To Each His Own (Bar)

[by Mike]

As John just wrote, new inductees into cocktail culture are always curious about the best way to start their own bar. But $100? You're never going find a solution that placates everyone, and John's recommendations certainly raised my eyebrow halfway to the ceiling.

The reason? No tequila! My own tastes hold tequila above the other base spirits, and I think a good bottle (Azul, Sauza Hornitos, Milagro) opens a world of cocktail possibilities more appealing to a beginner. Good tequila, for example, blends wonderfully with fruit (from berries to melons to stone fruit), encouraging experimentation while introducing seasonal ingredients. When the bar is ready for expansions, moreover, tequila provides an ideal base for new spirits. Benedictine, Maraschino, Cointreau - they're all prime additions to the agave liquor.

But where does tequila fit in? Honestly, I think gin can be overwhelming to new enthusiasts. Save the gin drinks for the professions, at least until you've trained your wrists for brisk stirring, and start with sweeter drinks that can be more forgiving in their ratios and exact preparations.

My list, then, goes as follows:

Tequila - $25 (Azul, Sauza Hornitos, Milagro if you can find it cheap)
Rye - $20 (Rittenhouse, etc)
Rum - $20 (Sailor Jerry, Old Monk)
Sweet Vermouth - $10 (I think Martini and Rossi is fine to start)
Bitters - $15 (Angostura and Peychauds, for comparing and contrasting)
Citrus Juicer - $10 (In the Mexican style)

Pick up some limes, whip up some simple and ginger syrups, and you'll have plenty with which to play. Oh, and my hardware goes as: bar spoon, Oxo 2 oz measuring cup, Boston shaker, julep strainer, muddler (I'm currently using the end of a rake handle), and a set of Tovolo ice cube trays.

Now I'm off to go brainstorm uses for my bottle of Midori. When it's tequila time, it's Suntori time?

a bar of one's own

[by john]

in the span of just a few days i received two requests - nay, cries of help from the depths of impoverished abstemiousness - for advice on stocking a bar. hyperbole or not, i felt honored, since these two guys have greatly shaped my attitude towards cocktails. tony, in sf, who defines classy debauchery, made me my first ever mixed drink, and steven, in nyc, gives me field reports on (and occasionally entry into) the best bars in new york. and so, i was obliged.

let's set the constraint: $100 to stock a bar from scratch. thankfully, the simplest and most classic cocktails enjoy a large intersection, and can be made with a minimal set of ingredients. think the martini, the manhattan, a gimlet, a pegu club, or a julep. minus the cheap, background cost of fresh citrus and simple syrup, my initial list would be:
gin - $30 (plymouth, greylock, junipero, beefeater...)
rye - $20 (rittenhouse, old overholt [sazerac for a bit more])
french vermouth & italian vermouth - $30 (-not- martini & rossi - go for dolin or noilly prat)
bitters - $10 (start with angostura)
barspoon - $10 (try to seek out a nice one)
all the essentials are there - spirits, vermouths, bitters, and barware. i'm not trying to cover the gamut of base spirits, nor liqueurs. those can all come later. and don't forget about the barware. i'm assuming there's already a pint glass handy, but with each paycheck acquire, in order, a boston shaker metal tin, an oxo hawthorne strainer, an oxo 2 oz slanted measuring cup, and a citrus reamer.

above all, though, a bar should be stocked drink by drink. find a cocktail you like enough to make it regularly at home, then get the cointreau or benedictine or rum or even absinthe necessary to make it. put aside some money each month to get a new bottle to expand your repertoire. for instance, steven, with his penchant for last words and variants thereon, might consider splurging on some chartreuse and maraschino liqueur. and then last words will cost $3 instead of $12.

if only i had given my callow past self the same advice - then i wouldn't have that damn useless bottle of midori sitting around...



[by Mike]

One of the more engaging elements of the cocktail movement is participation. An amazing drink can inspire you to pick up a new bottle, cook up a new syrup, or prepare a juice you would never have thought of otherwise.

When house made ginger beer started sweeping across Boston bars last year, however, I didn't succumb. I was intrigued, but hesitant to start pushing syrups through my soda siphon lest the increased viscosity cause premature wear on the valves (when you're a grad student on a budget, these are nontrivial considerations). It wasn't until I watched some old Good Eats episodes that a yeast-fermented ginger beer became obvious.

I started with the basic Good Eats recipe (sadly not available on the website), adding cinnamon, star anise, and cardamom when steeping the syrup, and waited anxiously as the two bottles stood on my counter fermenting over the course of a few days. Once the bottles started hissing I had a pretty good idea that the beer was ready. Releasing the initial pressure proved to be slightly chaotic, but otherwise the process was painless.

Unfortunately the ginger flavor didn't really live up to my expectations; while significantly spicier than most commercially available ginger beers it lacked the strong bite to which I have grown accustomed. The texture, however, was a pleasant surprise. Slower, more delicate carbonation produced smaller, softer bubbles that tempted the tongue instead of smacking it around as injected carbonation is wont to do.

The first application was an attempt to recreate a drink from Tom at Craigie,

Blueberry Cobbler
Muddled blueberries
2 oz reposado tequila
0.5 oz benedictine
Top with ginger beer

While it could have used stronger ginger flavor, the more delicate carbonation added a nice, dare I say, sophistication?

The beauty of fermentation is that its applications are near endless. As the beer was charging I sat out a slurry of flour, water, and sugar next to my window and waited for Cambridge yeast to make a home and do their thing. It didn't take long for the characteristic bubbles to make an appearance and hopefully I'll have a proper starter by next weekend.


Smart Choices Program for Bacteria

[by Naveen]

The blogosphere has been swept by an epidemic of debate regarding the new Smart Choices program laid out by the country's major food corporations. Critics point out that Froot Loops, over 40% sugar by weight, gets the green check mark of approval. Proponents claim that it will help consumers navigate the plethora of choices in the grocery store aisles. Since I'm an applied physicist and microbial enthusiast, rather than a nutritionist, I'll offer my unique perspective on the issue:

Growing biofilms in a petri dish isn't easy. The label above is adapted from the mix of nutrients that I use to feed the Bacillus subtilis that I study. It's a pretty odd assortment: the controversial flavor-enhancer MSG, the supposedly sleep-inducing protein tryptophan, the diet drug component phenylanaline, the B-vitamin thiamine, and various metal ions.

Not growing biofilms outside of a petri dish is also difficult. If we aren't careful to keep things sterile in lab, an invasion can sweep through the incubator. Pretty much every surface around you (e.g. your teeth, contact lenses, intestinal linings...) can be a home for a symbiotic coalition of bacteria.

If it's this hard to know exactly what makes a single, well-studied species of bacteria survive (one of the vanishingly small minority that we can actually culture in a lab), I think that we still have quite a ways to go to catalog all the substances in the plant and animal kingdoms that keep us healthy. On the other hand, human beings seem to be pretty adaptable, capable of surviving on diets ranging from raw vegan to arctic carnivore. Evolution may need a little help, though, when it comes to new creations like KFC's Double Down "sandwich" or deep-fried butter.

the new england society for the promotion of vice

[by john]

as threatened earlier after our history lesson, we've founded an organization to combat the nosy killjoys over at the watch and ward society, also known as the new england society for the suppression of vice. (nevermind that they're all dead.)

after a soft opening for a week or so, the new england society for the promotion of vice officially flung its arms wide open to cocktail-clutching prospective members at eastern standard's speakeasy this wednesday. laughter, stories, recipes, and pins were all exchanged. yes indeed, vice-sanctioning buttons:

drop us a line if you want one, and wear it proudly.


The Fine Art of Reviewing Books

[by Mike]

In order to add some variety to my usual load of summer reading (a stack of textbooks), I took advantage of our last trip to the Boston Shaker to pick up a book on cocktails. While John vacillated on the Jerry Thomas tome, I jumped on one of the new reprints of David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drink. Expectations were high: rarely have months passed without hearing fawning praise or stories of old copies reselling for outrageous prices.

Written not long after the appeal of Prohibition, Embury's text oozes of a definite quaintness, complete with a veiled condescension towards women and authoritative pseudo-science. Not to mention a total disdain for tequila. Pushing on, however, it's easy to see why it was so treasured by the early cocktail revolutionaries. Embury held strong opinions towards cocktails and how they should be made, demanding fresh ingredients and careful thought towards construction instead of blind devotion to recipes.

For someone already indoctrinated into the cocktail movement, however, much of Embury's impassioned arguments are redundant; those likely to pick up a copy of the book are already likely to share his philosophy. The real value of the text, then, becomes something for which Embury is not shy in expressing his hatred: a recipe book. While few of the recipes are immediately phenomenal, they serve as wonderfully fertile grounds for experimentation and play. Armed with calibrated ingredient ratios, an enthusiastic reader can readily attack the recipes and quickly develop an array of diverse, well balanced drinks.

Contrary to what some might claim, The Fine Art of Mixing Drink won't change your life, but it does makes great summer reading.


the original jello shot

[by john]

you know how each generation thinks it's the one that discovered sex? or the word 'guesstimate'? well the same can be said for jello shots, apparently.

yes, that horrid fixture of college house parties was already old news by 1862, when jerry thomas published his book entitled 'how to mix drinks, or the bon-vivant's companion, containing clear and reliable directions for mixing all the beverages used in the united states, together with the most popular british, french, german, italian, russian, and spanish recipes, embracing punches, juleps, cobblers, etc., etc., etc., in endless variety.' (brevity, jerry, brevity.)


there you have it. and you wondered how you could use all that leftover isinglass! the last sentence is one of the better i've encountered in the english language. equal parts quaintness and hilarity, and a damn accurate description of modern day jello shot drawbacks, too.


a bad review

[by john]

a rather well respected cocktail blogger reviewed drink (i'd say my favorite bar in the world), and just excoriated the establishment. being a boston cocktail nut, i feel like the review attacks me personally, however ridiculous that notion is.

an apologia. the experience matt had there sounds plain terrible. it sounds like going out for cocktails at...legal seafood, or on boylston street. a cocky, bad bartender. pitchers of premixed drinks (side note - i noticed these getting prepped the last time i went to drink - 5pm on a saturday night. i was disappointed, but misty was adamant about their necessity for high throughput nights.). a four-deep bar. free pouring. shots?! ugh.

but, let me be clear - i have never been to the drink that matt went to.

i've always enjoyed drink on off hours, so that i can talk to the bartenders, let alone get a seat. i thought it was a rule among cocktail geeks to avoid bars on friday and saturday nights, unless you want a beer.

i've never seen someone shoot a shot there.

i've never seen free pouring (modulo champagne floats).

i've actually gotten a boothby manhattan no problem.

and yet, matt's experience exemplifies something i've been sensing - that the level of professionalism at drink is slipping... unlike the first generation of bartenders who started the place, not every new bartender (and there are lots of them, with drink's growing popularity) knows their shit, let alone their classic shit.

and i feel like the bartenders effectively are creating a menu - instead of listening to each patron - by pigeonholing tastes into the friday/saturday pre-mixed drinks. it takes the magic out of drink, and it saddens me to think that a no-menu kind of bar can't do big business.

as for his remaining critiques - no doorman, no menu, no liquor shelf - well, i'd rather sit down and have a drink to talk about them. i believe that an open (we're not speakeasy nyc), interactive (for minutes at a time during off hours), and unostentatious (bars are not liquor churches) bar is the new paradigm.

matt is clearly not one of those confused yelpers who can't get a bud. drink should listen up and get its shit together.


Hygroscopic biscuits

[by Naveen]
"These are like dessicator packets!" - my self-assessment of a recent baking experiment
An amazing batch of cinnamon rolls from my housemate inspired a spree of haphazard ingredient substitutions. I still had brown rice flour, coconut oil, flaxseed, and other such ingredients from my previous adventure in vegan baking, so I thought that I would use them to recreate his decadent breakfast. However, I neglected to realize two points:
  • The melting characteristics of coconut oil are totally different than shortening. I didn't mix the dough enough to break up the chilled blobs of coconut fat, which led to pools of liquid when transferred to the oven.
  • Brown rice flour is good for shortbread cookies, when the purpose of the flour is mainly to turn a large quantity of butter (or other fat) into a cookie that doesn't melt in your hand, but crumbles easily. When the fat:flour ratio is scaled back, the starches are no longer fully occupied, so the resulting quick bread loses structural integrity and appears to seek out any source of water (e.g. your tongue).
In an attempt to console me, my housemate explained how he had hundreds of years of collective cooking experience with wheat flour, butter, and sugar against my couple years of amateur interest in gastroscience. To catch-up, I need to be more systematic and purposeful in my experimentation. Although I lack the resources of America's Test Kitchen, I'll strive to apply my physics skills to the culinary realm.


a saratoga patch

[by john]

cocktaileers haven't ended their honeymoon just yet with tequila and mezcal. they're reinventing classic drinks (witness the oaxacan old fashioned), they're making new ones (q.v. misty kalkofen's maximilian affair or anything coming out of mayahuel), and they're finding their favorite brands to mix with.

i've been dipping my own barspoon in, with the flux bias and ho(a)rfrost, but hadn't yet tried a tequila twist on a classic. so here's a new take on a saratoga. i forget when i was first introduced to the saratoga, but it was for one notable feature: it mixes two very different base spirits together, rye and cognac. it's kind of one of those average cocktails, better in concept than execution. i wondered if tequila's flavors could improve it:

the saratoga

equal parts: rye
italian vermouth
two dashes of bitters

the saratoga.2

1 oz rye
1 oz tequila
1/2 oz italian vermouth
3 dashes xocolatl-mole bitters

i like this better than the original. the earthy/herbal flavors of the rye and tequila play well together, whereas cognac is easily subdued by rye. plus, the x-m bitters get their voice heard in the herbal parley. it's not great, though - and it was highly dependent on ingredients. rittenhouse was too strong, punt e mes was too overpowering, and any more vermouth (dolin in the end) is too sweet.

but for now, it can serve as a patch, saving a classic drink from averageness.

august budget

[by john]

after a raucous july, my alcohol spending took a break while i played with a bunch of new bottles leftover from the party at home. more on that soon. in all, i spent $115, and a good chunk of that was on a book! i picked up a reproduction of jerry thomas' 1862 compendium 'a bon vivant's companion' from adam at the boston shaker. more on that soon, too.

my reduced spending helped absorb the excess from some other categories, however. a lovely dinner at no. 9 park during restaurant week, plus some enthusiastic splurging at the grocery store (on $10/pound butter, for instance. possibly inspired by 'julie & julia'?) put me over the edge. totally worth it, though.

in other monetary news, our graduate stipend has gone up to $2130 per month, a $60 increase. but like any conscious spender, i won't let it affect my budgeting; rather i'll save the excess for my ira and a flight to bkk.