Saturday, December 6, 2008

What I did for Repeal Day

Honestly? Not that wild. In fact, I was trying to see how much I could get done before midnight so I could be home at a reasonable hour. I wasn't planning on upping the punx or anything like that. I was tired, man. By the time Friday rolled around I was just not in the mood for putting up with ridiculousness, so when you add Friday night crowds with Repeal Day, that's too many possibilities for ridiculousness. I wish I had some crazy party stories about me drinking out of a comically huge martini glass and doing body shots of George T. Stagg or something, but I was in grumpy old mode.

Regardless of my grumpiness, I wanted to go and check out the DISCUS party at the Back Room since Jonathan Pogash was nice enough to invite me and I wanted to see what kind of shindig DISCUS would throw. When I got there, a band was playing away and I spotted Jonathan busily making Mary Pickfords. He said he marinated his own cherries using pitted dark cherries you can buy in a jar and letting it sit with some Jerry Thomas Decanter bitters and Woodford Reserve for 24 hours.

I asked Jonathan if he had an insane night planned, hoping to live vicariously through him, but he said he was probably going to finish up the DISCUS event then go home to celebrate it with his family his own way. Considering up until a day or two ago, my plans for celebrating Repeal Day was to go home and sample all the random bottles of booze I had (it's called spirit EDUCATION), I nodded in agreement. But Jonathan said I should try and stick around since Dave Wondrich was going to give a brief talk about his bathtub gin.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Toby Cecchini was there as well and making Manhattans. He also brought along his own homebrew cherries. His recipe called for half of maraschino liqueur and half rhum agricole with some vanilla bean pods added for extra flavor. He asked me if I wanted a Manhattan. Who was I to argue with Toby Cecchini? I knocked back the rest of the Mary Pickford in my teacup.

After the Manhattan, I strolled up to the bar and asked for a Girl Friday. The fruity sloe gin and crisp cucumber flavors perked me up a bit.

Terence Miller was there, and I hadn't seen him since the Marie Brizard event. It took me a second or two to recognize him and I stared at him for a bit thinking over and over in my head, "That dude is way tall and totally looks familiar."

"Is it just more does it seem like more people are celebrating Repeal Day?" he asked me.

I KNOW, I thought then explained to him how I made a similar observation in a blog post previous to this one.

Dave Wondrich got up to give a little talk about the significance of Repeal Day. How immigrants helped to perfect the art of creating single-serving drinks. How the use of ice was also a very American thing. The art of the cocktail mirrored the melting pot aspect of America.

Thanks to Prohibition, the bartender, considered to this point a gentleman with a trade that the learned, became a criminal.

This meant many went on to foreign ports like Europe or Asia, but some stayed. Maybe working for private country clubs.

Nonetheless, they had to get the wares for their trade from other criminals, and this usually meant booze with quality that couldn't be accounted for, sometimes adulterated. After Prohibition was repealed, some of the old-timers returned, but pretty much bartenders "had to build up from the ground."

"We're living in the second Golden Age of the cocktail," Dave told the crowd that gathered. "If you like to can get a cocktail as good as it comes."

However, to "commemorate the Dark Ages," Dave gave a demonstration of bathtub gin creation.

The base of bathtub gin was grain alcohol. Dave explained that sources varied. Either they were industrially made with unwanted chemicals included in the mix, or maybe something made from table scraps in a basement in Brooklyn.

For his demonstration, Dave Wondrich used some good quality vodka, joking that this was probably the best quality bathtub gin you could get.

The next important ingredient for bathtub gin was creating the gin flavor, which is juniper. The juniper extract/flavoring could be created by boiling juniper berries and straining them out.

"Now this is the really important part," Dave added. "The's aging even as we speak."

Everyone laughed and he went on to "bottle" his gin and even added a label.

The bar was serving Dave's bathtub gin martini, but I skipped out to go to Devin Tavern an Old Forester event I'd RSVP'ed to. It was A Repeal Day event as well as a media preview for the limited release for the Old Forester Repeal Bourbon. The bar was serving classic cocktails using Old Forester and had some Prohibition-era extras. Such as Fritos and chicken salad sandwichs made with WonderBread and Tootsie Roll Pops with a little bit of history on the items.

I didn't rest my feet too long in Tribeca and inched my way up towards the East Village. I don't know if it was because it was Repeal Day or drinks I had, but the grape-flavored Tootsie Pop I snagged from a bowl at the Old Forester event put me in a Kojak mood. I stuck the lollipop in my mouth and said "Who loves ya, baby?" to myself as I stuck my hands deep into my coat pockets and stalked the night streets.

I had a feeling Death and Co. would be filled to the gills, because again, come on, Friday+Repeal Day, but it was on my way so I turned my feet in that direction.

Just as I suspected there was pretty much no way in. I tried to walk past as several other parties tried their best to see if they could at least get a foot past the threshold, but something was slowing my gait. Maybe I was going crazy, but thanks to Alex Day telling me about the Rittenhouse 23 special, I felt like I could feel it beckoning me from inside. I could hear its heartbeat; practically taste it. The expectation of silky amber fire asking me to at least take a chance. "Couldn't hurt to leave your number right?" the velvety imagined voice purred in my head.

"Aw, crap, I have a problem," I thought. I left my name and number at the door, even though from the look of the list my chances of getting in at a resonable time were nil.* I sighed, then girded myself to head towards Yerba Buena.

Before leaving the country, Don Lee had dropped me an email telling me I should check out Artemio Vasquez's drink program. Artemio's an alum of both PDT and Pegu Club. Every now and then you might've seen him at Pegu when Audrey needs to call in folks for back up. He was there during the Blue Blazer event as well, working the behind the bar.

Yerba Buena was also like a can of sardines, but I wasn't going to be rebuffed so I found a corner of the bar I could squeeze myself into. Since the Prohibition special menu list was basically classic cocktails, I skipped that to take a look at their regular stuff.

The regular menu also featured some classics like the Aviation and the Dark and Stormy. There were also a few featured friends drinks such as Dale De Groff's Whiskey Smash, Milk and Honey's Dominicana and Audrey Sander's Pisco Punch.

I decided to try out the Pisco Guava first. Made with pisco, guava puree and fresh lemon juice, it was tart and not too sweet. The very slight muscat-y grapiness in the pisco paired really well with the guava.

I saw that the Desert Rose was clearly the star of the menu. I'd tried it back when Artemio's drink was featured in one of PDT's old menus under their friends and family section. It was sellng like hot cakes that evening and as I stood at the bar waiting for my drink I counted, two, five...six of them go out before I got mine. They continued to fly out from behind the bar long after too.

I introduced myself to Artemio and chatted a bit. He mentioned he made a new drink called the Peruvian Kiss, which was basically a Pisco Sour, but using blue corn "liqueur." He asked if I wanted to try it and intrigued, I said I'd like to. He got one of the servers to bring over a plastic tub of inky liquid. It was the corn, the he'd cooked down for four-five hours, releasing the flavors and color into the water. I asked for a little bit of the corn on it's own. I popped an indigo kernel of corn into my mouth and chewed on it. Yep, it was corn all right. With no special seasoning or anything. Just corn. But then Artemio gave me a glass of royal blue cocktail. I took a sip. The drink was a pisco sour all right, but there was definitely adding a certain I don't know what to it.

"Did you put any bitters into this?" I asked trying to figure it out. Artemio smiled and said no, that it was just the corn's liqueur. I took several more sips. It didn't taste like corn, but there was a different sort of vegetal something or other going on. Artemio said he called it the Peruvian Kiss because the blue corn colors your tongue a little bit.

The crowd loosened up but I was starting to feel the drain, so I packed up shop and promised to stop by again to try some of the other drinks some other time.

And that was how I spent my Repeal Day.

*I'd like to nip another rumor in the bud. I've had friends and other people ask me if I'm like the unofficial mayor of Boozetown and I just kick in doors all over New York and I drink all my drinks for free. People, this could not be further from the truth, and I've seen folks get this really disappointed look in their eyes when I tell them that. Honestly, I wish this were true because it'd make my job so much easier, but I'm just like you. I put on my pants one leg at a time and I sometimes have to deal with lines and wait lists. Every now and then I might get lucky and I admit I might have a disproportionate amount of dumb luck. However, in the spirit of keeping it real, not only am I quite rubbish at throwing my name around, but also, what name? I'm kind of not a big deal. In fact, it makes me all kinds of uncomfortable when such a thing gets suggested, because I really wish I was as cool as some people think I am.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Happy Repeal Day everybody

As I said to a friend, Repeal Day is kind of like bartender Easter. Except, instead of the stone rolling away and Christ not being in his grave, it's more like the stone rolled away and the Volstead Act disappeared. Alcohol has risen, forever and ever, amen.

It seems like Repeal Day's prominence grew in recent years along with the whole classic cocktails and the professional cocktailian in the bar scene business. Of course, that could just be bias on my part since I've only started observing this section of the service industry in the past couple of years myself.

Either way, Repeal Day is starting to look more and more like an actual holiday. Not like day off holiday like Christmas or something, but more like...Halloween! Yes, that's exactly it. You don't get a day off, but you're more than willing to try and have some kind of fun with it, consequences be damned.

And just like this year's Halloween, Repeal Day falls on a Friday. You get a whole weekend to recover from it.

The folks at Dewar's Scotch Whiskey say that they were one of the first liquors to be served legally in the United States 75 years ago today, and to commemorate that, they're holding events in several cities. For example, in New Orleans, several historic bars and restaurants like the Hotel Monteleone Carousel Bar, Napoleon House, Court of Two Sisters, Antoine's and Commander's Palace, are participating in Repeal Day celebrations with drink specials.

There are 20 locations in New York also participating in the Dewar's Repeal Day festivities, with bars like Puck Fair, Old Town Bar, DBA and Side Bar serving Prohibition era drink specials and actors in period costume showing up to kick off the events.

Yerba Buena's Artemio Vasquez has a special drink list of classic cocktails for a Repeal Day menu that'll be available until the end of the month. Enjoy a Jack Rose Vieux Carre for just ten bucks and keep the party going until the New Year is knocking on your door.

I got an invite from Tad Carducci about Apothecary's Repeal Day party, but it's out in Philadelphia so it's not exactly a quick subway ride away.

Interestingly, these were the only bits of news I'd received about Repeal Day, and that didn't seem right at all. I tried hitting up Don Lee for some leads on what might be going on. He was getting ready to leave for Bordeaux and had only some fuzzy details about several events out of town (like in D.C.) and a possibility of drink specials at Death and Co.

I guess it was time to start using modern technology to my advantage.

I hit up Facebook and wrote "Hey, there better be some Repeal Day bartender shenanigans happening that I can write about. It falls on a Friday. Seriously, guys. Or I'll be a sad panda" as my new status.

Soon Jonathan Pogash informed me that DISCUS would be throwing a party at The Back Room. Neat, and noted. Anybody else? I ventured over to Alex Day's wall to leave a guilt trip message. He soon responded that Death and Company would be serving Old Fashioned, Manhattans and Sazeracs at a discounted price using good brown spirits ("Rittenhouse 23, last year's Antique Collection," he said).

I then pulled out my phone. And you have to understand that it's serious when my phone gets involved because I don't really like the telephone as a means of communication all that much. I compromise by copiously texting rather than actually talking. So I texted Kenta Goto if Pegu had anything planned and he responded that a bunch of classics would be on the menu as special drinks.

It doesn't have to be anything spectacularly special to celebrate Repeal Day, though I'd be surprised that more bars or alcohol serving establishments aren't taking advantage of today. Especially in an economy like this, why not have drink specials for a day that's all about celebrating the ability to drink? It seems like a great promotional opportunity to bring up beverage sales — particularly mixed drink sales — during the weird limbo we spend sandwiched between two holiday seasons that put more emphasis towards staying in with families than going out to celebrate.

And you know what, let people who don't drink join in on the fun. No need to hold grudges; Prohibition is in the past. In fact, use it to your advantage. Non-drinking friends on a night out with boozers need to drink something too. Especially if you're not a drinks-focused place like a cocktail lounge and more of a restaurant, think about the fun you could have. I think it'd be hilarious to feature a versus drink menu. One side could be called "The Prohibition Party" or "Dries" featuring either virgin versions of cocktails or some good non-alcoholic beverages while the other side has a cocktails section with names like "Wets" or "The REAL Party".

Either way, don't feel bad if you don't find yourself celebrating Repeal Day with bells and whistles. You don't have to retrain your staff to make fancypants cocktails if that's not what they do. Beer and well drink specials are fine. Maybe a boilermaker special called the "Because I Can"? The point is people can drink alcohol if and when they please! Wooooooo!

Or how about commemorating Repeal Day by simply providing great beverage service in honor of all that could've been lost in Prohibition. In fact, give your servers a background into the history as a bit of trivia they can provide their customers with that might edge them towards getting that glass of wine they were on the fence about.