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The 55º Cocktail

Today’s cocktail is an original from New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian of Bar UnCommon, and it’s my favorite of his. “I don’t really come up with that many originals,” he said (although I’ve had several), “but I think this one might be the best yet.”

It’s deceptively simple — only two ingredients in a simple proportion — but what a pair of ingredients … oh so complex.

First off, Old Raj Gin. There are two that you’ll see on your spirits store shelves if you’re lucky — one at 92 proof and the other at 110, the more common of the two and the one you want. Despite its alcoholic heft it’s quite smooth and has no burn, juniper present but not overly forward, plenty of citrus and earthy spices. The straw-yellow tint comes from a bit of saffron among the botanicals, but the saffron is very subtle and understated.

Next, our old friend Chartreuse of the green variety, an herbal knockout also at a hefty 110 proof. The alcohol-by-volume in these combined ingredients is, as you may have noticed, 55%, hence the name of the drink. These two powerful ingredients combine with that delightful cocktailian alchemy into a very well-balanced, highly sippable drink in which the herbal onslaught of the Chartreuse is stretched, rounded and balanced by the gin and its own herb-and-spice profile. What you might think would be over the top is anything but, and might be just the thing to offer a Martini drinker who might be looking for something a bit more exotic for his or her next drink.

You knocked this one out of the park, Chris … thanks!

The 55º Cocktail
(by Chris McMillian, Bar UnCommon, New Orleans)

1-1/2 ounces Old Raj Gin, blue label.
3/4 ounce green Chartreuse.

Combine with ice in a mixing glass and stir for 30 seconds.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. No garnish.

L.A.'s New Rum Bar

Los Angeles has a new rum bar!

As many of you are probably already aware, La Descarga has been open about 2-1/2 weeks now, after a grand opening night on February 2. I absolutely love how the bar is revealed to you -- you read a brief description of the entrance in the above-linked article, but fortunately it didn't give away the good parts. When you do walk in you're transported to Old Havana, pre-Fidel and ignoring the despotic dictators and corrupt American corporations, concentrating on the good stuff -- rum, cocktails, music, floor shows and letting the good times roll (I don't know how to say that in Spanish, sadly).

Steve Livigni, formerly of The Doheny, is the general manager and Pablo Moix is behind the stick with a talented crew of bartenders, all of whom took good care of us on our first visit (first of many, I hope). We actually had reservations on opening night, as part of a group of friends, but unfortunately we had to cancel. We finally made it in four nights later, and they were already in full swing.

This isn't really a full review, as we've only spent the one evening there so far, but Pablo and the rest of the folks behind the stick kept us and a two-deep Saturday night crowd well-oiled with excellent drinks from a good menu that will likely only get better. As it's a rum bar that's the featured spirit in the currently offered drinks, but I'll be looking forward to seeing what else they'll be offering, including cocktails blending different rums (always a favorite among aficionados of that spirit). I'm also looking forward to having a chance to sample tasting flights from their collection of 70+ rums ... I've got my work cut out for me.

La Descarga

For an extra treat, if you go on the weekend, you're treated to a bit of Caribbean cabaret as well.

The floor show begins

Dancer and musicians, La Descarga

You'll want to call ahead for a reservation -- they're not required at this bar, but it's a good idea to have one, so that you can be escorted right in without having to wait, especially on weekends. We tend not to go out on weekend nights anyway, as crowds are not my thing -- and if they're not yours either do as we do and go early, as after 9 or so it gets very, very busy -- if you don't mind them let the bar know you're coming and you'll become part of that crowd a lot faster. You'll want to dress up as well; the bar prefers ladies and gentlemen to don their snappiest outfits when they visit, and at this place it's warranted. Besides, who wants to be underdressed in Old Havana? Be a part of the fabulousness!

The three drinks I had were excellent, and this one, which Pablo was kind enough to confirm my guess of proportions, was probably my favorite. I love aromatic cocktails, and it's particularly nice to enjoy a complex rum cocktail that contains no citrus (not that there's anything wrong with that). It's currently made with the new incarnation of Zaya rum from Trinidad, and fortunately not with rum from a barrel containing the remains of Admiral Nelson.

Tapping the Admiral

Tapping the Admiral

2 ounces aged Rum (Zaya).
1/2 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth.
1/2 ounce Cherry Heering.
1 healthy dash Fee's Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters.

Stir with ice for 20-30 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe, orange peel garnish.

I had a couple of others for which I didn't get a recipe, as I was actually talking to my friends and having fun instead of being a cocktail geek and watching Pablo like a hawk. The Tropical Holiday was nice, with a J.M. Rhum Blanc base (mmm, rhum agricole!) sweetened with simple syrup and John D. Taylor's Velvet Falernum for a dose of island flavors, plus lime and bitters, topped with soda. Tangy and refreshing. Wes' Honey Swizzle is based on Cristal Aguardiente, a rather fiery cane spirit from Colombia with an anise flavor that I found surprising and ultimately delightful when I first tried it about 10 years ago (and a belated thanks to Patrick for bringing a bottle of it to that cocktail party at our place back in '00!). Besides the honey syrup and citrus I forget the rest of the ingredients, but I'll return to this one as well.

I'm going to have to visit a couple more times in the next few weeks, but y'know ... I think I could fall in love with this place.

They don't serve food at La Descarga but have no fear -- right next door is Tacos de Patio, open late and serving excellent street-style Mexican food. Mmmm, tacos al pastor ...

Tacos de Patio

If they were smart, given who's just opened up right next door, they'd add Cuban sandwiches to the menu.

La Descarga is at 1159 Western Ave., Los Angeles CA 90029, between Lexington and Virginia, just south of the 101.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 23 February 2010 05:51

The Federal alcohol poisoning program

Interesting from the previous post that the government, via Prohibition-era laws, seemed determined to disallow adding anything to alcohol, when they added other things to alcohol themselves during that time ... such as poison.

It was Christmas Eve 1926, the streets aglitter with snow and lights, when the man afraid of Santa Claus stumbled into the emergency room at New York City's Bellevue Hospital. He was flushed, gasping with fear: Santa Claus, he kept telling the nurses, was just behind him, wielding a baseball bat.

Before hospital staff realized how sick he was—the alcohol-induced hallucination was just a symptom—the man died. So did another holiday partygoer. And another. As dusk fell on Christmas, the hospital staff tallied up more than 60 people made desperately ill by alcohol and eight dead from it. Within the next two days, yet another 23 people died in the city from celebrating the season.

Doctors were accustomed to alcohol poisoning by then, the routine of life in the Prohibition era. The bootlegged whiskies and so-called gins often made people sick. The liquor produced in hidden stills frequently came tainted with metals and other impurities. But this outbreak was bizarrely different. The deaths, as investigators would shortly realize, came courtesy of the U.S. government.

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.

I had never heard of this, and am still pretty slack-jawed with astonishment.  Unsurprisingly, the government didn't really seem to want to talk about it after Prohibition.  Noble experiment, indeed.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 July 2010 07:29

California ABC busting bitters bars?

You've heard about Pegu Club's troubles with the NYC Health Department over raw eggs in cocktails (now happily resolved).  It now seems as if we might have some homegrown troubles brewing, and for absurd reasons -- the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has been citing and fining bars in San Francisco for serving homemade bitters and elixirs, all due to a ridiculously outdated Prohibition-era law:

Technically, it's illegal to modify liquors, per a Prohibition-era law that was put in place to ensure the public that bars wouldn't tamper with the alcohol, unbeknownst to the customer. Obviously, nowadays, pretty much all of the well-known "artisanal" cocktail places make their own house syrups and whatnot, and it's unlikely that a yuzu bitter (or whatever is in that 10-ingredient drink) is misleading the public. It's one thing to crack down on underage drinking, but it's another to take aim at the outdated laws, which one bar owner described as the equivalent of issuing multiple jaywalking tickets all of a sudden.

The article only describes "a well-known cocktail hotspot" for getting busted for serving infusions, and I haven't heard anything through the bartending grapevine as yet.  This is great though, isn't it?  Because the State of California is rolling in cash and manpower and has absolutely nothing better to do than harass bars for serving infusions and housemade bitters.

Sounds like it's time for us to write or call our Assemblypersons, especially if this behavior keeps up.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 July 2010 07:32

Syrups for your Tiki Needs

You didn't realize you had Tiki Needs, did you?  Of course you do.  In fact, if you haven't been to Tiki Ti recently I suspect you should be getting twitchy by now.

Outside of a bar you can certainly get your tiki on at home. A new line of small-batch syrups has just been released which will make tiki drink concocting (and other drinks as well) a lot easier for both home and bar.

Many of you know Portland, Oregon bartender Blair Reynolds, aka Trader Tiki from various nights of drunken debauchery at Tales of the Cocktail.  Blair's tiki-obsessiveness continues to serve us all well, as his many months of tinkering in kitchen and bar have resulted in the inaugural four products from Trader Tiki's Syrups.

Let's taste.

I was very happy when the Tiki Fairy brought these earlier this week, because (among other reasons) I’d been wanting to make orgeat for ages but have been too frakking lazy. Blair’s orgeat is complex, with a rich almond flavor and a bit of tannin and bitterness, where I’m tasting the almond skins as well. Apricot kernels are included in the formula as well, providing that lovely bitter almond flavor in the background without any of the annoying hydrogen cyanide that bitter almonds bring to the table. This is much more complex than the cloudy white brands you see from Monin and the like, and the sweetness is kept in check. Blair favors the original French recipe, calling for rose and orange flower water in the mix. I can’t wait to try this in a Mai Tai, plus classic non-tropical cocktails like the Japanese, and one I found that fascinates me, called the Alligator (time to make some eau de melisse, looks like).

The cinnamon syrup is thick and sweet, flavored with two kinds of cinnamon — the spicy, sweet and strong cassia, and the slightly more mellow Ceylon cinnamon, with a complex, fruity, citrusy flavor (I love sprinkling Ceylon cinnamon on fruit). Perfect for some of the more famous tiki drinks (like a Jet Pilot, mmm) and whatever you can concoct.

The vanilla syrup is just as thick and sweet, with a lovely vanilla bean flavor and would be just as lovely on pancakes as it would in your drinks.  Both the vanilla and cinnamon syrups are dynamite in coffee, too.

Perhaps the most fascinating flavor he’s released is Don’x Mix, named after Don the Beachcomber (aka Ernest Beaumont Gantt), who in Los Angeles in the 1930s invented the exotic tropical cocktail as we know it. “Don’s Mix” was one of his secret ingredients, mixed and bottled away from the bar and provided to the bartenders so that if one or more of them left to work for a competitor they wouldn’t be able to take his drink recipes with them. A recipe isn’t much use if one of the ingredients is listed as “Mix #6.”

In this case, though, we now know that Don’s Mix was 2 parts grapefruit juice and 1 part cinnamon syrup, used to flavor Donga Punch, Zombies and other tropical drinks. If you don’t want to make your own, this is the perfect solution. Lighter than the regular cinnamon syrup, less sweet and with a really nice tang of grapefruit, this is the one I want to get creative with.

So! Needless to say, order some syrup and get your tiki on!

Return of the Original Herbsaint

We are very close to having another historic spirit resurrected, even though you've thought that it never went anywhere.

New Orleans' own Herbsaint is fairly unique in that it is not a pastis, but a true absinthe substitute with a flavor profile much closer to absinthe than a typical pastis.  When it first came on the market in 1934 it was after the U.S. absinthe ban, and although it was initially (and very briefly) marketed as Legendre Absinthe it contained no grande wormwood. The government got cross with distiller Legendre & Co. over the name and it was subsequently changed -- a nice play on words en français, as "Herbsaint" rhymes with "absinthe" in French, and translates as "holy herb."

The original formula produced in the 1930s and '40s was intensely herbal, and deep green from the maceration.  As time went by, though, the formula was changed:

Over the years, the Sazerac company changed the recipe for Herbsaint. The proof was lowered from 100 to 90. The fresh herbs were replaced with extracts. Except for a few loyal drinkers, today it’s mainly used for cooking. The legalization of true absinthe in 2007 made Herbsaint even less popular as a cocktail ingredient.

Two years ago, Kevin Richards of the Sazerac Company found the original recipe. While absinthe is made by distilling the bitter Artemisia absinthium and other herbs, Herbsaint infuses the herbs into a base spirit. A sack filled with herbs, not unlike a giant teabag, is steeped in the alcohol. Because the herbs, such as mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), are not distilled, more of their flavor survives in the final product.

Those of you who attended Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans last July and were lucky enough to get a sample at the Herbsaint tasting will likely be pretty excited. I don't know anyone who drinks Herbsaint on its own, but I think we'll all want to very soon.  I'm kicking myself for not being able to find my tasting notes, but it's richly and intensely herbal with a wonderful anise flavor in balance with everything else.  You're going to love this stuff, and it'll be dynamite in a Sazerac.

They've even brought back the original-style bottle and label; here's an old original label, and some examples of the new one:

You can see some more examples of Herbsaint bottles new and old, and tons of fascinating history, at Jay Hendrickson's New Orleans Absinthe History site.

Keep an eye out ... Herbsaint Original is supposed to be hitting L.A. Any Day Now, but I haven't seen any just yet.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 July 2010 07:32

Cocktail of the Day: the Eulogy

Just back from another visit to Houston (my stupendous nephew Thomas just turned 3!), and as is my wont it included a visit to one of my favorite bars, the stupendous Anvil Bar & Refuge. It was an even rarer treat this time, as my sister Melissa got to come with me — I hadn’t gotten to take her to a bar since well before the kids were born, and my brother-in-law kindly volunteered to stay home with the kids (the fact that he had to work from home that night was a factor as well). “It’s 7:15 and I’m driving away from my house with no children, and going to a bar!!” It makes me happy to facilitate the occasional boozy evening out for the mother of a two-year-old and a three-year-old.

On my previous Anvil visits I got to hang out with bartender/co-owner Bobby Heugel and have him take me through Anvil’s always challenging and exciting menu. This time Bobby was in South Africa, happily swilling Pinotage and having a well-deserved vacation, and behind the stick this was Justin Burrow, one of the other owner-partners who I finally got to meet at Tales last year. Justin took great care of us on a busier-than-usual Sunday night, as he and his crew accommodated not only the usual locals but the entire cast of the touring production of “Miss Saigon,” who are performing in Houston at the moment and who descended on the bar en masse.

The first drink on the new seasonal menu that caught my eye was the one with the most unusual mix of ingredients — Batavia Arrack, Strega, Falernum and lime. Wow, now that’s a combination I hadn’t thought of, and I immediately ordered one. My sister said, “The only one of those ingredients I’ve ever heard of is lime!” whereupon Justin very kindly poured a little sip of each ingredient into a glass for her to taste, “a deconstructed version.”

The Eulogy, deconstructed

Melissa tasted each one ... "Ooh, that's funky," to the arrack; "Wow, that's really complex," to the Strega; "Um, I'm draining this - you don't get any" to the falernum. Hmm, guess I'll have to buy her a bottle.

Justin explained that they had been doing inventory at the end of the year and there was an excess of arrack, Strega and falernum, and they wondered what they'd do with it as none of the drinks on the Anvil 100 call for them, and the current seasonal menu didn't either. Justin started mixing, using the Last Word as a template, and lo and behold ... they worked together beautifully.

Complex yet comforting and approachable, and still fairly light, I think this one's a real winner.

The Eulogy Cocktail

the Eulogy

3/4 ounce Batavia Arrack.
3/4 ounce Strega.
3/4 ounce John D. Taylor's Velvet Falernum.
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice.
Combine with ice in a shaker, shake for 10 seconds and strain into a cocktail glass. No garnish.

If you live in Houston or you'll be visiting soon, don't miss Anvil.

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 February 2010 03:25

Raw egg reprieve!

(That test post seemed to go well ... let's keep going!)

The previously reported bad news about raw egg cocktails being nixed at New York's Pegu Club has come to a happy ending:

"The [Department of Health] has gotten back to us and said that with the appropriate warnings (both in print and verbal from our staff) in place, we are covered. We are now free to offer raw egg drinks again — and I am very happy with the outcome. Not just for us, but for any establishment who wishes to offer raw eggs as an option."

Read on in the above link about why Audrey would never use pasteurized eggs in cocktails.

The New York Times further explored the nervousness of New York bartenders when they were faced with the possibility of no flips or Clover Clubs or egg white fizzes:

“We probably go through up to eight dozen eggs a week just on this one drink,” she said. “We know how to handle eggs properly and have never ever had anyone get sick.”

There are caboodles of other raw-egg drinks, including pisco sours, sometimes whiskey sours, a legion of fizzes including the silver fizz (a gin fizz plus egg white) the golden fizz (an egg yolk is added) and the gin-fueled Ramos fizz, and a host of flips, including the con leche flip (dark rum and coffee liqueur).

... "[O]bviously these drinks are not a hospitable medium for salmonella to grow, or many would have died during the thousands of years that people" have consumed egg-laced beverages... Bartenders are also asking why the city was concerned about bars and not restaurants, where raw-egg staples include hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise, Caesar salad and ice cream. "They use raw eggs in béarnaise sauce and steak tartare," Ms. Saunders said. 'Is it that they think chefs are O.K., but bartenders don’t know what they’re doing?"

I think I'll celebrate this with an Earl Grey MarTEAni.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 July 2010 07:32

From newsletter to blog, and nixing raw eggs

If all goes well, as of the February gathering of The Sporting Life (that's February 21st this month, details to come!) we'll no longer be sending out an email newsletter, but only a time-and-place announcement to Sporting Life members, and what was formerly newsletter content will now be weblog content, posted here periodically throughout the month. Leave a comment and let us know how that works for you! Now, for the first of many tidbits of recipes, cocktail-related news and more: The New York Public health department has caused some consternation in local cocktail circles after a recent visit to Audrey Saunders' Pegu Club, and what they did once they got there. Audrey said,

"Everything was fine until the inspector looked on our menu, saw the Earl Grey MarTEAni, and told us that ... even with the warning we have printed on our menu about raw eggs, using raw eggs is a violation ... and that we have to switch to pasteurized eggs in our cocktails."

Given the number of both new and classic cocktails that contain egg whites, yolks or whole eggs, this is a cause for concern -- for instance, are they even going to be able to serve flips at all? I'm not a big fan of the texture and consistency of pasteurized egg whites from the carton, and although I've heard of pasteurized whole eggs in the shell, I've never used or even seen them. Here's hoping the L.A. County Health Department has better things things to do than crack down on Ramos Gin Fizzes. What are your thoughts on pasteurized egg products in cocktails, quality-wise? Yea? Nay?

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 February 2010 09:45

The Sporting Life In The LA Times!

Check out this great article written by Betty Hallock about Sporting Life in the LA Times. 

Absolutely fantastic publicity.  Thanks Betty!

Last Updated on Friday, 24 July 2009 22:58 is Live in Beta

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