Circles and straight lines

With any kind of creative endeavour, there's always a temptation to say you've created something for the simple pleasure of having created it - art for art's sake, if you will - but while that's true to some extent, it would be ever so slightly misleading of me to suggest that all the drinks I come up with are in celebration of some Dionysian muse. Most of the time, they're in celebration of the possible acquisition of stuff.

Cocktail competitions have been something of a compelling force in the industry over the past few years - the emergence of huge, global contests with prizes of the genuinely life-changing variety (recent highlights include brand ambassador roles, start-up capital for opening your own bar, getting to design and sell your spirit) to accompany the more traditional bonuses of travel, equipment and free booze has led to a near-constant cycle of fierce competition. With so many people producing so many new recipes, standards have inevitably improved - gone are the days when the winner was the person with the most exotic fruit.

There's now further pressure when it comes to formulating a recipe: not only must it taste good and look good, now every drink needs that thing that makes it stand out from the crowd. It might be a home-made ingredient or a new technique or a crazy new garnish. For me, it's usually trying to draw dodgy thematic connections between things.

Here's an example: for the Ron Diplomático World Tournament, I wanted to pair up a rich, aged rum from Venezuela with the floral notes of Chartreuse. The rum in question - Diplomático Reserva - is aged for up to eight years and brings a chunk of rich fruit (I get a lot of plum and banana) along with some darker spice notes (espresso, vanilla and dark chocolate in particular) and it doesn't naturally match the complex herbal qualities of Chartreuse. If you were to make a Venn diagram of the two, it might look like two separate circles on a page.

The trick was to use something as a bridging flavour and I opted for Grand Marnier; the cognac base would play well with the rum and the sweet citrus fills in the gap to lighter aspects of the Chartreuse. The other reason Grand Marnier works well is as a thematic link between the other two ingredients.

On one hand, you have Diplomático Reserva. Produced at Distilerias Unidas (DUSA), it's a blend of column- and pot-still rum and makes use of a couple of specific quirks of Venezuelan rum production: due to the low, government-set price of sugar, the molasses they use for the column-still rums are relatively high in sugar content, and the local climate tends to mean that evaporation during barrel ageing doesn't significantly impact the ABV of the spirit. While DUSA has been in operation since 1959, many of the techniques used were brought to the Haçienda Botucal by Don Juancho Nieto Melendez in the late 19th century. It's a great representation of rum as the spirit of the new world - initially produced as a solution to the surplus of molasses from sugar production and refined over time into something remarkable and elegant.

On the other hand, Chartreuse has been made Carthusian monks since the 1740s from more than 132 herbal extracts and can be seen as an archetype of the European tradition of liqueur-making that began with its roots in alchemy and medicine and would ultimately lead to things like genever and, later, gin.

And then in the middle comes Grand Marnier; conceived in the 1880s by Alexander Marnier-Lapostolle and combining the new world (in the form of the bitter peels from the Caribbean that provide the orange flavour) and the old (in its base spirit of aged Cognac). It provides a link in more than just flavour - it's on the line from the old world to the new world in both geography and time.

All things considered, it's a neat little conceit. The drink itself - the King of the Hill - is available over the bar at work and has been well received by people who really don't have much of an interest in the historical and thematic relationships between the ingredients in it so I guess I'll see if it'll make the difference if I make the Australian final in Melbourne in April.

King of the Hill

35ml Diplomático Reserva
10ml Green Chartreuse
10ml Grand Marnier
10ml lemon juice

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange zest.

Posted on March 16, 2013 and filed under Mixology, Recipes.

Outbound: storm in a julep cup

How big of a deal is three percent? If you're talking about whiskey, apparently a lot. Last weekend, the news that Maker's Mark was to be bottled at 42% ABVinstead of its current level of 45% ABV brought forth the full range of reaction from the Internet - y'know: disbelief, anger, torches and pitchforks. While the subsequent decision to reverse the ABV reduction has been broadly welcomed, some are starting to draw differentconclusions.

(Not that any of the above is actually relevant in certain markets.)

Topically, there's a very interesting NYT article from Harold McGee. The title? To enhance flavor, just add water.

The eternal Sydney/Melbourne rivalry takes another turn as the former is named Australia's bar capital.

A lot of good people in the Edinburgh bar/cocktail scene get some well deserved exposure, courtesy of the Scotland on Sunday, though the thing itself makes everything feel a little more like Portlandia than I remember it.

A couple of gems via the excellent if acronymically-complex TYWKIWDBI - Mixing alcohol with diet soda may make you drunker  and a pretty epic wine poster for the oenophile in your life.

Posted on February 19, 2013 and filed under Links, Mixology.

Outbound: Learning the world

I've spent the first few weeks of 2013 adjusting to life in Australia. On paper, you'd think moving to an Anglophone, Westernized country with a developed economy would be straightforward and, for the most part, it has been. The adjustment hasn't been so much in the big things -  bank accounts, property leases, tax codes and so on - but in the details of everyday life. For my money, it's a feeling best captured by William Gibson in Pattern Recognition, even if he's writing about an American in Britain:

Mirror-world. The plugs on appliances are huge, triple-pronged, for a species of current that only powers electric chairs, in America. Cars are reversed, left to right, inside; telephone handsets have a different weight, a different balance; the covers of paperbacks look like Australian money.

I still catch myself quoting prices in pounds, not dollars and I won't even get into the whole beer size thing. There's certainly some specific technical adjustments required for bar work - spirits are generally served in 30ml measures and it seems it will more than a week to train a decade worth of pouring 25ml measures out of me; glasses of wine are generally smaller (150ml vs. 175/250ml in the UK) - and then there's the question of what's available in terms of product. Things that I'd taken for granted in the UK are seemingly tougher to come by here, which is equally useful (in terms of forcing some creative re-thinking) and frustrating.

Of course, it's not all quibbling about measurements and what kind of vermouth is in the shops. The weather's OK, I guess.

New for this year: the war on tips, at least from those with strong views on God or taxes.

Don't expect a win for the plucky underdog: I Played A Drinking Game Against A Computer.

With the re-emergence of Tanqueray Malacca just around the corner, is now a good time to bring up edible geography's excellent musings on the impossibility of historical flavour?

Bacardi UK just named the Savoy's Chris Moore as their 2012 Legacy Cocktail Competition winner and named the three finalists for the 2013 title (recipes for the 2013 drinks in the link).

Some guy made a drink for the 2013 Bols Around The World competition. Seems OK.

Posted on February 10, 2013 and filed under Links.

A bartender in need

The history of mixed drinks is, in general, pretty murky. The creators of many drinks have seen their names drift away from the record while the credit often falls not to the first person who made a thing, but to the first person who wrote it down. The question of why some drinks make it into however a loosely-defined canon as we have is one that I keep coming back to, so the news that one of the solid links we have between a drink's hazy backstory and its current popularity could use some support is something I wanted to flag up. I can't put it any better than the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for the Last Word cocktail:

The Last Word is a Gin based prohibition-era cocktail originally developed at the Detroit Athletic Club. While the drink eventually fell out of favour, it has recently enjoyed a renewed popularity after being rediscovered as a cult hit in the Seattle area by Murray Stenson, a bartender at the Zig Zag Café.

Since 2004, the Last Word has enjoyed a remarkable revival - it forms the basis of an annual Chartreuse-sponsored cocktail competition in the UK and has even lent its name to a bar. Murray Stenson's role in that revival can't be understated; his decision to include it on the Zig Zag Café's menu in 2004 is arguably the seed from which the drink's return to relevance grew.

By now, I'd guess that most people with an interest in cocktails have heard that lately Murray has been unable to work due to a heart problem and, having spent somewhere north of thirty years as a bartender, I'd guess that most people wouldn't be surprised to learn he is uninsured. One of the benefits of living in the UK is nationalised, Government-supported healthcare that's free at the point of care, so I can't imagine what it's like to have to deal not only with a major illness but also the stress of having to cover the cost of treatment. I've never met Murray Stenson but I felt moved to contribute something towards helping him and you can do that at either MurrayAid or through this page on Facebook.

Posted on October 23, 2012 and filed under Links.

Outbound: telling Tales

So, Tales of the Cocktail was a thing. It's been nearly three weeks since I got back and I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it. There were definitely enjoyable parts - putting faces to names was a particular pleasure (thanks to everyone I foisted a business card upon), as was catching up with people that I haven't seen for a while from other parts of the UK and further afield. I enjoyed the seminars I caught - Bartenders in Media provided an interesting insight into the changing perception of bartending in certain areas (though notably not in fictional representations); the world's first session on the history of blue drinks was both enlightening and amusing; and the annual I Love/I Hate...Cocktails debate had some of the biggest laughs and best insults of the week.

Tasting rooms proved to be something of a hit-or-miss thing for me. The ones that were held in the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone weren't that useful; those generally ended up being little more than a queue for a single drink with barely any time to find out about what it was I'd end up drinking. I did stumble on a couple of gems - a really old sherry-cask finished Bacardi stood out - but they were thin on the ground.

Overall, it was fun and I'm glad I went; the caveat is that I probably wouldn't go again on my own dime. I'd probably also suggest not trying to have a shot in every bar along a two-block stretch of Bourbon Street.

Retronaut - Disposing of Alcohol during Prohibition (via Barbore).

Art of Drink - Announcing the "Jerk Off"...which is probably my favourite ever name for a cocktail competition.

American Drink - not so simple

Bar Magazine - UK winners in 42 Below Cocktail World CupTeam East London take the prize and a spot in the world final in New Zealand with Team Scotland sneaking a wildcard spot.

The Guardian - it's farewell to mother's ruinTwo things: 1) Hi, mainstream media! Gin's a thing, who knew? 2) As if to prove that nothing good ever happens in the comments section of anything on the Internet:

"My tipple is gin and lime, but the other day I mistakenly added milk instead of lime."

We've all done it.

Posted on August 20, 2012 and filed under Links.