Archive for the Musings Category

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


Tincture blues…

Posted in Cocktails, Home Made Ingredients, Musings, Spirits News on February 26, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Like everyone else in the SF Bay Area cocktail community, I’ve been talking all morning with folks about the current injunction preventing bars from making cocktails with homemade infusions based on alcohol: a process that may be described as “rectification,” which is illegal. Bourbon & Branch and Rickhouse were specifically targeted and, it would seem, were forced to dump all the various infusions they had laying about. Here’s a link to the article in today’s SF Chronicle:

Like most folks, I think it’s pretty outrageous (though not completely unexpected, I suppose). The Northern CA chapter of the United States Bar Guild (USBG) has already mobilized to fight this as it affects at least half the bars in the city, to say nothing of the rest of the state. I’m hoping to find out what I can do to help and will share that information as it comes my way.

Meantime, I’m thinking a secret room and a hidden door might be in order at my house. (Did I write that?)

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

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.

“Forth on the godly sea…”

Posted in Musings on January 23, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

I’ve just spent the last 20 or so minutes surfing the cocktail blog-o-sphere or rather, my little self-selected fraction of it, a collection of about 20 sites which I like to check at least once a day for updates. All the time I am doing this I am hopelessly aware that these sites represent only a very small fraction, at best, of the totality of cocktail-related blogs and websites. There is an almost endless number of places in which to peek and poke and learn something new, every single day. And, as usual, I find myself asking: “What possible value could I add to what’s already there, to what keeps pouring in daily from around the world?” I think in some ways I only started this blog to find out the answer to that question.

“And then went down to the ship,
set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea…”

That’s a quote from “The Illiad” by Homer, by way of “The Cantos” of Ezra Pound. (Yes, in another life I studied both these works.) I quote it here as a way to help locate myself. My “godly sea” is one made up of fine blogs, magazine articles, reviews, books, lectures, contests and conferences. My ship is this blog. And I am just past the breakers now, facing at last the limitless horizon of a wine dark sea. Bon Voyage.