Thursday, March 20, 2008

A tiki party with DISCUS

March 19

Two interesting things from the evening:

1. Learning Bar Milano, the New York bar that Tony Abou-Ganim is a partner in, is planning to open April 7.
2. I shook hands with Tony Abou-Ganim.

You kind of geek out about certain things when you're familiar specific industries. I'd always heard about Tony, read about him, but never seen or spoken to him. So it was kind of exciting to actually meet him. If I had to compare this to something else from my life. It was like the time I stood in line for three hours at Forbidden Planet so I could get my comics signed by Grant Morrison and I was having my own little geek excitement moment when it was my turn to have him sign my comics and...OK, maybe that example is a bit hard to relate to as well.

But more on the two points later.

It was a dreary, drizzling gray March evening when I walked into Bikini Bar. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, with the Olympian abbreviation of DISCUS, was holding a Tiki Rum Party. Suddenly, I was in Hawaii. Or at least an indoor sun-soaked beach house facsimile. Of all the bars I've been in, Bikini Bar is hands down the brightest. The tiki party theme was in full swing. There were leis, pupu platters, Hawaiian shirts and of course, plenty of rum and rum cocktails. They even had Blue Hawaii playing in the background on mute.

Taking advantage of the bi-level bar, Don Lee and Jim Meehan of PDT shook up several drinks downstairs, while upstairs, UK bar expert Angus Winchester mixed up another list of beverages.

Bret was already there when I arrived, though he couldn't stay for long since he had to head out to Broadway East. He was talking to Aaron Burns, senior marketing manager of Bacardi Innovations, a division of Bacardi Brands. Aaron chatted with me a bit about Rubi Rey, Bacardi's new single barrel finished white rum.

Aaron said the Rubi Rey has "the image of a vodka with the substance of a scotch." People are willing to pay more for premium vodkas and Bacardi decided that a premium rum would provide an alternative to those consumers who want something on a premium level that's not vodka. Aaron added that people are looking towards trying different premium spirits. Factoid of the evening from Aaron, "Ninety-five percent of the rums sold in the United States is sold for less than $15."

I kept going back and forth between upstairs and downstairs throughout the evening because of the number of people milling about directly in front of the bars made me feel claustrophobic. Also, for some reason I kept finding myself inevitably packed into a corner or awkwardly squeezed between to conversing groups. I felt like Houdini trying to escape out of a tight squeeze every five minutes. At the same time I was entirely too wrapped up in taking notes and peering over the bars to see what was going on while trying to see if I could snap some photos.

Being that mobile there was a lot of people I found myself running into and I mean that pretty much literally. As I sipped Colada Nueva Dos that Jim made downstairs I tried to reign in my short attention span to read some name tags and introduced myself to Martin Doudoroff of CocktailDB.

Upstairs I spotted someone across the room over the sea of heads who I thought looked familiar until I practically smacked myself on the forehead when I realized it was Joaquin. I managed to grab him right before he was leaving to say hi. Unfortunately, I don't do faces in crowds all that well. I wish I was joking at how bad I get with faces sometimes. Sometimes I feel like the journalist version of Adrian Monk. I have all these quirks hat you think would hamper me from doing my job.

At one point in the evening, a gentleman next to me asked how the Bajan Peach Smash that I was drinking tasted. I said it started off sweeter than how I usually like my cocktails, but as the ice melted it mellowed out a bit. I added that I tried the Baron Samedi's Brew and I thought that was kind of interesting.

As he turned to order the Baron Samedi I caught a glimpse of his name tag and performed a distinctly ungraceful double take.

After fully processing the name on the name tag, I thought to myself. "Tony Abou-Ganim just asked me my opinion about a drink."

Before heading out Tony came over to say good bye and I shook his hand and said, "I kind of had a minor 'rock star spotted' type of mini freak out back there."

"Yes, I saw it on your face," Tony said.

Tony was in town because things were gearing up towards the April 7 opening of Bar Milano.

Later when I got to chat a bit with Allan, a bartender working with Tony, who told me that everything seemed to be running on schedule and that Tony himself would probably be behind the bar for a little bit after opening to make sure everything is running smoothly. By the way, Allan also has an ode to nightlife type of project in the works, which you can preview here.

The party was drawing to a close and finally the both bars were clearing out. I went downstairs and plopped down on a stool and Jim introduced me to Don. I declared that Don had one of the coolest business cards I'd seen that evening.

"Hey! You're the one responsible for the foie-gras infused bourbon," I said to Don, remembering that Joaquin told me he scored the bourbon from PDT for his Loosey Goosey.

I asked Don a bit more about fat washing and how he got the idea for the foie-gras bourbon. Originally it was created to be part of a recipe for a sherry contest. Rather than strictly thinking about how to pair sherry with food, Don said that he thought, "Well, why don't we just make the cocktail like a food item?"

Don said he also did a bacon bourbon using the same bacon as the one used at Momofuku, which has a lot of flavorful fat. Don explained how a lot of bacon infusion recipes he's seen going around actually put the meat of the bacon in the spirit, when it's the fat that has the flavor. And they also cite infusion periods that are too long. Don said weeks is a bit of an overkill when a couple of days will do. And to avoid floating globules of fat, some form of fat washing is necessary. The bacon bourbon, for example, is frozen so that the fat solidifies on top for easy extraction.

Don and I ended talking a bit about Korean soju. Don has a grandfather who was a soju distiller, believe it or not. Don joked that the spirits selling skipped a generation. Having grown up in Korea, I referred to the efforts to make soju cocktails. Famously, or maybe infamously depending on your point of view, Lemon Soju and Yakult/Yogurt Soju, for example. I asked him if he'd ever thought about making his own soju cocktail. Don said, he would if there was a soju that met his standards. I mentioned how in Korea there seemed to be a bit of a premium soju boom going on, with more variety. Don said while that was the case, Korea's tumultuous history killed off artisinal soju, which was how it was made originally. As the country rapidly recovered from the Korean War, soju production became very industrialized and quality dropped a bit.

Before leaving I couldn't help but half-jokingly challenge Don to try and make a high-end version of Yakult Soju.

Drinks from the party:

Mai Tai
Bacardi 8
10 Cane rum
Orange Curacao
lime juice

Colada Nueva Dos
Tommy Bahama
White Sand
Malibu Coconut
lime juice
coconut sorbet
pineapple juice

Royal Bermuda Yacht Club Cocktail
Mt. Gay Eclipse
lime juice
lime juice
Velvet Falernum

Dark and Stormy
Cruzan Black Strap
lime juice
ginger beer

Bajan Peach Smash
Cruzan Estate Dark
lemon wedges
peach puree
simple syrup
mint leaves

Coconut Grenade
Malibu Coconut
Bacardi 8
passionfruit syrup
Angostura Bitters
lime juice
coconut milk

Baron Samedi's Brew
Myers Dark
Honey Cream
lime juice
ginger beer
Angostura Bitters