Friday, January 29, 2010

Punches, acai and absinthe: Rare triple-header evening

I remember how I used to get so excited when I could go to two different events back to back. I felt like such a big kid back when I broke that personal record. Well, those days are gone, now that I've tackled the threefer. Especially more daring-do considering you've actually had event nights back to back.

So after whiskey night on the 24, on Monday I left work early to visit the Pegu Club. Dave Wondrich was giving his seminar on punches for Bols Genever. Some of you might remember the bitters presentation I went to a while back, which is also part of this educational series that Bols has been putting on.

As much as I tried to leave the office early-ish, by the time I was speed walking west on Houston I knew I thought I'd missed all the interesting bits and was going to just be there for the mingling portion. So imagine how pleased I was when I could hear Mr. Wondrich's voice as I climbed the stairs up to Pegu Club.

As I squeezed into an empty seat trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, Dave was explaining the Meriton Latroon's Bantam Punch, dating from 1668, which lists as one of its ingredients ambergris. Yes, ambergris. When I thought about it, it made sense, not just because of the whole whaling industry, but because what was ambergris used for historically? With fragrances and scenting. So it made me wonder how much affect it had on the scent and flavor of the cocktail, and I kind of wish I could taste a punch both pre- and post- ambergris addition.

Meriton Latroon's Bantam Punch (1668)
- Ambergris
- 2 oz. Demerara sugar
- 2 bottles Batavia Arrack van Oosten
- 2 16-oz piece of Gula Jawa, or Indonesian palm sugar
- 12 oz lime juice
- nutmeg
- water

Method: In a mortar or small bowl, muddle a piece of ambergris the size of 2 grams of barley with 2 oz. of Demerara sugar until it has been incorporated. Add 4 oz. Batavia arrack and muddle again until sugar has dissolved. Break up 10 oz. of Gula Jawa, or Indonesian palm sugar, put it in a 4-quart bowl with 12 oz. lime juice and muddle together until sugar has (mostly) dissolved. Add the Ambergris-sugar-arrack mixture and stir. Add 2 750-ml. bottles of Batavia arrack (minus the 4 oz. you have already removed to mix with the ambergris), stir again, and finish with 6 to 8 cups cold water, according to taste. Grate nutmeg over the top.

Dave, also explained of the use of a mixture of sugar and oils, oleo saccharum, in old cocktails. Citrus wasn't always a common commodity, and to stretch the use of citrus, rather than relying on just the juice of a lemon or lime, the peel, or zest, along with sugar was used to get maximum citrus flavor out of each piece of fruit you used. For anyone who's read Dave's "Imbibe!" this should be familiar in the use of rough loaf sugar in the old punch recipes he featured. These gritty pieces of sugar would be rubbed all over a lemon or lime to sort of grate the zest, but also absorb the oils, infusing the sugar with flavor and scent.

The Hot Holland Punch that Dave introduced next used exactly this technique. This punch also highlighted a shift towards the use of gin in cocktails rather and is actually adapted from a whiskey punch recipe. A combination of historical factors, such as the advances in Dutch distilling and William of Orange coming to power with his wife Mary during the Glorious Revolution, increased the distribution, if not popularity of gin in England.

Hot Hollands Punch (circa 1750)
- Peel of 8 lemons
- 2 lemons, sliced
- 20 oz. lbs. (an archaic measurement) Florida Crystals or other fine-grained raw sugar
- 2 liters or 2 1/2 750-ml. bottles Bols Genever
- spice mix: 1 teaspoon fresh-ground nutmeg to 1/2 teaspoon each fresh-ground allspice and cloves.

Method: Muddle the lemon peels in the sugar. Let it sit for an hour to wick out the lemon oil and muddle again (the oleo saccharum that results from this process looks basically like an syrupy oil). Add 16 oz. boiling water. Stir to dissolve sugar. Fish or strain out the lemon peel and add the Genever. To serve, put in crock-pot with 2 quarts water and lemon slices. Add spice mix sparingly to taste. Ladle out also sparingly.

Unfortunately, Dave is pretty much an unquenchable fountain of historical tidbits, cocktail tips and recipes, which means that while I'm incredibly impressed with the amount of info I got even after being pretty unfashionably late, I can't write it all out without slamming you with a wall of text, so time for Awesome Dave Facts Quickfire:

- Serving punch hot: While probably nice and bracing on a cold day during older times when there wasn't really central air/heating, but is yet another way to boost lemon flavor and scent up another level without adding more of the ingredient. In fact, another practical by product of this "making citrus go as long as possible" technique is it kept people from ingesting too much acids when people would gather around a punch bowl and just drink.

- If you're going to serve punch hot, just make sure the spirit you're using is pot distilled. Dave said that pot-distilled spirits have a certain "oiliness" to them that works better when heated. So for example, if you're going to use Scotch whiskey, use a single malt and not something that's blended. Though there are exceptions, like bourbon. But just make sure it's not "too woody" but "You and rich and oily".

Oh, and one tip from me. Try some palm sugar. Dave had a jar open on the bar and invited some of us to try it. I popped a hunk in my mouth, and that stuff is mad delicious. It's like Mounds, except, no chocolate, or the weird flavorless sawdust of shredded coconuts that's left in your mouth long after you've chewed out all the tasty juices.

One thing interesting about the threefer is how easy it was to see how the different worlds of beverage events. Beverage events work sort of like a Venn diagram. Basically, where all the circles converge, the point is heightened awareness of a product. You can argue and label that as simply marketing, but there's a difference between an event meant for people in the industry, versus those geared towards consumers. And even with the former, you could break that down further to events aimed at those generally in the industry and at the microscopic level, events for those directly responsible with putting drinks in front of a guest. Nonetheless the resulting diagram is messy because at any point it can look like the result of a circus performer who twirls multiple hula hoops at once. All things are constantly in motion with overlaps of varying and dynamic sizes.

After the Bols event I trooped on over to Yerba Buena (the one on Perry Street) for a USBGNY mixer. In between being informed about changes made to the USBG by laws and memberships (a tiered system that differentiates between say enthusiasts or people who actually work behind a bar), and a talk from the folks from VeeV, the general mood of the mixer was, well, a mixer. So far, nothing out of the ordinary right? Drink geeks and all that getting together to get to know each other and just hang? Lay down some knowledge?

But then came my final stop of the evening for Pernod Absinthe. If the Bols event had the feel of studying for a test with a group of friends, and the mixer was more like a dorm hall meeting where everyone on the floor are sophomores and juniors (not a bad comparison, just setting up the mood to better convey how different these events are), the Pernod event was like walking into one of those crazy-cool parties you always see in alcohol commercials. Like people throwing guerilla parties in subways or attractive people dressed in ironically unattractive outfits writhing away to house music in a basement somewhere. Add a dollop of a gallery opening to that, and that was the party, because, really it was a party. No polite terminology like "mixer" here.

You could tell the event was making modern ties to the historic relationship between the arts and absinthe. The event was called "Histoire Vertes," and was described as "a version of a Cabaret Nouveaux." A lady downstairs posed with an elaborate outfit of scintillating red that flickered like flames, the work of stylist Cynthia Altoriso. Pretty cool stuff actually. Some more of her work, but NSFW for artsy nudity here and there. Photographer David White snapped images of Cynthia's work creating a series of absinthe posters, one of which came as image used for the invite. There was a DJ, pieces of artwork all over the place (both including the obvious kind, and the kind where you can't tell if that's a display or someone's hat hanging from the corner of a shelf). There was even a barber doing his thing independently of the event. That was his work space, the organizers of the absinthe party asked him if he wanted to stay open during the event, so he did. So the result was you felt like Alice in Wonderland. You tumbled up a narrow flight of stairs, only to find yourself in a dimly lit bar area with platters of food scattered about, people hunched around lavishly set up tables, absinthe fountains everywheeeeeere...then you're standing around in brightly lit space seeing people getting their haircut. So you back yourself back into the bar/lounge area, find a set of stairs, walk down, and all of the sudden I'm at a fashion/art party.

It was fun seeing the familiar bartenders, brand reps and other writers thrown into the mix with unfamiliar people from the creative industry. It was a whole different kind of energy. When I heard Pulp's "Common People," I decided I should finish my second Pommes Dilettantes (Pernod Absinthe, Absolut Kurant, St. Germain, peach bitters, unfiltered apple juice, fresh lemon juice) and start heading out the door.

Tangent: I don't know, as much as I like Pulp, hearing "Common People" at parties always makes me think I should be heading home. I think it's because Pulp played in public locations that are not bars, your friend's car in an almost empty parking lot with all the doors opened or, I don't know, an actual Pulp show or something conveys to me the feelings of the last dying couple of minutes of a house party.

Let me set the scene. The few people left are taking way too long to gather their crap and go home. Friends are trying to wake up passed out compatriots because the host is trying to clean up around the bodies draped over random bits of furniture. Meanwhile, you've been wanting to leave since an hour ago, but you can't because your friend is vaguely explaining his feelings to the girl he's had a crush on forever by hijacking the sound system and earnestly explaining the significance of some band that he just started listening to that summer. You're seriously contemplating that maybe you should just ditch him, however, experience tells you this will not end well, and he's going to need a shoulder to cry on on the way home. When you all finally rally and leave, you and your group of friends will end up driving around singing along badly and loudly to Blur's "Girls & Boys" to cheer him up until you all decide you want food and end up in a Denny's parking lot with all the doors wide open blaring Pulp.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Whiskey night Sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY!!!

I got an invite from Skyy Spirits to come on down to The Back Room and meet some distillers for whiskey brands in their portfolio. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be going to an event on a Sunday when I knew I had to be in work early the next morning, however I reasoned, "Well, it's only a two-hour event. Even though it's starting at nine, it's supposed to end by 11. If I just go for a bit I can be home by midnight."

So I ask you, dear, reader, why was I at Nurse Bettie with Carmen Carroll, Jason Codd, Jonathan Forester, Abigail Gullo shooting pickle backs served to us by Moses Laboy? I mean, we just got out of a whiskey event for crying out loud. Who the does this kind of thing on a Sunday night?

To paraphrase a phrase so overused I really feel terrible even bringing it up again and I know this is going to be really groan-worthy, but: the alcohol industry is a hell of a drug.

As much as I treasured the last fleeting hours of the weekend, it seemed like a waste to lash myself to the mast of the comforts of my own home and resist the siren call of whiskey just because I didn't want to change out of my pajamas. And as I joked to Naren Young, whom I saw at the event when I finally did arrive there about an hour late, I'd kind of been decommissioned from scrabbling about events for too long. I thought whiskey would be a good way to get warmed up again.

As tucked away as The Back Room is in that New York-y speakeasy way, if this had actually been a party happening during Prohibition the place would've been raided within an hour of starting because I could smell all the liquor through the closed door...from about three feet away.

Now a tasting or industry meet and greet would probably makes one instantly think of rows and rows of stalls in a convention hall type setting, but the "bar collides with the library or drawing room of some landed gentry or the Drones Club" atmosphere of the Back Room was having none of that.

Instead, different brands reps were camped out, scattered around, mingling with everyone like your usual polite cocktail party. You didn't know who you were talking to from where until you sat down in a circle of chairs or accidentally bumped into somebody and noticed what bottles happened to be sitting on the table or in their hands.

That's how I found out I was sitting in front of Jimmy Russell, master distiller for Wild Turkey.

Mr. Russell obligingly posed for photos with people and chatted with everyone sitting around the table and poured them a nip from the different bottles sitting on the table. I'm not going to lie, Mr. Russell is everything you'd imagine a distiller from Kentucky to be and more. I just liked hearing him talk.

I also got to talk to Dennis Malcolm, master distiller and general manager of the Glen Grant Distillery Company. Besides patiently explaining and letting me try the Glen Grant 16-year-old single malt whisky, I also peppered him questions about the slightly (to me) nebulous nature of distribution. For one thing, the 16-year-old I was sipping on is just now available in the U.S.

So as I was asking Mr. Malcolm about different availabilities and whatnot, he mentioned that Glen Grant also produces a 5-year-old whiskey, only available in Italy. I asked him why that was, and according to Mr. Malcolm, that is because in the Italian market, clarity is highly prized, so the the clarity and color of the 5-year-old does really well. The more you know.

Auchentoshan's head distiller Jeremy Stephens told us what "Auchentoshan" means ("corner of the field," if you're curious and don't have Google handy), and it was kind of funny to have someone explaining their product to you, yet having it distinctly feel like you got pulled into a conversation at a friend's house party because you're all sitting on couches. Someone from Tullamore Dew slipped in a tray full of teacups to offer all of us a sip, setting off a playful "argument" about the merits of Scottish whisky and Irish whiskey.

The entire event was geared towards a sort of laid back, "come hang out, try out some of our stuff" feel. To highlight this, a table was set up where people could mix their own drinks and submit their recipe for a contest.

Abigail Gullo won, and I wish I could remember what was in the drink. My apologies to Abigail (let me know what was in it if you see this) but by that point in the evening, quite a few things in my brain had been compromised from concentrated drinking of brown liquor, which is exactly how you end up thinking that following people to a bar just a few feet away for some more drinks is a pretty good idea.