[by Mike]

While I missed out last night's adventure, I was able to convince John, Andy, and a few more friends to join me for a cocktail at Drink before a showing of Pixar's new pleasure "Up".

Having not been to Drink in months, I took advantage of the opportunity to partake in some of the tequila recipes developed recently.  I started with a spicy little number,

Hot Damn
1.75 oz Milagro Silver Tequila
0.25 oz Maguey Mezcal
0.25 oz Agave Nectar
?.?? oz Punt e Mes
Mexican Smoked Salt
Dash Chipotle Tabasco

Neither the heat nor the smoke overpowered the agave, instead complementing the flavors of the tequila and the mezcal.

While enjoying our drinks the conversation with our bartender, Scott, flowed swiftly and easily.  The most informative discussion focused on the standard procedure for syrups at Drink.  Instead of steeping any flavorings in the syrup itself, everything is steeped in water which is cooled before incorporating the sugar.  The reason?  Well common table sugar, or sucrose, is a disaccharide composed of two smaller sugars (glucose and fructose) bound together, and when heated that bond is quickly broken and the syrup breaks down into a myriad of smaller sugars and various by products.  Consistently reproducing the exact same by products, and hence same texture and flavor, is near impossible in a laboratory settings, let alone in a kitchen.  By keeping the sugar away from the heat, the clever bartenders at Drink are able to produce a consistent product each and every night.  It's an interesting concept, but I can't help wondering on what textures and deeper flavors they might be missing out.

Deep thoughts were quickly brushed aside, however, when some ladies down the bar recommended an intriguing drink.  I heard tequila, cocoa, and chipotle and had to place an order.  

Heather's (Mexican) Love Affair
2 oz Milagro Silver Tequial
1 oz Marie Brizzard (sp?) Creme de Cacao
6-7 Sichuan Peppercorns
Mexican Smoked Salt
Dash Chipotle Tabasco

The succulent cocktail was eerily reminiscent of a good Mexican hot chocolate (maybe a touch of cinnamon or almond to perfect the analogy) with all of the refreshment necessary for a summer drink.

Sufficiently lubricated, we headed back to the Common to be enamored with Pixar's latest offering.  Even the pretentious movie snob was sold, and it can't have been entirely due to his Mamie Taylor.

rum, in all its forms

[by john]

andy and i stopped by the latest sip & shop to taste some elderflower drinks and inquire with adam of the boston shaker about what bitters he'll be stocking next. as a very unexpected bonus, he told us about an event at the intercontinental celebrating their 100th rum at the bar.

not ones to pass up free/cheap alcohol, we put on fancy summer duds and headed downtown. we were greeted with free pernod absinthe and crêpes, and a gorgeous sunset view of the fort point channel.

there were about a dozen tables being set up around the posh lobby for rum tasting while we chatted up the guys from ragged mountain rum (including, again, adam, who is their boston rep). this is the same local distillery that made my new bottle of greylock. chris, the founder, was eager to tell us about forthcoming batches of bourbon, corn whiskey, and 'scotch'. i'm rather excited for those. oh, and their rum was nice - a surprisingly flavorful nose, with butterscotch and sharper spices, which belied the thinner flavors on the tongue (the burn of alcohol hit too quickly, but that'll change as they release more aged barrels).

far too many other brands to mention them all, but there were some standouts. i liked the oronoco, a light rum good for daiquiris, since it was a smoother version of the 10 cane in my own bar. gosling's old rum (23 y.o.?) tasted like bermudan nectar. their rep told us about their new product, dark and stormy in a can, which, apparently drinkhacker has gotten ahold of. the rhum clément products tasted entirely like brandy.

overall, the wide spectrum surprised me, a rum novitiate, the most. from light to dark, from cocktail-worthy to sipping, from whiskey wannabes to cognac wannabes, from brazil to nicaragua... other spirits just don't have that kind of spread.

talking to the reps was also enjoyable, since it's their job to be gregarious. one woman, at the pyrat table, was especially awesome. she complimented us on being the most sociable mit students she'd met (not hard), we talked about med school and surfing, then parted with some swag bags (featuring the folkloric hotei character [think laughing fat buddha], which immediately transported me back to japanese art history class).

well, random alcohol outing, until next time...


a different (red)neck of the woods

[by john]

the regular drinking companions finally made it to deep ellum together on tuesday night. a combination of subway-inacessability and oversight had left this bar the last unchecked must-try cocktail destination on our list. but we rallied together for their redneck luau.

they mixed up four original tiki drinks to go along with the enormous pile of meat they were serving up. (the menu warned that several animals were harmed in the making of this event.) my favorite, a tasty mix of dewars, honey-ginger syrup, lime, apricot, and ginger beer, was the grass kilt. (great name, too.) the suffering hillbilly was also notable: the allspice dram in it really took control to make sure that the grenadine and pineapple juice didn't run away and over-sweeten the drink. the only other time i had a cocktail with allspice dram, it tasted like christmas, and not in a good way.

[by Michael]

John's description of his two drinks are dead on.  I was a little afraid that the pineapple juice in the Hillbilly would be overpowering but the dram really kept it in check.  My only dissent is regarding his previous allspice dram cocktail: it screamed Christmas in all the right ways.  Andy, another friend, and I completed the menu.  I started with a Volcano (rum, Cherry Heering, citrus, and bitters), which featured an intriguing house made tiki bitters, while Andy took on a Shipwreck (rum, Picon, and Swedish Punsch).  

The highlight of the evening, however, was the meat!  Roast pig and brisket were served under the glare of a roasted pig head, complete with an apple clenched in its jaw.  While the pork was juicy and the skin was great, the brisket quietly usurped the meal with its intense smoke flavor, crisp exterior, succulent pockets of fat, and fall apart texture.  

A close second to the meat?  John's leaving early to meet up with friends, only to end up on the same bus as Andy and I.  You just can't rush the consumption of barbecue.


The cocktail: a flow-chart

[by Naveen]

"Distilled alcohols are some of the most intensely flavored foods we have." - Harold McGee

I know far less about cocktails than my fellow bloggers, but I do enjoy making flow charts. I decided it was finally time to try to make sense of the language of mixology. The whole field is due to the inability of yeast to survive in alcohol concentrations higher than about 20%. To get around this biological limitation, people figured out how to heat up a fermented liquid to extract the components with a lower boiling point (especially ethanol). There's some danger involved, since methanol, a poison, has an even lower boiling point. Longer-chain molecules can give the final product an oily consistency. However, there are numerous substances with similar boiling points that give each distilled spirit its characteristic flavor.

What about flavor components with very different boiling points than the ethanol? It turns out that ethanol is a great solvent, so adding herbs, sugars, or other flavorings gives rise to the diversity of flavored alcohols, liqueurs, and bitters that go into making a cocktail.

I realize that this diagram is far from complete, since there is much more to add about the sources for the various base alcohols (e.g. corn, wheat, potato) and the psychology of balancing flavors. Any suggestions for future visualizations are welcome.


[by Naveen]
How do you change the world?

It's easy to feel trapped in grad school - learning more and more about less and less. A recent TED talk by Seth Godin, one of my numerous sources of inspiration, got me thinking about the big picture. He has spent years thinking deeply about how the nature of marketing has changed over the past hundred years. This doesn't apply just to selling toothpaste or pain-relievers: it applies to ideas. I often contemplate how to apply this to the spread of scientific information, but the culinary world provides more readily-accessible case studies.

To summarize his argument, at the turn of the last century, the economy was driven by mass-production: faster machines, more efficient labor, etc. By the middle of the century, this model was supplanted by the mass-advertising age: swamp the market with advertisements for your product to capture the market. This went on for decades leading to a saturation of people's attention. Now the key is to capture the attention of a small group of people who are especially receptive to your message and to create a tribe that spreads outwards through word-of-mouth (or the modern, electronic equivalent).

Seth Godin asked three questions to people who want to start a movement. I thought it was interesting to apply these to local trends that I've seen or heard about:
"The first one is, who exactly are you upsetting? Because if you're not upsetting anyone, you're not changing the status quo. "
The fastest way to the answer is to look at Yelp. Amateur reviewers complain that Drink has no cocktail menu. Vegetarians in San Francisco complain about the lack of options in sushi restaurants. Bargain-hunters in Harvard Square complain about the cost of Sweet cupcakes.
"The second question is, who are you connecting? Because for a lot of people, that's what they're in it for. The connections that are being made, one to the other."
Going back the the previous three examples: Drink unites people who are passionate about cocktails, high-end sushi joints attract people who care about fresh, seasonal seafood, and Sweet attracts people looking for a particular social setting.
"And the third one is, who are you leading? Because focusing on that part of it, not the mechanics of what you're building, but the who, and the leading part is where change comes."
Barbara Lynch was a driving force behind Drink. Michael Black and Danny Dunham at Sebo led a movement to bring authentic Japanese sushi to a region that knew little more than salmon and California rolls. Courtney Forrester brought Sweet cupcakes to Boston (and now Harvard Square). In their own ways, each of these people is part of a growing movement.

I highly recommend watching the original presentation, since I admire Godin's unique delivery style and great use of visuals.


aquavit, animated

[by john]

the most recent episode of the simpsons, 'coming to homerica', featured a very special surprise guest: aquavit! the scandanavian spirit, distinctive both for its caraway flavor and its method of aging - sailing the barrels across the equator and back, made its way into springfield with the wave of fargo-esque accented immigrants from the next town over.

moe, that intrepid entrepreneur, started serving it in the bar...

...to the detriment of homer's heath the next morning.

stills courtesy (not really) of fox and hulu.

there's currently a bottle of linie aquavit in our bar, thanks to my recently-returned-from-sweden roommate. the stuff is alright, but not remarkable. it just gets mixed up in my head with all of the other gnarly, anise-tasting national spirits (ouzo, raki, arak...).

[self-editor's note: i give credit to mike for bringing this to my attention, and for procrastination grant #281334b.]


Best Restaurant in Boston

[by Naveen]

What's the best restaurant in Boston?
I saw a recent article in Boston Magazine that claimed to have the answers. They compiled results from a variety of sources - the Boston Globe, Herald, and Phoenix, as well as Chowhound, Yelp, and the Phantom Gourmet - into "one single, convenient, yet statistically meaningful index." I was intrigued by this endeavor, but was more interested in the reverse question: what are the main disagreements among the reviewers? I was especially curious about the differences among the critics. For instance, Devra First from the Globe is a "self-styled gastro-populist," while the Phantom Gourmet loves "Fried things, bad puns, 'ooey-gooey' desserts, heaping piles of...anything."

I figured that the best way to pursue this question would be to turn it into my final project for my computer science class about data visualization. At first I was overwhelmed by the mismatch of letter grades, starts, and numbers used by the different reviewers in different years, but Prof. Elaine Allen at Babson College was generous enough to give me the normalized scores from each review source. I used a computer language called Processing (a Java descendent) in order to create an interactive visualization. At first I followed my instincts as a physict and made a two-dimensional scatter job with different-sizes of color-coded dots, but when the post-docs in my lab took a while to figure out what was going on, I knew I needed a different approach. After eight iterations, I ended up with a set of four bar charts, as shown below:

The actual visualization is interactive and should get posted to the course website soon, but for now you'll just have to imagine all types of color-changing and highlighting awesomeness. The composite score goes from lowest to highest along the horizontal axis, with the top-ranked restaurant on the right. The length of the bar shows how much higher or lower a particular critic ranked that restaurant. Red bars don't indicate a negative review - they just mean that this reviewer ranked the venue lower than average. By applying the various filters on the right-hand-side, it's possible to find interesting patterns, such as:
  • Best-value restaurant: highest ranked for the lowest cost [41. Garden at the Cellar]. The $$ filter is great for grad students who want the occasional gastronomically-inspiring experience, but can't afford a trip to a $$$$ restaurant.
  • Worst-value restaurant: lowest ranked for the highest cost [81. Mooo]. This is just the result from some quasi-arbitrary numbers and I this is by no means a dis-recommendation.
  • Personal favorite: lowest composite score for the 25th best according to a particular critic [Boston Magazine: 63. Myers+Chang; Globe: 68. blu; Herald: 86. Bricco; Phoenix: 77. da Vinci]. If I had more time I would be more systematic about this to look at the content of each reviewer's comments for the reviews with the greatest discrepacny, perhaps using a word cloud.
  • Popular favorite: lowest composite score for highest-Chowhound rating [104. Grotto]. There's also Yelp, Urban Spoon, and many other sources that I didn't have time to investigate. Dealing with all of Yelp.com's idiosyncrosies in URL name by hand was difficult enough.
I wouldn't take any of these numbers too seriously, since there are numerous things that people seek when eating out. A few examples that come to mind:
  • The perfectly executed version of a favorite dish (e.g. Thomas Keller's quest for perfection)
  • An innovative meal that challenges expectations: a few courses may be unpleasant, but at least it will be unlike anything eaten before (e.g. Grant Achatz's cuisine)
  • Cuiosity about a hot new restaurant and the ability to be a trend-setter (an expensive hobby for most people)
I have a vision for a ranking system that would rate restaurants based on the goals of the diner, their personal reference points, and ratings from like-minded critics. To me, Malcolm Galdwell's analogy of spaghetti sauce comes to mind: initially there was just one type of sauce that every manufacturer made. Then, one company hired a consultant who realized that some people prefer thin sauce, while others like chunky. Now we the supermarket shelves are packed with dozens of customized vareities. I think that on-line rankings are just beginning to realize their full potential.

What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear about epxeriences at any of these top restaurants in Boston or ideas for the visualization.



[by Mike]

Some time ago, John sent me a site featuring some interesting tequila cocktails.  Intrigued by the concept of muddling a jalapeño, I immediately put together a Don Julio Caesar and was not disappointed.  With the seeds removed and the lime juice hiding any lingering capsaicin, the fruit flavors of the chile shined through and resonated with the tequila.

Those flavors floated around in my head until the thorough discussion of cucumber juice during our last outing to Rendezvous.  Wouldn't a well executed jalapeño juice offer all of the flavors extracted from muddling only more powerful?  After some research, I found a reasonable priced juicer online and went to work.  

I prepped about 20 chiles, using a sculpting tool to make quick work of ribs (capsaicin-rich liquid is produced in glands near the stem of the chile, and as the fruit grows it slowly flows down the interior flesh, coating the ribs and seeds with heat).  A few seconds through the whirling blades of death, the jalapeños (and a bunch of cilantro) were pulverized and I had a fresh batch of juice.  A batch of cucumber-mint juice stands in the background (two English cucumbers, including seeds and skin, with a bunch of mint).

The juices really didn't come into their own until they had been passed through cheesecloth to remove residual, gelatinous flesh (as well as much of the plant proteins that produce the head of foam after a quick shake).  By itself the jalapeño juice is too spicy to be sippable, but once the heat has been shadowed by a little bit of syrup and lime juice the fruity flavors dominate.  The cucumber juice is addictingly refreshing, and right on time for summer.

Of course, what would any of this be worth without cocktails?

The Ultraviolet Catastrophe
1.5 oz reposado tequila
0.5 oz jalapeño juice
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz creme de violette
0.25 oz agave nectar
1 scant dash Angostura bitters

The addition of the bitters really rounds out the flavors, but at the expense of turning the drink an atrocious drab green.  Are there clear aromatic bitters out there?

Baron Thierry
1.5 oz reposado tequila
0.75 oz cucumber juice
0.5 oz elderflower liquor
0.25 oz lime juice
0.25 oz agave nectar
1 dash celery bitters

The name?  Taking inspiration from Misty, I went with historical: Baron Thierry was an Austrian hired by Maximillian to encourage British support of the French occupation of Mexico (I could only find one decent reference, page 195).  Not bad for a physicist, eh?


local is the new pink

[by john]

i brought home two new bottles as part of my qualifying exam recovery program: four roses bourbon ($20 bottle!) and greylock gin, produced by a local distiller (on twitter, nice). drinking (cocktails) locally is a crazy idea unless you live in, say, kentucky or italy, but now i'm afforded that, er, additional warm and fuzzy feeling.

i decided to make a martinez with it. the martinez is a very old cocktail, with a long history better detailed in other more assiduous cocktail blogs. a precursor to the martini, but with italian vermouth. there are variations out there with french vermouth, which is what i was feeling like, so i went with cocktaildb's:
martinez (variation)

1 1/4 oz gin [greylock]
1 oz french vermouth [noilly prat]
1/4 oz maraschino liqueur
1 dash orange bitters [angostura]
stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. [no cherry for me, thanks.]
pretty delightful. surprisingly, the noilly prat managed to tame the greylock's botanicals on the nose. the taste: fruity, botanical, dry, and a little sweet, all with the distinctive gin backbone.

at the moment, i've run out of plymouth, so greylock will be the workhorse for a while. looking forward to it.

p.s. - it's the season for phd defenses, and some celebratory champagne got me thinking about what i'll be pouring for my own après-defense. i'd love to mix batches of an original cocktail, but that'd present a few logistical challenges. maybe champagne cocktails, then? i have some time to think about it, anyway.


passing and punting

[by john]

i passed my third and final qualifying exam last week, marking not only the start of my candidacy for a phd, but, more notably, the end of a horrendous month of extreme teetotalism. what better way to celebrate than beers, bourbon, burgers, and a trip to craigie for tom's cocktails? in response to my plea for a drink to erase volumes of astrophysical trivia, he whipped up some strange stepchild of a recipe, which included galliano, rye, tequila, and becherovka. whoa. uncanny light color, foreign flavor, and all too drinkable.

now, as i predicted before, my budget fared well in the month of may. that means i can give myself a $100 present for jumping through that flaming, spinning, glass-shard-encrusted academic hoop.

first on the list: punt e mes. this guy was (still is) the darling vermouth of boston bartenders for a while, and for good reason. it blows the socks off of martini & rossi. i just picked up a bottle this evening at the wine and cheese cask (where mike got his bottle) on my bike ride home from lab. they also had both kinds of dolin vermouth there, so i might have to go back...

to break in the bottle, i decided to give it a spin in one of my all time favorite cocktails, the cocktail à la louisiane:
cocktail à la louisiane

1 oz rye [rittenhouse]
1 oz benedictine
1 oz italian vermouth [punt e mes]
1 barspoon absinthe [st. george]
1/2 barspoon bitters

stir with cracked ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
the punt e mes has a gentle bitter finish, so i was most curious to see how that would play in the drink. and, voila, it shows through! first, it races to cut the sweet benedictine, then, after the absinthe has had its say, it outlasts with its bitter end. the punt e mes added a layer and a half to this already multifaceted drink. in retrospect, the m&r was only filler.

well, next on that list: st. germain (now that it's popular and can be found in every liquor store), cherry heering, greylock gin (a local distiller), and maybe galliano, four roses bourbon, another rye, bonded applejack, and who knows what else. the burden of choice!



[by Mike]

Despite being an aspiring scientist, my interest in food science has always been a casual endeavor.  Nuclear and particle physics just doesn't have any applications to modern gastronomy, so time spend reading and learning about food is entirely separated from research.  So you can imagine my surprise to see nuclear physics having a direct application to the world of spirits.

Now it's just a matter of time before chefs start looking to quantum chromodynamics for inspiration.