Friday, October 24, 2008

Tuesdays with Eben pt. 3

or First Tuesday: Shaking, the end of the first Tuesday

I had been "ting, ting, ting" -ing the glass for a while, moving my straw back and forth in an empty glass. The fingers did cramp up a bit a couple of times, but it was starting to get less uncomfortable than when I first started out. I even practiced a bit more of pouring. Having no real counter space in my small apartment, I wanted to use the space and time I had as much as possible.

Eben came back downstairs and it was time to learn about shaking. We were starting off with a cobbler shaker. Eben said this while some would think it a bit old fashioned, this was good for getting the basic motions down.

He told me to hold out my left hand, palm up, and place the cobbler shaker, cap-side down facing towards me (fig. 1). Then I was to place my right hand on top of the shaker. My thumb on the cap and the rest of my fingers around the body of the shaker. Sort of like how you'd hold a football (fig. 2). The thumb's just there to make sure the cap stays in place, but not pressing down too hard or else, Eben warned, I'd end up jamming the cap and it'd get stuck since the shaker expands and contracts according to temperature.

In fact, that finicky tightening and loosening of a cobbler shaker also meant Eben had to show me how to close one. Cap on, OK, got it. But the top half of the shaker? Eben said not to just jam it on straight on, but to roll it on (not twisting it on like a bottle cap mind you). You didn't need to press down hard to make sure it was sealed or anything. Start at one point of the rim and just lightly roll it into a close position.

"I'm not teaching you the hard shake," Eben told me and I nodded. Instead, he explained to me how he was trying to explain to me the Japanese mindset of shaking. The idea of how you manipulate the ice in your shaker and thinking about the drink rather than just shaking away with brute force. It was similar to the the talk he gave at Tales after he was asked about the hard shake at a seminar.

Eben looked at the shaker in my hands. He handed me a different sized shaker, and said, "You have small hands."

I frowned wondering if this would he a handicap to my nonexistent bartending career, but Eben said, "Start off with a smaller one then work up."

I nodded. With ice and water in the shakers, now we were ready. To start off, I had to loosen up my wrists. With the shaker in my hand, I was instructed lift my arms up to around shoulder height with my elbows out (fig. 1). Once there, Eben told me to sort of "toss" the shaker forward using only my wrists. He told me to do that and try to hit three different points in front of me while doing that, but to not move my arms (fig. 2).

As I practiced this Eben told me that once I got the hang of this I could start to shake it. Starting off slow he began began to build up speed. He told me to listen to what sounds the shaker was making. I concentrated hard to hear how the ice moved and Eben did it several times. He said that if you do this right, your ice is hitting four different points in the shaker, and you can feel that.

I tried to follow along, but while I could definitely hear what Eben was talking about when he was doing it, I was a little rhythm/tone deaf when it came to the shaker in my own two hands.

After struggling to try and copy the exact noises he was making with the shaker, I said, "I think I get it, but it's hard making it sound just like that."

"You'll find your own rhythm," Eben reassured me. People figure out a rhythm that works for them he said. It wasn't that I had to do it exactly the same way he does it; this was just a basic stepping stone I needed to be more conscious of how I was moving the contents of the shaker.

Again I was left to my own devices to practice. I did the three points exercise a couple of times, but my arms started to get tired. I was starting to think maybe I could create a bartender workout plan. Hire famed infomercial spokesperson Billy Mays to be all, "Hi, Billy Mays here for Bartendercise! Are you a fitness junkie with another monkey on your back called 'a drinking problem'? Are you tired of weights and home exercise machines that you work on for hours with little to no results and definitely no booze at the end of it? Ever noticed the guns on your bartender? Wonder how that happened? Well, wonder no more!"

As I practiced I talked a little bit to Ludo, the relatively new guy, and found out he used to work at Opia, which is a stone's throw away from our office in Midtown. Eben jokingly told him to keep an eye out on me so I didn't steal anything. I tried my best to keep out of the way of folks were trying to set up the bar.

I practiced the shaking as much as I could, but soon my hands were freezing and itchy. I moved back to practicing jiggering and stirring as I read Eben's copy of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David A. Embury that was on the bar. I was pretty engrossed in the part about brown spirits when Eben came back.

"All right, you need to stop or you're going to drive yourself insane," he said noticing that I was stoically "ting-ting-ting"-ing the a mixing glass.

He grabbed two different sized shakers and put rice in one of them. Wait a sec, I thought, Alex Day told me about this.

"You can practice hearing the rhythm at home with this," Eben said. I could of course use ice and water, but ice melts. Rice is a decent substitute so that you had a bit of weight in the shaker and could still practicing the listening part of it.

Again he said, I need to find a rhythm of my own. Even though I had been taught all these rules and exercises, I wasn't as overwhelmed as I was before. I got the idea that I wasn't learning that his way was the only way, I was more or less learning foundations to help put me on the path to being thoughtful about how drinks are made.

With a lot of the NRN staff out for MUFSO the following week, I knew I couldn't take a half day off the following Tuesday, and Eben was headed out of the country for a Mojito of the Future event the Tuesday after that one, so we agreed to reschedule the second Tuesday as soon as possible.

"I'll practice during the missing weeks." I said.

"Well, I expect you be like a ninja by the time we meet again," Eben answered.

"Oh man, because I really needed the pressure."

Eben chuckled but then got serious and said, "Really, though. You need to practice if you want to learn this. It's all about how much you want to do it."

Oct. 24

"Practice makes practice," Phil Ward, the guy who can stir four drinks at one time, told me when I made my visit to Death and Company on Wednesday.

Damn, I was expecting a different answer. Everyone had been saying practice.

"Yea, I did that rice thing," Don Lee said when he showed up at Milk and Honey on Saturday.

I'd just seen Eben earlier on Saturday at Tailor to try out some of the new stuff on the menu. He was leaving for the Mojito of the Future event the next day. He asked if I'd been practicing. I was, but I don't think it's enough. Let me put it this way. I wasn't too confident. I was having horrible flashbacks to back in the day when I took piano lessons. I was starting to seriously hate my freakish sausage fingers on the stirring side of things. On top of that, even though I tried the shaking at home, I couldn't tell if I was hearing it right.

"The thing about using the rice though is once you start using ice again, it's a different feeling from the rice. You almost have to relearn to hear it," Don said. "But at least you know what its supposed to sound like."

Don assured me though that it all came down to doing it often enough until you got it.

Even Kenta Goto at Pegu told me I just needed to practice when I stopped by on Monday.

"I don't think I'd make that great of a bartender," I dejectedly told Phil.

"You don't have to be a great bartender, you just have to be a good one," he said. "You could just learn how to make good drinks for yourself at home."

"Yea, but then I wouldn't have a reason to come bother you guys," I said with a raised eyebrow.

"It could even be about just knowing recipes and what goes into a cocktail," Phil added.

I quizzed him about his recipe learning technique and he said he started with the classics. Most other drinks tend to be variations of classics, so it's easier for him to think in terms of "Oh, so it's like this drink, except you're using x, instead of y."

Thomas Waugh described a similar process to me a couple of weeks back, but Phil said that each person remembers things differently, so I could figure out how to do that for myself. And of course, read some books.

With all this talk about figuring things out and a DIY attitude, bartending was starting to sound like the bastard child of the Arts and Crafts movement and punk rock. There's gotta be some kind of poetic comparison to be made from that statement, but I'm going to leave it for another day.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Your bartender, the physician

Warning: Despite the post title, the author does not promote the idea of using your bartender instead of a physician. Any and all benefits reported by the author below are the author's experiences only and those of us at Standards and Pours would like to encourage you to seek the opinion of a trained healthcare professional for your medical needs. Having said all that...

Finally heeding my body's cry to "Get thee to a physician," I went to a doctor who not only confirmed that I had indeed suffered from an ear infection, but that it had not entirely gone away. On top of that there was some seasonal allergy related upper respiratory inflammation. Well, that's just peachy, I thought. The real annoyance was to discover how much all the meds I needed would cost even WITH copay. It's enough to drive a person to drink.

So what else could I do but head on down to Death and Company? The ear infection was the immediate thing to take care so I got the stuff I needed for that and put the allergies-related meds on hold until I could figure out how to pawn all my belongings or start stealing car radios to help pay for it. I've suffered through seasonal allergies before with no meds, I wasn't going to let it take me down now. But I still had the matter of a funky throat to deal with. I was hoping to kill two birds with one stone. I wanted to drown my sorrows just a little bit with some alcohol (so, more like, let my sorrows go down a slip-n-slide of some alcohol?). A sort of "last hurrah" since I was going to be getting on the antibiotics train for the next couple of days and drinking alcohol while on antibiotics is probably not a good idea. And second, just maybe see if there was something to help me with this my throat and congestion issues.

"You got anything to help with something like a sore throat?" I hopefully asked Phil Ward.

"A hot toddy," he answered immediately and I was down with this suggestion like the Electric Slide at a wedding.

"I bet a shot of George T. Stagg would help you out a lot," Phil said. I bet it would.

Warming up more and more to the idea, he also remembered that he had pecan-infused bourbon as well and finally said, "You know what, I know what I'm going to make you."

After a couple of minutes he set down a warm toddy made with demerara sugar, pecan-infused bourbon, George T. Stagg bourbon and chocolate bitters. It was a nice tall drink in what looked like a fancy pants glass latte "mug."

I breathed in the warm aromatic steam coming off the drink then took a sip. The thing punched through the scratchiness of my throat and rolled on down to my stomach. It worked like those medicated hot drinks you drink for a sore throat, but without that weird taste and with the added benefit of it being booze

Once I finished my drink, it sat warmly in my stomach. It felt like my entire esophagus had gotten the Vicks Vaporub treatment, but in a good way (what?). What I mean is there was this soothing, vaguely medicine-y, cool and kinda mentholated feeling (again, what? But that's how I can best describe it) warmth that spread throughout. It certainly helped as I made my chilly way back home.

Brands want YOU, to learn about cocktail making

Consumer reviews of restaurants online isn't all that new. You've got your local version of Citysearch, Yelp or even discussion boards like Chowhound. You might go to New York Magazine's site to look up a restaurant then skim through readers' ratings and evaluations of the place. Bars are no exception.

Zagat's went one-step further in the consumer-rated world by teaming up with Diageo to present a its semi-standalone drinks and nightlife site called idrinkwell. The ratings site covers restaurants as well so that food establishments with a bar program can have their drinks, service and pricing rated next to other bars and cocktail lounges in their area.

Another point of interest is the Drinkwell Academy tied to idrinkwell. It's an accreditation program that teaches several categories such as mixology, white spirits, brown spirits, menus and service. You have to be accredited before being featured on Drinkwell. Being on a whole learning about cocktails kick, I've been poking around on the the learning modules (full disclosure: I got a login thing because I'm press). The whole thing is online and lessons come with tests with randomized questions (so no cheating). The video lessons on the site features well-known names and faces such as Dale DeGroff, Steve Olson and Dave Wondrich. Sound familiar? Yep, these are some of the guys that brought you Beverage Alcohol Resource.

Jumping off of that note, brands seem to be wanting to get in on the education action since Pernod Ricard has their BarSmarts program as well, also involving partners from BAR.

You have to admit that it's a pretty smart thing for brands to do because yea, you're providing training, but marketing-wise it familiarizes bartenders with your products. On the same token, for bartenders and the beverage market in general, educational opportunities coming out nowadays with a nod to mixology. You could argue whether its marketing fueling the demand or demand fueling the marketing many times over, but in the end we're talking about customers' increased expectations as more people are becoming familiar with the idea of an almost culinary-style for creating mixed drinks. They might not be cocktail nerds who decide to run out and buy a copy of Wondrich's Imbibe! or make their own bitters at home, but at the least people are hearing about cocktail lounges, visiting them and trying out new things.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I know, I KNOW

Now don't get me wrong, I'm glad there are folks out there looking out for me, sending emails and what not, but just saying yes, I read this item on Grub Street today, so, thank you. I'll admit I don't know the specifics of the bar project because it's still a "coming soon" kind of thing, but it's been in the works for while. Come on, folks, Johnny Iuzzini was down at Tales for crying out loud. Sure maybe he just really really likes cocktails, but this should've been like the end of The Usual Suspects for some people reading this (links 1 and 2). Anyhow, last I heard, Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute, is involved. He does all kinds of neato things with tech and molecular stuff so needless to say I'm looking forward to seeing what a place with those two involved is going to be like.