Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks for Irish Whiskey

I'll tell you one thing that Margo Channing wouldn't do. She wouldn't have wimped out on the Chatham Artillery Punch. Yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, was the day to haul out the Chatham Punch. The recipe, 175 years young, called for an additional bottle of champagne upon serving. I ended up adding a half-bottle. After all, the concotion was 50% alcohol already!

The consensus was that the punch smelled alcoholly but tasted a lot better than it smelled. Quite a resounding endorsement.

Working on a freelance gift guide, I had writer's block on the Scotch.

I'm not much of a Scotch drinker. I can't think of another beverage for which to be called medicinal is a good thing. I hesitate to go into an arena that encourages such fanaticism. You could drink the scotch with the longest, most unpronounceable name. Or you can drink Oban. It falls right in the middle between dry, peaty, smoky Scotch and the sweeter, milder sort. It comes from a tiny distillery in a tiny town so it's a little pricey, around $55 a bottle, but it's pronounceable.

As for the Irish, Jameson's is not a sipping whiskey no matter what any Irishman might tell you in Woodlawn. Powers is better (and cheaper), and Black Bush is better still. But I know from experience, that ordering a Black Bush at a bar leaves you open to all kinds of unwelcome ribaldry.

Uisce beatha - the water of life. Powers because who's having a Scotch coffee at the end of a big meal?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I Don't Want to Make Trouble; All I Want Is a Drink: A Thanksgiving Punch for Whole Family

Thanksgiving comes soon. Time to make cocktails for large amounts of people. So, over the river (Hudson) and through the woods (Harriman State Park), to the bourbon distillery we go. The Mini Cooper knows the way to carry.... I have no idea why the Mini knows the way to Tuthilltown Distillery. It must be that once-British, now-German engineering.

It is time to expand the vintage cocktail to include entertaining for many. The holidays approach quickly when sitting at the local bar. Some of you may be feeding an army this Thanksgiving. Here is a recipe that's guaranteed to fell that army — the Chatham Artillery Punch. But first, the bourbon.

We went to Gardiner, New York on a perfect autumn day to check out the first distillery in the state since the Prohibition, Tuthilltown Spirits. The four-year-old distillery has a retail store and a tasting room — something that I took full advantage of. For ten dollars, you get to taste three of their current whiskeys. On that particular day, they had Corn Whiskey, Baby Bourbon, 4-Grain Bourbon, Manhattan Rye, and New York Whiskey. The alcohol was offered in order of complexity, each one amazingly smooth.

Tuthilltown is causing lots of buzz on the spirits circuit. As Green Acres as it appeared on the outside, inside the store, a film crew was shooting a video -- an indication of the distillery's sophistication and popularity. However, our little field trip wasn't ignored in the media swirl. The lovely clerk was very attentive to us homespun blogger types.

I came away with the Corn Whiskey, which was delicious and deserves its own column in the future. I also bought the Baby Bourbon and the New York Whiskey for the hubby's bar. A note on the New York Whiskey: this is a sour mash, so named because of the process of distilling, adding an older mash to a newer batch. It ends with a sweeter product despite the name. The wonderfully enticing bottles are all hand-capped. Perfect for Christmas gifts, but I get ahead of myself.

Tuthilltown is a trip of about two hours north of New York City, and I can't recommend it enough. The corn fields, the oak barrels, the roaring brook next door: it is an idyllic experience and can be revisited with each taste at home.

Pulling the Punch

Please take the trip if you're in this area, but don't pour the Baby Bourbon into the punch bowl. The BB is an expensive sipping bourbon, aged for a year in an American Oak barrel. In general, for punches, I suggest moderately priced alcohol — not the bottom of the cask that causes those lovely hangovers the next morning, but something in the middle. Jim Beam is just fine for the bourbon. The same goes for all the alcohols. Everything in moderation.

The Chatham Punch is as vintage as vintage can get. It is approximately 175 years old, originating with the Chatham Artillery in Savannah, Georgia. The Savannah ladies served this punch at military functions. Historical drunkenness ensued. The original recipes serve two hundred. I've scaled it back to serve around twenty.

Start this recipe a few days ahead, even a week before serving!

Chatham Punch:

4 cups white rum
2 cups gin
2 cups bourbon
2 cups brandy
1 1/2 bottle sweet red wine
1 gallon strong cold tea
1 cup maraschino cherries, drained
1/4 pound pineapple chunks (fresh)
1 1/4 cup light brown sugar
Juice of 4 lemons
1 bottle dry champagne

First problem: Where to put all this alcohol?! I found this great 2 1/2-gallon glass jar in Target — perfect for making punches. It's called the Montana Jar, and it was a fantastic find. Who knew Target had stylish glassware for brewing lethally alcoholic beverages? Love Target.

Mix all the ingredients except champagne in a clean container with a lid, and store in a cool place. I used the refrigerator.

Some recipes say this punch is ready in twenty-four hours. Others say it is ready in one week. One even says it can sit in the fridge for two weeks. From personal experience, the punch was ready the next day, but it was better, had more flavor, with every day it sat. After one week, I plan on putting in the freezer. Feel free to contact me for the results!

When serving, use a large punch bowl with blocks of ice, rather than ice cubes. You can make ice blocks with Tupperware in your freezer. Use a bundt cake pan for a decorative block. Add the champagne, some lemon wheels, and serve.

Well done, I say to myself. I can see my career rising in the east like the sun.

Warning: this beverage is very potent. Use caution. Remember that driving drunk in1837 was different than driving drunk now. Then the horse really did know the way.

Don Draper's Drink for When the Universe is Indifferent.

Make it another Old-Fashioned, please!

So said Cole Porter and now says Don Draper.

In honor of Mad Men's fantastic season finale, I went on a week-long search for Don Draper's cocktail of choice — the Old-Fashioned. In series creator Matthew Wiener's world, the Old-Fashioned is a heavy metaphor. Don Draper is struggling to stay in step with a rapidly changing decade — the JFK assassination, the Civil Rights and women's movements, and the age of television. Don, deceivingly cool in his Brooks Brothers suit, is antiquated. Would he survive the chaos of the sixties? Will he trade in his Old-Fashioned for a vodka martini? Will he continue to drink cocktails at 9:30 a.m.? Stay tuned for season four.

In the meantime, mad spirits await. I started my Goldilocks (half-head highlights) tour at the Billy Martin Tavern in the Georgetown area of Washington D.C. This Billy Martin is no relation to the famously tempestuous Billy Martin of the NY Yankees, but he is equally legendary in the neighborhood.

Martin's Tavern is a landmark in an area that is saturated with landmarks — the famous Exorcist stairs, for example.

Photo by Colleen Kaiser/

Martin's Tavern was offering a 75th anniversary edition of the Old-Fashioned. I'm not sure what exactly constituted the special edition of the cocktail. The waiter wasn't any help either. He didn't know it was on the specials list.

The cocktail arrived without incident and without explanation. Perfectly serviceable, muddled orange and cherry, but maybe not worth waiting 75 years for.

There are many recipes for an old-fashioned. A very old drink, it may have been very first so-called cocktail - a drink at the rooster's crow.

The Old-Fashioned:

2 oz. of bourbon
2 dashes of bitters
1 splash of water
1 tsp of superfine sugar
1 maraschino cherry
1 orange wedge

In the Old-Fashioned's history, there has been plenty of time for changes along the way, but what should happen is this: the sugar and water dissolve in the bottom of a large rocks glass. Add the bitters. Add the cherry and orange wedge. Muddle with a muddler. Yes, a muddler! If you're going to keep reading these tracts, you'll need a muddler — just kidding, the round of a spoon works well too. Fill glass with ice. Add the bourbon and stir.

The drink at Martin's may have been ordinary, but the history at Martin's is extraordinary — every sitting president since Harry Truman has visited the restaurant. All anxiously await President Obama.

According to the menu, Booth Three is where JFK proposed to Jackie. We could only glance at the iconic seat - the tavern was so crowded. It was Sunday brunch, and Sunday brunch in D.C. is the equivalent to 1:30 a.m. in New York City's meatpacking district.

Some Old-Fashioned recipes call for less bourbon and more water. Beware the "modern Old-Fashioned" which calls for one ounce of bourbon, and the glass filled with club soda. A cautionary tale I encountered was an Old-Fashioned that was essentially a very tall Manhattan. The drink was strained onto another glass full of ice — a wine glass — with no garnish and a cherry on the bottom.

Another Old-Fashioned, that same night, had an alarming color — perhaps an abundance of cherry juice. There is a variation of the drink that calls for maraschino juice as a substitute for water in the muddling. Muddling. I like saying that word.

My companion was suspicious that the drink was so red that there might be grenadine in it. The bartender was shocked, shocked at the suggestion.

Final stop was X20, the latest restaurant from Peter X. Kelly, Iron Chef winner. A gorgeous spot in Yonkers, New York on the Hudson River, overlooking the Palisades, X2O is a five star restaurant with a five star bar. I picked the Tuthilltown Baby Bourbon for my Old-Fashioned. It was served straight up which concerned me at first, but all was forgiven. It was the best of the week.

Beginning and ending the week with a presidential theme, I asked Chris, the bartender at X2O, about a recent visit to the restaurant by the Clintons. What did the president drink? Inquiring minds must know. It turns out that the Clintons had red wine. I was surprised, thinking that Bill might be a cocktail guy, or at the very least, a beer guy. Mrs. Clinton, said Chris, ordered the wine.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Side Car: A Drink That Tastes Much Better than It Sounds

I have been thinking about Sidecars a lot lately. Hasn't everyone?

Well, apparently yes, they have. In yesterday's mail, amidst all the Christmas catalogs, there arrived fashion designer Trina Turk's new advertising flyer. Trina is recommending the Sidecar for holiday entertaining. I say, "Sure! Let's! I was just thinking the same thing!"

The Sidecar came up frequently during my research into the Whiskey Sour. The Sidecar is a cousin, or at least it's in the same family--the Family Sour: a liquor base with a balance of sweet and sour.

The Sidecar is a Whiskey Sour relation: the relation with the much more intriguing name. Why a sidecar? What does this cocktail have to do with an extra seat attached to a motorcycle?

Perhaps the answer lies in the beginnings of the drink, which were at the end of World War One. It originated maybe in Paris, maybe in London, maybe on a motorcycle. Who knows?

A bartender needed to make an emergency cocktail while commuting. His only transportation--a motorcycle. Hilarity ensued.

One of the first mentions of the Sidecar is in Robert Vermeire's 1922 Cocktails: How To Mix Them,for those of you keeping score at home. The drink was supposedly invented by legendary bartender MacGarry of London's Buck Club, a true visionary not only of mixology but of the need to have only one name as a celebrity.

Here is the trusted recipe:

The Sidecar:
2 oz. of brandy or cognac
3/4 oz. of Cointreau or triple sec
3/4 oz. of fresh lemon juice
lemon wedge

With the lemon wedge, moisten rim of a coupe glass (it looks like an old-style champagne glass). A martini glass will do just as well. Sprinkle wet rim with superfine sugar. A true bartender will only coat half a glass with sugar to give the customer the option - to sugar or not to sugar.

Place the first three ingredients into a cocktail shaker full of ice. Shake well until a frost forms on the shaker. Strain into glass. Start your engines.

I recently visited the Chelsea area of New York City. At the always funHalf-King, a necessary stop on anyone's literary pub crawl since it is partially owned by Sebastian Junger of The Perfect Storm fame, I had the brainstorm to order a Chelsea Sidecar, a variation on our theme that calls for gin rather than brandy. I was confident that the bar would stretch to the occasion, not only because of geography but also because the Sidecar was on their drinks menu.

What resulted was a rather unpleasant gin gimlet. Lime juice and too much of it. There's nothing wrong with a gimlet, but that's for another column.

Moving onto Astoria, Queens, I tried again. That could have been a mistake too. Astoria has its own cocktail, basically a very wet martini with orange bitters. The neighborhood might not have been welcome to the idea of a Sidecar on 31st Avenue and 33rd Street, or 31st Street and 33rd Avenue, or 31st Road and 33rd Street. Astoria can be confusing. You don't want to have too many Sidecars, or you won't find your way out.

We visited the Brick Cafe, a charming little rustic chic Euro restaurant. Far from being defensive about the Astoria Cocktail, the waiter at the cafe was undaunted by the order of the Sidecar. And after the drink arrived, I could see why. It was excellent. So much so that visions of award ceremonies danced in my head. The Speakeasy's Award for most Unfazed Waiter, and maybe even The Speakeasy Award for Best Cocktail. Awards ceremony season is rapidly approaching. I'd better get to work on that. Just one more cocktail. I'll make it a stylish one on Trina Turk's good advice.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Whiskey Sours: Grandmother's Class Act.

The only cocktail I ever remember my grandmother drinking was a whiskey sour. The only occasion was while dining at Hoak's Restaurant, a longstanding, lakefront restaurant in Hamburg, New York. The drink became special to me through nostalgia.

The original appeal of my grandmother's whiskey sour came from the slice of orange and the maraschino cherry. As I grew older and even more attracted to bright, shiny objects, I grew to love the drink for the vintage cocktail shaker it arrived in.

Hoak's was a homely fish-fry place. In contrast, it seemed glamorous for your drink to come to the table in a tall shaker with the rocks glass on the side. You strained your own cocktail, and the drink stayed cold and refreshing. To this day, I am disappointed when a whiskey sour arrives without the shaker – not that I order the drink often. And therein lies the problem. It is time for a whiskey sour renaissance.

The whiskey sour is the granddaddy of the Family Sour – mixed drinks that have a base liquor, lemon or lime juice, and a sweetener. This balance of sweet and sour should sound familiar. Many modern, more popular drinks are based on it. The margarita, for one, in which the sweetener is triple sec.

Recently, in honor of my grandmother, I ordered a whiskey sour at the Yankee Doodle Tap Roomin Princeton, New Jersey. It was the anniversary of her death, also the anniversary of her birth. In a most Jeffersonian way, she passed away on her birthday. A woman as wise as Jefferson in many ways, she had good taste when it comes to cocktails.

The whiskey sour has a long, lovely history. It is one of the original drinks in the iconic Jerry Thomas' Bartender's Guidefrom 1862. Looking even further back, the lowly whiskey sour appears to have been the official drink of the 184-year-old Jefferson Literary and Debating Society at the University of Virginia, the oldest continuously existing collegiate debating club. Member Edgar Allen Poe probably was a fan of the whiskey sour, although later in life, poor guy, he may have called for a whiskey sour, hold the lemon, hold the sugar.

I imagine the drink is no longer the official drink of UVA debating. Think of how entertaining a college debate could be, however, when under the influence of its "official drink."

There is no reason for the whiskey sour's ostracization, its demotion to simply a grandmother's drink, as beloved as that grandmother might be. Actually, I take that back. There is a reason for the lowly status of the whiskey sour: the sour mix.

Why put sour mix in a whiskey sour? It is not too much more effort to simply dissolve some superfine sugar in some lemon juice. The true whiskey sour is, fundamentally, lemonade with lots of whiskey! Canadian, bourbon or Tennessee whiskey is just fine if you don't have rye. If you have rye whiskey in the home, with rye becoming increasingly uncommon you may not want to squeeze a lemon into it.

Here is the recipe from that iconic book, The Art of Bartending:
Whiskey Sour:
(Use small bar-glass.)
Take 1 large tea-spoonful of powdered white sugar,
dissolved in a little Seltzer or Apollinaris water.
The juice of half a small lemon.
1 wine-glass of Bourbon or rye whiskey.
Fill the glass full of shaved ice, shake up and strain into a claret glass. Ornament with berries.

I don't know about the berries. I think the drink is grand with an orange wheel and a cherry, like they mix at Hoak's. That's the six-year-old in me talking. The 40-something says: "Don't you love Jerry Thomas' measurement of "1 wine-glass of whiskey"?

The whiskey sour I had at the Tap Room was nothing to write home to Grandma about (sour mix?), but the location was. It is definitely a spot you want to visit if you find yourself in this scenic college town. The Yankee Doodle is renowned for the large 1937 Norman Rockwell mural behind the wall.

The tables are covered with decades' worth of Princetonians's initials.

The wall is covered with Hall of Fame photos. Our First Lady's vibrant portrait, unveiled earlier this year, was awash in a sea of pale, male faces, comically close to the face of Donald Rumsfeld – the face of one presidential administration next to the face of another.

Here is another notable on the wall, from the class of '32:

A decade and half later, Jimmy Stewart would play George Bailey, known to have a wonderful life even when he drank too much at Martini's Bar.

Try a whiskey sour again. It's no flaming rum punch, true. It's better.