Laplace Would Marginalize Over Red and White

[by Mike]

It would be odd if we had come so far in academia without being passionate about science. Unfortunately, this means that after a drink or two some of us (i.e. me) find it difficult to keep from talking physics and data analysis. While I'm working to avoid random outbursts of science, especially in mixed company, I can't do it without at least one cocktail memorializing my some aspects of my research.

How do you make the optimal cocktail? One approach would be to find your single favorite recipe, the selection and ratio of ingredients, and stop there. Another approach goes further, considering not just your favorite recipe but also perturbations away from that recipe. You may prefer a 6:1 martini, but how much more do you prefer it to the 5:1 or the 7:1? Or the 1:1 for that matter? The second approach would advocate serving an infinite number of cocktails, the amount of each serving weighted by the preference for that ratio. A similar approach would be taken towards ingredients.

This approach is not as foreign as it might immediately appear. Stripping a cocktail down to a single ingredient, someone with no previous experience would try the same amount of each different variety. But this is just the flight commonly used to taste spirits, beer, and wine.

In practice, preparing more than one cocktail is often prohibitive. When trying to optimize a recipe, however, it may not be a bad idea to compare the different possibilities directly. Consider the choice of bitters in the Monte Carlo,

Markov Chain Monte Carlo

In four shot glasses prepare
1 oz rye whiskey
0.5 oz benedictine

Add to individual glasses
1 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dashes Whisky Barrel Aged bitters
1 dashes Peychauds bitters
1 dashes Xocolatl Mole bitters

Now let's see how long I can go without talking about work...


Unsolicited Advice

[by Mike]

Father's Office, sit down. Look, you have an amazing selection of craft spirits, nearly perfect sweet potato fries, and a decent burger (sorry, Andy, nothing close to the burger at Craigie). But this whole community seating schtick? And having to order from an understaffed, chaotic bar? At least consider designated ordering areas so that lines can form and some semblance of order night be restored, and then we can talk about seeing each other again.


City of Angels

[by Mike]

Having spent the four years of my undergraduate education here, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Los Angeles. While the diversity, culture, and weather rival any other city, the cocktail scene has always left much to be desired, especially when compared to the renaissance in Boston (and all the other players in the cocktail movement). The last year, however, has seen a slew of new ventures promising to bring LA back into the game and I was eager to try a few out while visiting some friends.

After going through the various articles written in the past few years, I narrowed down the possibilities to the Edison and the Varnish. A few of my friends had visited the Edison before and spoke well enough to pique my interest and place it first on the list. Unfortunately, the Edison's odd hours (closed Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday) exactly conflicted with my stay.

I was initially hesitant about the Varnish because of their sparse website; how could I make a reasonable judgement without seeing the menu? Browsing through Yelp!, however, I discovered that the Varnish is a creation of the Milk and Honey team and my initial hesitations evaporated.

The Varnish executes the speakeasy theme with exquisite detail. Behind a discreetly marked door in the back of a downtown LA restaurant, the bar features wooden walls and booths dimly illuminated by metal fixtures. A sound system hidden from view plays period music, although we were treated to live piano music most of the night. My only criticism of the design is the lack of stools at the bar which has the effect of discouraging patrons from engaging the bartenders directly. Not to say that it stopped me from heading over to the bar to chat.

More impressive than the atmosphere was the menu. About half of the drinks were a little bit conservative and welcoming to the uninitiated, with the second half more creative and intriguing combinations. Of particular note was the "Remember the Maine", bringing together rye and absinthe in an interesting twist on the Manhatten. After sampling most of the menu between the four of us, I went off menu for my last drink and was pleasantly surprised by a "Medicina Latina" that combined tequila, ginger, and lime with a mezcal (must have been del Maguey) float and an impressive chunk of ice.

An unexpected bonus was Tal, the Lucas/Bols VP of marketing, behind the bar, fresh off of his release party in Boston. We chatted a bit about the new Bols Genever while I partook in samples of the spirit neat and in a punch. Andy had brought back a bottle of the Bols Jonge Genever from Europe a few months ago that was less than impressive, but the new genever based on the 1820 recipe was a marked improvement. Unlike a dry gin, which infuses the herbal flavors in the second distilling, the 1820 recipe adds the herbs directly to malted grains, resulting in a malty almost bread like flavor that pushes the herbal flavors to the back of the palette, almost like a sweeter sake. The spirit was sufficiently intriguing that I decided to try it in a classic Aviation where the malty base almost completely changed the way the herbal flavors hit the palette.

I can't wait to see what the city of angles has to offer the next time I'm in town.


three gimlets

[by john]

the gimlet is one of those perfect summer drinks - crisp, simple, and cold. it was the first thing resembling a cocktail that i ever mixed, in fact, three summers ago:
the adolescent gimlet

build in a rocks glass over ice:

1 large eyeball pour of vodka
1 smaller eyeball pour of rose's sweetened lime juice

rattle the glass around to mix.
ah, how far i've come. i've eschewed vodka (though a vodka gimlet is a bona-fide variant...for when too much taste gets in the way), i've started measuring ingredients for replicability, i've gotten a proper shaker, and, goodness, i've abandoned high fructose corn syrup products like rose's. now, to be a little fair, there are cocktail snobs who insist that rose's is required to make a 'real' gimlet. i'm not one of them.

a real gimlet should be something close to this:
the gimlet

1 1/2 oz gin
1 oz lime juice
1/4 oz simple syrup (can go more, to taste)

shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
now that is a proper drink. enjoy on the porch just before sunset, when the humidity is still hanging in the air. or just about any other time, really.

there is always room for improvement, though (nevermind a statewide dehumidifier):
the adult gimlet

1 1/2 oz gin (this version used berkshire's ethereal gin)
1 oz lime juice
2 barspoons thai basil simple syrup
1 barspoon absinthe
1 barspoon green chartreuse

shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
mmm, all my favorite (liquid) green things together in one glass. the different herbal flavors dance in the background while the gin, lime, and sugar play their familiar tune.

to progress, kanpai!


a not-so-dry history of boston

[by john]

mike and i were treated last night to a history lesson like no other by lauren of drinkboston and adam of the boston shaker. the topic: drinking in boston through the ages. surprisingly, the lecture couldn't be summed up into 'the puritans frowned upon it and that dour streak continues to this day.' rather, lauren was able to spin a winding tale of intrigue, ups and down, colorful characters and...what's the word...hooch.

no offense to any of my past history teachers, but i have never been so absorbed with dates and dead people than with a drink in my hand. yes indeed, while lauren was serving up her narrative, adam was shaking ward eights and maharaja's revenges for all of the students. an apropos pair, too - the ward eight is boston's most famous cocktail invention, and the maharaja's revenge represents the new wave of cocktails (and uses rum, hearkening back on boston's huge rum trade).

here's the gossip column rundown of four centuries:

the early-bird puritans hit the scene, starting a church in 1632, the first tavern in '35 and some silly school in '36. priorities, people! taverns multiply like drunk rabbits, and function as inn-cum-courthouse-cum-post-office-cum-banks. the red lion is founded in the north end. george monk of the anchor embodies to the hospitable, community pillar image. women are seen behind the stick but not tippling, except for prostitutes! people drank ~6 gallons of pure alcohol per year, compared to modern day's measly ~3. applejack is the new it! just skim the ice off your cider... no wait, madeira is the new it! it ages well under harsh conditions... no no, rum is the new darling, yes rum has the title! boston gets the rum bug big because of the great shipping center. proto-cocktails form...punches and flips, but no ice yet.

we're just getting started - on to the 18th century! halfway through, there are 25 rum distilleries in the area, with medford's being best by far (what a little quality control does, folks). drink it and be seen with paul revere, that rabble-rouser. speaking of which, the beginnings of revolution get goin' when the brits want to tax the sugar we're using for allllll that rum. rebel! all the colonies meet for a photo-op saying they hate the brits, together. some little tea party (you didn't hear about it? very exclusive.) goes down with help from tavern owners. the first masons lodge is founded at the bunch of grapes. the royal exchange sees bostons first sword duel, and then the boston massacre on its steps. talk about bad press!

the 19th century hits boston hard, with growing pains, immigration, and (egad!) statewide prohibition. yes, prohibition swept massachusetts like a 23 year fad starting in 1852, with a little two year break where people could drink beer. underground drinking (in private club$ for the rich, and tenement jug rooms for the po' folk) drove crime and social ills underground with it. afterward (phew) taverns have windows, so you can see the debauchery. much better, ahh. the concept of a 'free lunch' with a drink starts up, but has nothing to do with the anti-happy hour laws today. liquor license numbers are limited, and still so today. doyle's starts up in jp. the new england society for the suppression of vice (new blog name coming!), aka the watch & ward society starts in 1884. basically beer 'n' burlesque hatin' busybodies. oh burlesque! boston had lots. believe it. fancy grand hotels like the parker house and the (now merged) locke ober open doors. the ward eight gets itself invented there. a hot ice craze hits, and ice begins export from new england ponds to britain, martinique, wherever! proper cocktails get invented in new england, joy!

the 1900's see the great molasses flood (not an onion headline - a humongous tank broke and killed 21 people), national prohibition (old hat by now, right, boston?), bohemia in beacon hill, creative bootlegging, and the rise of women visiting bars. finally. tragedy strikes again with the conflagration of the glitzy coconut grove. modern fire codes ensue. tiki was huge in boston in the 50's, fine dining catches on in the 80's, then wine, then craft beer, then cocktails at last when the b-side opens in 1998. and observational gastrophysics was founded in 2009.

whew, you would think i took notes! the audience, i should mention, was also rather knowledgeable with medford rum and speakeasy trivia.

i have a tad more respect for this town, now. not bad, boston. just fix the t schedule already.


Cocktails in the Rough

[by Mike]

Last week I was down on the Cape, spending the days listening to lectures about particle physics and the nights socializing with other grad students from New England universities. While free beer was provided every evening, I could not leave well enough alone and decided to attempt a cocktail.

Brainstorming began on the drive to the local liquor store. Azul would provide an inexpensive but quality base spirit, but secondary spirits could I find without pulling too much from my wallet? Browsing around the store I found a four pack of local ginger beer, and I jumped on the idea of a tequila/ginger/lime rickey akin to a Dark and Stormy. By dinner I was mixing together my first trials and trying to contain my disappointment.

Marked by a pungent bitterness, the limes were clearly past their prime and the ginger beer was weak and watery. No matter the ratios, the drink ended up less than appetizing. The only redeeming quality was that it was so watery to dilute the off flavors.

Through dinner I contemplated alternative plans; azul is great in a drink, but mediocre sipped by itself. Recent exposure to "Famous New Orleans Drinks and how to mix 'em" and Good Eats inspired thoughts of a punch. The basic recipe (one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak) laid the foundation and some quick thinking filled in the details. With the lime juice, ginger beer, and tequila providing the first three ingredients I brewed a few bags of Earl Grey tea to provide the weak and went back to the make shift bar.

The lime juice proved too terrible to be salvaged, so I quickly dropped it and focused on the ginger beer, tequila, and tea. Warm ice and weak ginger beer necessitated altered ratios, but eventually I iterated to a half-way decent recipe. Overall, not quite a success but a fun adventure none the less. Given fresh juice and homemade ginger beer, the basic recipe might even have promise.


the flux bias

[by john]

some truths are hard to swallow - tonight it was that cryogenic experiments can require late nights in the lab, so that precious liquid helium doesn't run out. but thankfully, quality homemade drinks are easy to swallow.

here's what i played with tonight after getting home:
the flux bias

1 1/2 oz tequila (azul reposado)
1/4 oz green chartreuse
1/4 oz maraschino liqueur

stir and strain.
very sippable, with the different earthy flavors taking turns. the name is a bitter (hah) reference to the little electronic things i was trying to keep cold and characterize - squids.

another hard-to-swallow one: mike may have been right all along - the tequila trend is definitely here, with a new tequila-heavy bar mayahuel in manhattan, the spirit's re-christening at tales (according to misty, tom, and many a blogger), and the great popularity of my sole tequila drink at the party. i'm rolling with the trend, and it's fun. azul, it's worth mentioning, has a great flavor (and no nasty vapors), with a great price point ($23 for my bottle).

p.s. - it is hard to quantify the excitement between mike, andy, and i over the (early, in time for the party [the 1919 was a house special saturday night], thanks to adam) arrival of the xocolatl mole bitters. good things shall come.


how to throw a cocktail bash in four easy steps

[by john]

this past weekend, i threw a two night cocktail fĂȘte. it was perhaps the closest i will come to opening a bar, with different guests every night, waves of drink orders, and gourmet bar food. (mad props to mike and andy for the crispy shredded pork awesomeness, gravlax, and bone marrow.) i had tremendous amounts of fun without drinking anything, save for a few dozen milliliters from test-straws. homing in on each guest's taste proved to be a delightful challenge. i will certainly do this again.

now, easily:

create a menu

i put up my menu last time, but gave no indication of how hard it was to make. i tested tens of drinks over the course of a week to see which would appeal to a wide sample of palates. and, in addition to the pet pet, i created two originals - a st. germain/applejack marriage (la pomme rouge), and a constantly varying - popular, too, it turned out - tequila cocktail (the ho[a]rfrost).

everything on the menu got great attention and compliments, except for the poor martinez. being the oldest drink on there, maybe it couldn't hang with this hip crowd. noted. but otherwise, i am elated for converting many guests to the wonders of sloe gin, regular gin, spicy finishes, and flamed chartreuse.

go into debt

having settled on a menu, i then biked around boston/cambridge for another week trying to gather the necessary ingredients. the word is out on rittenhouse, quality bourbon, and old monk rum, apparently, because i had to discover several new liquor stores to hunt them all down.

after all my shopping, i went (a predicted) $200 over my normal budget for the month. i calculated the cost of each drink: usually around $3, and $4 for the tipperary. i figured each guest would go through ~3 rounds, so asked for $10 donations. in the end, i recouped exactly $200, perfect!

for the nth time, i'd like to reiterate how cheap home bartending is, compared to going out.

focus on the freezer

at some point, maybe 10 days before the party, i realized with growing dread that i would need a lot of ice. like, 200 cubes per night. only the brute force solution was viable: i bought two more tovolo trays and pushed out batches each day and night into ziploc bags. by friday morning, i was satisfied with five gallon bags, four trays in reserve, and five non-cubical trays in super-reserve.

some further creative maneuvering allowed me to fit cocktail glasses in there, too, so they could chill before service. good thing we weren't serving gelato or something.

stand around

the hard parts are done. now you only need to stand in one place for three hours and shake or stir the shit out of lots of drinks. stand, and also listen, steer, cajole, charm, engage, introduce, rinse, muddle, crack, and pour.

i had not expected the rush i got from bartending. it's like being on a kitchen line, but colder and solo. some hardcore multitasking - remembering orders, mixing, chatting people up, and monitoring the glassware situation all at once, with outward aplomb. and the repeated delight on guests' faces with the first sip made it even better.


More thoughts on Menus

[by Naveen]

John's forays into menu analysis have sparked my own curiosity. While looking through various options for Restaurant Week, I visited several of the venues' websites to examine their offerings. One of the first things that came to mind was a recent post on Presentation Zen about typography, a ubiquitous and often overlooked aspect of presentations. The top restaurants generally showed restraint in their menu design, with a limited color and font scheme coupled with a fearless use of white-space. For comparison, I also checked out some totally different dining establishments, with different economic considerations. The contrast between places like L'Espalier and Rialto, as opposed to The Cheesecake Factory and Taco Bell was quite striking (see here for another example). I realize that my small sample size does not come close to any type of systematic data analysis, but it did make me think more seriously about menu design, as well as the use of graphic design in my own presentations.

At the end, I decided to have a little fun, and made a hypothetical menu (inspired by this):


my menu

[by john]

after criticizing several types of bar menus, i had to make my own for this weekend when i threw a two-night cocktail party. more on the fĂȘte and the drinks themselves later; for now, i want to share the menu (pdf):

imagine it with a fold down the middle, so that you have the option of deciding based solely on ingredients, or solely on description (name and my musings), or on the combined knowledge.

if i owned a bar, it would be called 'aliment' (not usually applied to drinks, but i like the word and the connotation), and if it had a menu, it would look like this one. clean, elegant, brief, and the ingredients-plus-description style. and hopefully enticing enough to obviate any gin and tonic knee-jerk requests.


Teranga: a meta-review

[by Naveen]

After reading several recent reviews about the restaurant Teranga in the South End and talking with a computer visualization-savvy friend, I thought of showing the articles as a word cloud (generated by www.wordle.net). This is far from scientific, but could be the start of a new way to read about local dining establishments.

From top top bottom:
(1) June 6th, 2009: Teranga report on Chowhound
(2) June 16th 2009: First Bite: Teranga post on on Chowder
(3) July 29th, 2009: Teranga review on the Boston Phoenix
(4) July 29th, 2009: Teranga review on Boston.com