not bad for a 12 hour day (including setup and strike). Of course, that’s really not so many drinks, is it. I am guessing a top bartender during peak time at a bar would make 27 drinks in about 2 hours.

The biggest challenges of the day involved some pretty mundane things. First, to keep things organizae at Flora during the shoot, I had all of our booze in five liquor boxes sitting on the floor of the bar behind me (*). I bent over those boxes dozens and dozens of times during the shoot, pulling bottles out for one drink, then putting them all back after the drink was made to keep everything tidy. Even worse, you can’t see the labels on the bottles when they are in the boxes and I wasn’t putting things back in the same place every time (which I guess was dumb). Can you ID a bottle of Wild Turkey 101-proof rye just by looking at the cap? I can (it’s topped with green foil). Do you know how many different bottles of booze have a black top? (Sometimes it seemed like all of them.) I really appreciated how nice it is to work in bar with all the bottles on display, labels facing you, sorted by type of spirit or reaching down into a well to pull out the house gin, from the same place every time, every day.

(*) – We did not use any of Flora’s liquor for the shoot. In fact, ice was the only consumable of theirs we used.

(As an aside, I want to mention a related occupational hazard, one with which professional bartenders must cope every working day and that’s lower back stress. What you can’t see from the patron-side of the bar is that sinks, liquor wells and ice storage extend anywhere from a foot to two feet back from the ledge where all mixing happens. There’s a tendency therefore to lean forward when pouring instead of extending one’s arms out. Every bartender I’ve talked to since has had something to say about this – and the need to really watch how you’re standing during a shift. It also becomes clear that some bars are designed better than others in this respect. It’s something I now make a point of checking every time I go out.)

The second challenge was making garnishes and arranging them in visually interesting ways in the drink. Citrus spirals and twists I can do, and pretty nicely after studying innumerable drink photos on the web. But how many times can you do that before everything looks the same? At one point I tied a square knot out of two long strips of orange peel (cut with a channel knife) just to see if could be done. Actually came out pretty good (look for it in Lance Mayhew’s Milo #2). Much hard were the drinks with called for odd combinations, like a slice of cucumber and ginger together in a collins glass. I was in fact relieved by all the drinks which didn’t call for a garnish – plain as they looked to me.

The third challenge, and the biggest of all, involved being stared at and/or being asked questions while I was making drinks. Bartenders making small talk on a busy night while making three or four different cocktails? I’ve got unending respect for those bartenders. Of course, I didn’t have the leisure of making the same few recipes over and over again (which helps free attention). Every one of those 50 drinks I made for the shoot was a brand new recipe, new liquors, new measures. That definitely made it harder.

It was also much harder to make a drink when the person doing the staring (or, the hanging out, but watching) was say, Erik Adkins who at one point decided to show me how to really dry shake an egg white drink to get a proper froth. Super helpful, for sure, but also super intimidating. But the worst moment for me was when Jennifer Colliau came into the bar and sat down just as I was starting to make her drink (what a coincidence).

First, I had forgotten that a couple of weeks earlier I had asked her which of her two cocktails she wanted to be photographed (how nice of me!). Of course, I had subsequently forgotten that conversation and decided the other drink was prettier and more photogenic (I still think so). Nevertheless, the moment was awkward. Then while measuring and mixing I kept hesitating, looking over at her (and she was watching), basically asking her if I was making the drink right. I felt like such a greenhorn. Then the glass I chose for the photo was too large and I needed to scramble and “fake” another couple of ounces to top the glass off (embarrassing). And finally it came time to make the suggested garnish: a grapefruit peel in a horse’s neck. Not a common garnish, I knew that the peel was typically coiled loosely around the inside of the glass. But again, I’m suddenly looking to Jennifer, who, as it turned out, wanted it in a tight coil, wedged in amongst the ice at the top of the glass where, I must say, it looked very pretty. I was glad when that drink was done!

It’s raining lecithin…

For the most part, all the drinks with the fancy ingredients and preparations came out just fine during the shoot. Both of the foams worked (Joel Baker’s “Pear Sonata” and Chris Ojeda’s “Fragola e Aceto”) and the smoked ice was way hella smokey (Evan Zimmerman’s “Smoke Signals). There was only one catastrophe which necessitated scheduling a pick-up shot a couple of weeks later. That was Daniel Hyatt’s “Still Life with Apples, After Cezanne” which simply failed to cooperate. Here’s the story.

The “Still Life…” is definitely one of my favorite drinks in the book. It’s made with bourbon, maple syrup gastrique and topped with what Daniel calls “smoked cider air” – essentially a light lather of bubbly froth whipped out of a mixture of pasteurized apple cider and a wee bit liquid smoke using an immersion blender. Adding lecithin and some xanthan gum to this makes the froth durable and long lasting. I proofed this recipe at home and it seemed simple enough (though I had to substitute tragacanth gum for the xanthan).

“Still Life…” was scheduled for day two of the shoot, one of the last few drinks I was going to make. By that time I had my rhythm down pretty well (including groping in my boxes on the floor for bottles) and could even make small talk with the people at the bar. (Heh!) I mix up the bourbon and gastrique, stir to chill, strain into my selected glass (a white wine glass), froth up my pre-mixed “smoked cider air,” spoon on the lather and put the drink up on the bar for Jennifer Farrington to shoot. And then the shit starts to happen: before my eyes the lecithin in the air starts to precipitate into the drink, first a little, then it’s raining cloudy clots of ugliness down into the otherwise translucent cocktail. I am horrified.

Reset. Remeasure. Remix. Refroth. Fail again. WFT? At this point I am starting to loose my cool in a visible way. This drink is not obeying me! What are we going to do? Someone at the bar, a professional chef as it turns out, comes over to consult with me. We think of ways to fake the froth. Egg whites stabilized with some lecithin should work he says. We try this. It fails. Is it a reaction with the drink? We put the fake froth on another drink (numerous spent cocktails litter the bar by this time). More precipitation. Someone now suggests calling Daniel and does (leaves a message, no answer). More tinkering. Another failure. Crap. OK. Move on, let’s finish the shoot and we’ll do a pick up shot at Alembic, have Daniel make the drink. I am crestfallen. I have failed. Argh!

Fast forward about a week. I speculate that the problem was caused by two decisions on my part. First, Daniel’s original recipe called for a liter of cider into which some pretty minuscule amounts of lecithin and gum were added. In my drive to “reduce everything to small portions for the home version” I had decided to quarter this recipe. Second, I decided that even though Daniel specified the amounts of lecithin and gum to use by weight, I could maybe “fake it” during the shoot and eyeball things using a 1/4 tsp. measuring spoon. (NB: I did not “fake it” when I originally proofed the recipe at home and weighed everything on a precision electronic balance.) As a consequence I wound up creating a much wetter froth containing a much higher amount of lecithin. When that hit the surface of the rather acidic drink, the precipitation was unavoidable.

Starting from scratch, following Daniel’s exact recipe, re-made the cocktail, frothed the “air” and gingerly spooned just the driest topmost fraction of of it onto the drink, Success! I was now looking at lovely mound of dry stable “air” sitting on top of the cocktail. So this is one recipe I do not intend to modify for the book. I will also add that using a deep two gallon food-grade white plastic container (same as they use at Alembic) really helps. The next night I made about 16 “Still Life…” cocktails for a gathering of friends. Everyone raved about the drink and the taste of the froth.

Still Life with Apples after Cezanne: Success!

[CODA: Last week I went to Alembic and a friend ordered a “Still Life…” Ah! I watched the bartender (not Daniel that night) very carefully and when he spooned the “air” on top of the drink, lo and behold, it started to precipitate lecithin! Fortunately, not very much before it stopped. We talked about this at some length and he confessed this happens not infrequently, especially after the cider mixture, which can be refreshed with more lecithin and gum when it stops frothing, has been used for a while. I felt a distinct sense of relief.]

Making the Rounds (II)

Posted in Left Coast Libations on April 16, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

Part II of Scott and I’s visits to LCL bartenders in SF

Last week we decided to visit the Clock Bar in hopes of meeting Marco Dionysus and having a few of his signature cocktails. We arrived, found two seats at the moderately crowded bar and lo, there was Marco in front of us to take our drink order.

Before I go any further, I should mention a few things about the Clock Bar. First, this is the lobby bar in the very high-tone Westin St. Francis Hotel on Union Square. It’s neither very large nor very fancy. Despite its size, it is well stocked – a serious cocktailian will feel right at home with the selection of brands and bottlings on display. Also occupying a prominent place at the center of the bar is a industrial looking citrus press and a variety of fresh oranges, lemons, limes, etc. Everything is more or less squeezed fresh for each cocktail. Very nice.

The Clock Bar is also across the lobby from the world-famous Michael Mina restaurant (two Michelin stars). Until very recently, one could order a selection of small plates created by Michael Mina for the bar. For example, lobster corn dogs and tuna tartare, mixed to order. Unfortunately, there has been some sort of ‘food coup’ and about two months ago all the really nice menu items became part of the Michael Mina bar menu (at like 2x the price). You can still get the truffled popcorn and a few other more standard bar-type items at the Clock Bar.

OK, back to more serious things…

Of the several drinks we had Marco make for us, two were real standouts . First, the Wibble, invented by Dick Bradsell for Plymouth Gin. It uses Plymouth Gin, their sloe Gin, grapefruit juice and crème de mûre. Very pretty and refreshing – practically guzzlable. Though we had never heard of it before, Marco told us this is an extremely popular drink in the UK and that you find many variations for it in London bars. Some web research the following day proved this point. Now I just need to get Marco’s recipe!

Second was an original cocktail, the amazing English Breakfast made with Earl Grey infused gin (the bottle was from 209), Grand Mariner, orange marmalade and egg white. After it’s shaken and poured (Marco serves it in a wine glass), it’s given a final light spray of Qi Black Tea Liqueur from a Misto pump. This imbues it with an amazing smoky scent that totally complements the tea and orange flavors in the drink itself. I loved this one so much I found the recipe on-line the next day (yes!), made my own tea infused gin (I used Plymouth) and bought a Misto pump as well for the finishing Qi spray.

And, speaking of bar toys, Marco was using a Bonjour frother to get his egg whites to “stand up” in a head. (Many of the bartenders at Vessel in Seattle use these as well.) Because I am obsessed with learning how to dry shake reliably, we had some discussion about this. His perspective is that it’s simply a practical matter for him – he can turn egg white drinks around faster with the Bonjour than with a dry shake followed by a second shake over ice. Point taken. I noted that his Bonjour has a wavy metal disk on the end instead of a coiled spring. Everyone says this is the one to get for egg white frothing. However, I’ve looked around a bit and it seems as if Bonjour had discontinued the wavy metal disk model. I think there may still be some stock floating about but keep this in mind you decide to buy one.

One drink I didn’t have, by the way, was Marco’s signature Uptown Manhattan, made with Amaro Nonino and originally created for a Marker’s Mark competition in the late ’90s. (Note: this drink is rather buried, as are several of the drinks, in the lengthy bar menu). I actually had this several years ago when Marco was still working at Absinthe in Hayes Valley. At the time, Marco was the very first bartender I met who was reviving recipes for pre-prohibition cocktails from “the old books.” A lot’s happened since then.

Marco said his good-byes to us (taking his union-mandated break – nice working in a hotel like the St. Francis, I suppose) and we ambled on to finish the evening with a drink made by Duggan McDonnell at Cantina, just a few blocks away. We arrived at, or I should say, cautiously approached, Cantina only to find it packed with boisterous 20-something frat boys or the equivalent. A bouncer had just ejected someone without an ID who was now lurking about in front. The music was intensely loud, even outside. Scott and I looked at each other. After the genteel Clock Bar, no way were we going in there tonight!

We set off in search of a final cocktail elsewhere. Drinks by Duggan McDonnell, like the Laughing Buddha and The Misdemeanor, would have to wait for another (less busy, quieter) evening.

Feeding the Ice Monkey

Posted in Musings on April 10, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan


Once you’ve frothed egg white drinks with Kold Draft cubes, ice-maker ice cubes will just not cut it. You can hear and feel them start to shatter in the tins well before the egg white reaches the desired semi-meringe state. Once you’ve chilled an Old Fashioned or Improved Whiskey Cocktail using a clear hand-cut block of ice the size of your fist, anything else will seem inadequate and you might as well just dilute your drink with ice water.

Yes, I have developed an ice fetish. I suppose given my propensity to take anything I do to an extreme it was only a matter of time before I found myself with an “ice monkey” on my back. The question now is what’s a home mixologist to do? Well, I did some experimenting and the good news is that it’s possible to feed the ice-monkey without a lot of fuss.

Graduating to the hard stuff…

First off I want to say I have never been able to make really clear ice cubes using any of the commonly published home techniques: distilled water, boiling water, boiling it twice, letting it stand, filtering, etc. Nope: the cubes were always cloudy. And I had awful problems with silicone trays, four of them which quickly developed off-odors rendering the ice unsuable. So, last summer when I found myself living in a house with a decent ice maker, I abandoned trays altogether, trading I suppose some quality for convenience. That however was before I started working on the LCL project, before I was exposed to Kold Draft cubes and hand-cut ice blocks. Once I got a taste of those, I quickly graduated to needing the hard stuff. Damn! I was hooked.

Recap: what makes ice cloudy?

My understanding is that home-made ice comes out cloudy for two reasons: dissolved gases and any tiny amounts of suspended mineral particulates in the water. As each cube freezes these tend to become concentrated and trapped in the unfrozen water at the center of each cube. This becomes the cloudy “heart” of each finished cube.

Commercial ice is clear (or clearer) then because it starts with water that’s mostly free of suspended mineral particulates and because it’s then frozen using mechanisms which avoid trapping of gases as they come out of solution (*).

*- There is a bit of a paradox here. Normally, the colder the liquid, the more gas can be dissolved in it. My best guess is that the phase change from liquid to solid affects the ability for gases to remain dissolved, driving gasses from the ice as it forms into the remaining liquid at the center of each cube. If someone knows the actual answer to this, I’d appreciate learning it.

An observation…

While I had odor problems with my silicone trays, I did make the following useful observation: the cubes at the edges of each tray were clearer than the cubes at the center. I speculated this was because the cubes in the center were more insulated from the cold than the cubes at the edges. The edge cubes froze faster (so that dissolved gas didn’t get a chance to concentrate) while the center cubes froze more slowly (resulting in typical cloudy centers). This made me wonder what would happen if I didn’t use a tray at all, if I just tried freezing the water in large rectangular mold to make large blocks?


The first blocks I made were created using a low rectangular plastic “to go” food containers that a lot of Chinese restaurants are now using in the Bay Area. Before freezing, I filled them with water and let them sit at room temperature for a couple of hours to get as much dissolved gas out as possible, (Note: this was standard procedure for all other experiments described here.) These blocks were mostly clear and my supposition is that the large overall surface area of the mold resulted in the top of the block remaining unfrozen long enough for most of the dissolved gases to escape. The blocks were to big to be used as is needed to be broken up by cracking. This left me with lot of smaller pieces and fragments which weren’t very useful for shaking or “on the rocks” style drinks as they melted too fast. I also couldn’t reliably obtain single pieces sized appropriately for a rocks glass.

My next experiment involved using small Tupperware-style food containers. My thought was that if I could find a mold large enough to freeze w/o trapping gas bubbles but small enough to yield a single usable block, I’d be in business. I found some Rubbermaid containers from the “Easy Find Lids” series which seemed like they might do. These yielded blocks which weren’t very clear and which were highly fractured. Quite different than the results I got with the “to go” food containers. Why?

Rubermaid Ice

After some pondering, I realized I had stumbled upon something very important: if the mold is too stiff, the resulting ice will be fractured as a result of expansion that occurs during freezing. The “to go” food containers had relatively thin walls and flexed outward as the water froze. The Rubbermaid containers on the other hand were made from much thicker plastic. Without some flex, the freezing water has no where to go so it breaks up as it nears the end of the freezing cycle Despite the fractures, the resulting blocks were solid enough to use for an Old Fashioned where they in fact worked very well. However, shaking them up in tins resulted in immediate shattering and the creation of lots of crushed ice.

Rubermaid Ice Block in Old Fashioned

A rapid improvement…

Armed with the additional data from the last experiment, I decided to try using thin-walled disposable plastic cups. My intuition is that these would flex when the ice formed thereby eliminating the fracturing problems. I found some 6 oz clear plastic Dixiecups and filled them with 4 oz of water each. The results were small “plugs” with few or no large fractures and relatively small cloudy “heart.” Here’s what they look like:

Dixiecup Ice Plugs
Dixecup Ice Plug Details

The first thing I tried was to make an Old Fashioned. The plugs just fit into my preferred OF glasses along with a 2 oz drink. I didn’t make a precise measurement but I’d say that about 60% – 70% of the block remained after the cocktail was finished, about 30 minutes later. A very satisfying result.

Next up, I decided to use crack a few plugs in half (which they do readily) and use in my tins for shaking. The ice from my freezer’s ice maker (which comes out in small crescents rather than cubes) more or less disintegrates during a hard shake, leaving a lot of small bits of ice in the tin afterwards. Cracked ice plugs more or less remained intact during a hard shake (I made an egg white cocktail so I really worked this ice hard). Here’s a photo of what I found in the tins after I was done:

Spent Ice Plugs


Overall I think I’ve hit upon a reasonable method for keeping my ice monkey happy (short of buying it it’s own Kold Draft machine or going into ice rehab). It’s easy to fill the small plastic cups, let them sit about for a couple of hours and then freeze ’em up. Oh, and the ice comes out pretty easily, by the way. Do note that the cups eventually develop cracks as a result of repeated expansion of the freezing water. But because they are cheap, replacement isn’t a big deal.

Making the Rounds…

Posted in Left Coast Libations on April 5, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

For various reasons, Heaven’s Dog has become something of a center of gravity for Scott and I during this project – probably because it’s home to five LCL bartenders (plus one alumni from the first edition) And while that pretty much guarantees someone fantastic will be working there any time we drop in, it’s hardly the end of possibilities in San Francisco.

A few days ago I had occasion to point out to Scott that there were still a good number of LCL bartenders in San Francisco whom we hadn’t yet met. Scott asked how many more. Eight, I said, not counting Jimmy Patrick in Sunnyvale, a visit to whom will require careful coordination of schedules lest we find him not in residence. We resolved there and then to address the situation head on by visiting the remaining LCL bars over the coming weeks and making the acquaintance of all the SF bartenders. (I know, such a burden.)

Last night found us at Beretta, hopping as usual on a Saturday night. We had a couple of rounds at the large table but in the final hour before closing finally found ourselves properly seated at the bar before Ryan Fitzgerald. Introductions were made and the conversation immediately kicked into high gear.

Ryan and I talked about making the dried apricot-infused Pisco for one of his LCL contributions, “Il Terzo.” Yes, slicing the apricots into strips really helps increase the flavor (more surface area good). And yes, he too used sulfured apricots (moister, more flavorful). Using them also means concentrating the sulfuring agent – sulfur dioxide (SO2). I told him about airing the infusion out after it was done to rid it of excess SO2 – about an hour with the lid open does the trick.

Then it was on to the “Rocky Mountain Monkberry” – Ryan’s other LCL recipe. We all waxed poetic about the Leopold Brothers fruit liqueurs (the Rocky Mountain Blackberry being the centerpiece of this drink) and got a taste of their gin which we’d heard was in the same league at the Bluecoat. (The jury’s out on that one for now.) Ryan then mixed up the aforementioned Monkberry for us, pointing out how it’s the lime peel garnish which adds just the right bit of citrus aroma as a foil for all that sweetness. We agreed!

Finally, Ryan tested out his Mezcal variant on the Improved Whiskey Cocktail – I think he calls it the Hermitage. And this led us into a discussion on the Del Magey Minero which Ryan feels isn’t being made as well as had been originally – though he still likes the Chichicapa. Sounds like he’s casting his net about looking for a Minero replacement.

The next thing we knew, it was last call: time for the barstaff to eat and for us to head home. Ryan bid us farewell and we thanked him for his time, energy and expertise. We also said our good byes to Vince who’d been manning the other end of the bar. (Ask him to make you his drink, the Marionette, next time you are there.) Other LCL watering holes beckon to us but we’ll be back. Definitely.