Oh Makers Mark…
So by now you’ve probably heard about the whole Makers Mark fiasco that has played out over the last week or so, but in case you haven’t, here’s the gist of what went down. The brand announced that it would be lowering the proof of its iconic Bourbon by 3% to meet increased demand. Critics and fans alike were outraged, even though officials in Loreto promised that the new product would taste exactly the same. Then, a couple of days later, the brand retracted its stance reporting that it had “come to its senses” and would be returning the whiskey back to its 90 proof self. Fans rejoiced.
This whole time I’m thinking, what’s the big effing deal? First of all, I can’t tell you how many times I heard “aww whaaaah!, Makers is watering down their whiskey boo hoo hoo…” But guess what? Its already watered down and so is basically every other Bourbon on the market. Bourbon simply doesn’t come out of the barrel, magically at 90 proof, whiskey makers actually add water to get to a consistent ABV, almost always. And secondly isn’t Maker’s Mark known for its smoothness and drinkability? Well what do you think lowering its ABV slightly would have done besides make it smoother and more drinkable? NOTHING! And while I did hear some murmurings about how they are the category leader and such a move sets a precedent for less successful brands to follow suit, potentially jeopardizing the integrity of the entire American Whiskey segment… I can tell you what jeopardizes the American Whiskey industry: companies like Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana who is owned by a parent company called MGP Ingredients that produces things like this (click) making one 95% rye whiskey and calling it Bulleit, Filibuster, George Dickel, High West, James E. Pepper, Redemption,Smooth Ambler, and Templeton, deluding the drinking public into thinking we have this giant resurgent of new rye whiskeys, when in fact there is only one.
At least Maker’s Mark was being up front about what they were doing, but I’ll bet you money if they would have made the change quietly, nobody except maybe Paul Pacult would have noticed. Eventually some arm garter wearing mixologist would have noticed the change on the label and launched a viral coupe that no one outside of the very small cocktail world would have cared about and he would have gone back to raving about the new LDI rye he’s using in his barrel aged Old Pal. Another thing they could have done is what Wild Turkey did a couple of years ago and just release a separate label, with a lower proof, which happened to be a very successful move with little consumer blowback. As it turned out more people liked the slightly more watered down Turkey better than the 101, which is arguably a better Bourbon. At the end of the day, all the whoopla stems from nothing more than irrational emotional attachment. I mean, its not like any of the dissenters actually tried the 84 proof Maker’s Mark. Oh and isn’t this stuff mostly consumed over ice, and doesn’t a spirit with a higher alcoholic content melt ice faster (yes it does), and isn’t ice made out of water, so isn’t it all the same anyway?
The question that now remains is how does the company deal with the supply issue that caused it to consider the dilution in the first place? Consumers said that they would rather face the occasional supply shortage or price increase than have the recipe altered in any way, but I promise you that they are lying and that when supply gets scarce or prices start to jump it’ll be the same bitching all over again. I guess one thing the company could do is stop the relentless rapid expansion of new foreign markets until there’s the stock to do so, but that is an industry wide problem and who’s to say Indonesia will still want Bourbon 6 years from now when supply catches up. Another option would be to increase the proof coming off the still, and obtain consistency through careful blending and dilution, while maintaining the 90 proof label, though I would find this to be a much worse compromise and again, one whose efforts wouldn’t be realized for approximately 6 more years.
At any rate, Maker’s Mark will always have a special place in my heart. It was my drink of choice for all of my early twenties, and as a “gateway whiskey” it got me to explore what is now my favorite spirit category. While my friends were all drinking vodka, Crown or (Gasp!!) Patron, I felt like I had discovered this really special elixir, the one dipped in red wax. It was cunning marketing that I now understand but hadn’t a clue about at 22 that sucked me in to that squatty bottle with the torn yellow label, and now I’m wondering if this whole thing isn’t just an elaborate PR campaign. (Ok I confess, I can be quite the conspiracy theorist at times, ask any of my friends…) I’m thinking of a campaign that takes a brand that re-launched an entire category which is currently close to saturated (with labels, not product) whose domestic growth may have started to flatline a bit, and forces the public into proclaiming how much they love your product, and then you reward these loving consumers who may have been experimenting with other brands by saying “we listen, we care, we’re here for you, now come back home to daddy.” I’m just sayin it could happen, but that doesn’t change the way I feel about my first whiskey love. So here I am, on record as being the only person in the industry willing to say “they should’ve changed it.” At least that way we could all have done a little side by side tasting and made an objective decision on the matter.
Remember the Maine!
Post by Alex Gregg
Photos: google images
Its been over three months since I’ve posted on here… Sorry guys and gals and anybody else who followed, glanced at, hated or enjoyed this blog up until October of last year. As many of you may know, I’ve had my hands full helping to open the Pass and Provisions as a bartender and then stepping up as bar manager alongside friend and colleague Sebastian Nahapetien (we are both managers of the bar). Its been an exhilarating experience just getting the menu out, product in place, managing ticket times for tables, not to mention the feeling of pride that followed our ability to execute the full beverage pairing program in fine dining, tasting menu Pass. If you get a chance, you should stop on by. Meanwhile here are a few of the cocktails from our menu.
First up: The Tequila Rickey. This is basically our answer to the “Skinny Margarita” phenomenon that has been holding health conscious imbibers’ palates hostage for a few years now. While ingredients like Splenda, Sweet and Low, and cleverly marketed artificially flavored “Skinny” mixes have usurping their way into the already bastardized classic, I remain a steadfast purist on the subject of acceptable margarita ingredients. In order for a drink to be called a margarita, it must contain: Tequila (preferably blanco), fresh lime juice and some type of orange liqueur (triple sec, curacao- not the blue shite, Gran Marnier, etc). Topics like ice, salt, ratios and the addition of additional sweeteners (agave nectar) are purely discretionary in my opinion, though I prefer mine up, with no salt, in a 2:1:1 ratio. The fact is, that a margarita made in that fashion –uh the proper way-essentially is a “skinny” margarita as it contains no additional sweetener. But this isn’t enough for many skinny aficionados who insist on omitting the orange component, thereby making their drink not a margarita any more (see above.) At any rate, in an attempt to please all palates and dietary fads while keeping the integrity of the cocktail program intact we present the pleasantly refreshing and delicious Tequila Rickey. One only has to look back to sometime around 1883 when a drink called the rickey was born, likely to have originally been a bourbon or rye highball with the addition of lime and club soda, although it is the gin variation that most people think of when they hear the word. Ours merely substitutes the gin or whiskey for tequila and we add a bar spoon of agave nectar to balance the acidity of the lime and round out the mouth feel. Our choice of club soda is none other than taqueria favorite, Topo Chico with its magically never ending effervescence. We take the tradition of garnishing a rickey with the lime half that provided the juice and freeze it into an ice cube which serves a dual function. 1.5 oz Blanco Tequila, .75 oz Lime Juice, 1 barspoon agave nectar. Build in glass with lime ice cube, top with soda.
This drink was conceived when I was looking for a way to highlight the awesome-ness that is Texas Grapefruit season by preserving the citrus in salt to provide a way keep the ingredient around after the sometimes short window closes on the grapefruit season. Some of you will remember when I did the same thing about a year ago with limes, inspired by the funky and refreshing Vietnamese Chan Muoi lime-aide, and spun it into a Caipirinha. Salt preserving as a technique goes back to ancient times and was the primary way to preserve meat up until around 1900 or so, and can likely be solely responsible for the sustainability of many early civilizations.
Muddled sage brings a savory herbal note that integrates wonderfully with the bitter, acidic and salty preserved grapefruit while fresh lime and grapefruit juice bring refreshing vibrancy. Spicy rye whiskey provides the bottom and cassis integrates to give a fruit high note. The drink is then topped with soda (yep, Topo Chico again) and served with one large format ice cube. Keep an eye on this one, as it will be one of the first to go as the grapefruit season winds down (they’re still looking nice right now) and our stock of preserved fruit diminishes.
1.5 oz Rye Whiskey, .75 oz fresh Grapefruit Juice, .5 oz Fresh Lime Juice, .5 oz Crème de Cassis, 1 barspoon Simple Syrup, 3 Sage leaves, 1 preserved grapefruit wedge. Muddle Grapefruit, Sage and Simple, add the other ingredients in a rocks glass with a large format ice cube, Top with Soda.
Preserved Grapefruit: Dice 3 large Texas Grapefruits, add 1/2 cup kosher salt, vacuum seal using cryovac in large bag. Rest at least 1 week.
Finally: El Lechedor
For the final drink of this post, I present you with the Lechedor. It’s essentially a New Orlean’s style milk punch made with Sotol instead of brandy, rum or bourbon and flavored with violette and orange instead of the traditional vanilla and cinnamon.
Sotol is a spirit made from the Sotol plant (aka: desert spoon or Dasylirion wheeleri), which is actually a slow growing, flowering evergreen shrub (a wild variety of agave) It can be found in West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and in Mexico in the states of Chihuahua and Sonora. The plant itself takes on average fifteen years to mature (that’s 50% longer on average than blue weber agave) and one plant produces a mere single bottle of the distilled spirit. The production is very similar to that of artisanal mezcal from harvest to distillation, except that sotol must be harvested wild, as it is resistant to cultivation. On the palate, Sotol can resemble characteristics of both its cousins mezcal and tequila, bringing forth a tinge of mezcal smoke and the florality of highland tequilas, there is definitely some fruit in there, think apricot and lime, and there is a distinct oily briny character to the spirit as well. It is an unbelievably smooth spirit and is quite affordable to boot.
Hey whoever you are, Thanks for tuning back in. I’ll try post more regularly going forward. Sorry. Sad face.
cocktails, post and photos by Alex Gregg.
Of the elements in a cocktail (spirit, sugar, bitters, water) sugar is frequently given the least attention, to the point that we often take it for granted when working at our bars. For example at Grand Prize they have many types of sugar, a 1:1 simple syrup; a rich turbinado syrup; two types of sugar cubes; regular granulated sugar; confectioner’s sugar; not to mention other sweeteners like agave nectar, honey, orgeat, grenadine, you get the point. Yet for all of this diversity in their sugar program, until recently, I still felt like, I understood very little about what this sweet and sticky stuff actually is. I could recognize that sugar generally comes from the sugar cane plant, is somehow processed and that the byproduct of what we call sugar is a thing called molasses which is used to make rum and tastes great on pancakes and waffles next to a side of grits. Additionally I could acknowledge how sweetness affects a cocktail in terms of balance, and mouth feel, and that we reach for different sweeteners to gain specific effects just as we reach for different types of acid to balance that sweetness and vice versa. I still felt like I was missing something prior to attending David Cid and Camper English’s “How Sweet it Is” Seminar at Tales of the Cocktail earlier this year. Fortunately for all of us, those two gentlemen understand practically everything about the subject. Here are a few things I took away from that lecture.
Sugar is the worlds largest crop,it is basically a big juicy grass. You can eat it raw, crystalize it to make sugar, use the molasses to make rum and the leftover fibers can be used to heat and power things like refineries and distilleries. Some sugar refineries actually use the leftover power to electrify the town they are in. Sugar can also be distilled to produce methanol to power cars. It also has other uses on its own, as a preservative and in medicine. Dating back to 6000 BC, the sugar cane plant is native to New Guinea, was then transported throughout Southeast Asia, eventually moved by Arab traders to Italy, then north to places like Spain, Canary, Madeira. By 1490 AD we were crystalizing sugar, as it was historically compared to salt at the time. Columbus tried to bring the crop to the new world but failed (man what is it with this guy!). Rum production begins large scale in the 1600’s. “Sugar formed a lot of the world as we know it today” and we don’t give it enough credit. Original European settlers to the Caribbean were looking for gold or China, but they ended up finding sugar and many of the islands were used as weigh stations on the way to Brazil were legends of lost cities of gold were abundant. Few found the gold,but for many, sugar cane became the profit center. The sugar trade shaped the early global economy. This economy brought a large labor force to the Caribbean, through atrocities like slavery and indentured servitude, resulting in the unique blends of cultures we see in the Caribbean and throughout the world today.
Traditionally, to make sugar from the sugar cane plant, it first has to be cut (this would have been done by hand) then it is pressed to get the juice, then the juice is boiled. The boiling lowers the water content and the crystals saturate the mixture and fall out of solution. This substance is then added to conical molds where molasses would drip out of holes in the bottom, and sugar would remain in the pot. This is still the method used for whole cane sugars like piloncillo or panela. Additionally, white sugar would have been possible long ago, with the bleaching done by dripping water over that mold. Today its done differently. Cane is mechanically harvested, fed to a crusher to extract the juice, followed by a process known as clarification where chemicals like lime pasteurize wild yeasts, pieces of stalk, etc. (this is a reality for mass production). Then it goes to a centrifuge, which is very different from the type we are familiar with in the lab or in molecular bars, it actually works the opposite way as the liquid is pushed out and the crystals remain in the center. At this stage, there are two options: refined or raw sugar. If you stop at this stage, you’ll send it to someone else in another country who will finish the refining there. If the decision is made to refine on site, the process basically repeats itself for each stage of refining: heat, cool, evaporate, crystalize, add water to wash, re centrifuge.
One thing I found extremely fascinating is that there is fermentation taking place on the cane as it is growing. Wild yeasts flying through the air will actively begin consuming the sugars from the plant. “That is 100% angel’s share.” According to Cid you can walk through a cane farm in the morning and spot areas near the ground, on the stalks that are bubbling over with fermentation. This is why the first refinement always takes place where the cane is grown.
It is important to keep in mind that we are talking about a food item, remember it’s the world’s largest crop (168 million tons were produced in 2011 alone). As such, the industry is extremely volatile, not unlike the situation with agave in Mexico (detailed in an earlier post) the difference being that the sugar industry has global ramifications. A shortage in one part of the world will affect prices all over the world as it did in the late seventies when the USSR had a shortage of beet sugar and worldwide prices skyrocketed; this still happens today. Interestingly, the average price of sugar remains close to where it was in 1980 (32 years ago!) which means that refineries have to find room for profit by reducing cost, since they cant raise the price. Brazil, India, China, Pakistan and Thailand are the world’s top producers, but Brazil is not in top five for exports, due to the fact that they use most of their production for biofuels at home. When they do export, it is at a high cost. 55% of sugarcane alcohol in Brazil is biofuel. According to Cid, “Cachaca is the number one consumed spirit in western hemisphere.” What does this mean? It means that if anything happens to Brazilian production, the price will skyrocket like it did in the 70’s and did again from 2004-05 when the world saw a 40% increase in price.
So why does this matter if the stuff’s so cheap to begin with? It matters if you drink or enjoy rum, as it affects rum producers directly who often have giant overheads to begin with. “For many brands it can be really hard to make that bottle of rum year to year” and extremely hard to make it with any level of consistency of flavor or consistency in price. And because nations like Brazil and Pakistan dictate costs worldwide, many companies have started buying distillates since it can be cheaper than buying molasses, shipping it, fermenting it and distilling it. Some brands will label this as their own product. Not cool brah.
“Molasses is a beautiful thing,” remarks Cid, “as sugar is refined, many chemical reactions are taking place. Therefore molasses is often much more nutritious at the end of the cycle than the sugar cane juice is when the process begins.” Therein lies the beauty of molasses. “Additionally, grades [of molasses] don’t really matter, what matters is can your yeasts work with that molasses, that’s the very first thing, but there is one you do wanna stay away from.” That substandard grade of molasses, just so happens to be blackstrap, which makes some of my favorite rums, it is important to keep in mind that he is approaching distillation from the perspective of control and consistency from a brand who specializes is a super clean, crisp style, Bacardi.
The Following is an excerpt from David Cid himself regarding the use of the term Blackstrap
“Just to clarify, Blackstrap was the general word by which molasses was referred to in the past. Even Bacardi would say “we use Blackstrap molasses”. What’s happened through the years is that “Blackstrap” has now taken a negative connotation due to some brands’ attempts at enhancing the image of their product. So what we have today is that some brands will say “we use grade A, they use blackstrap”. Hence creating a point of differentiation that did not exist before.
An example of how the same words now men something different:
In a nutshell, in relevance to the article, some of your favorite rums were probably never made with substandard molasses. They just haven’t gotten around to the new trend of identifying the actual grade used for their rums.”
At the seminar, we all tasted different grades of molasses based on production differences: as a general rule molasses from the first extraction was grade A, molasses from the second extraction was grade B, etc. Anything that is too expensive for producers to extract sugar from would be considered substandard or blackstrap. Grade A is very similar to what you can get at the store. Additionally the grading is based on ash content. Ash is produced from refining, heating and cooling, if this number is too high, you can’t make good rum, yeast also cannot work if calcium and potassium are too high. In some cases nitrogen is added to this molasses to allow the yeast to function. As grades of molasses decrease, solids remain the same, sugar drops, and ash increases. You can easily identify the ash, it smells less like caramel or honey, more earth, and eventually, like campfire and gunpowder.
The different types of sugar are based on size of crystal, moisture, molasses content and number of times it is refined. Those categories include:
It just dawned on me that I had yet to feature any original cocktails here on the blog. The goal of this thing has always been to approach critical thinking in the craft of bartending. Whether it be asking questions like do we really need chilled glassware or bevnaps under champagne flutes; making controversial observations when I see bartenders leaping over the bar and running away from it in search of undeserved fame; highlighting events and achievements by local colleagues; or condensing seminars. As such, I will never compile a list of classic cocktails here on Commercial Free- there are just too many awesome blogs, sites and resources already out there (in fact I just added a handful of links to help you on your cocktail conquest. Its right above you.) So while you may not see a post on here with recipes for Sidecars and French 75’s, I will do my best to at least post a couple of original drinks and maybe something about ‘em on here now and again going forward. I’ll start with three.
No, its not the Long Island Tea with Blue Curacao, that’s the Adios Motherfucker. Its basically a gin and tonic, the hard way. While there’s nothing new about this drink, (tipples combining gin, lime and quinine date back to the 1700’s and earlier) I do think its rather delicious. Oh and the Gin and Tonic was Joey Ramone’s favorite drink, and the Ramones’ final studio album was called Adios Amigos. I like to think he might’ve enjoyed this one a little more.
.75oz fresh lime juice
.5 oz Quinine Syrup
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Shake, fine strain into cocktail glass.
Garnish with a lime wedge or wheel.
To make quinine syrup, combine 32 oz of white granulated sugar to 21 oz water (this is a 3:2 ratio and is what I often use when making flavored syrups) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, add 1 tbsp. of cinchona bark (available at Terra Spice and at Monterey Spice Co) simmer for 20 minutes, then cool in a water bath and strain through a coffee filter.
Last summer, during the weekly Commercial Free residence at Grand Prize on Wednesday nights, I decided for one of my menus that I was going to remake some “college bar shots.” Red Headed Slut, Water Moccasin, Sex on the Beach, Washington Apple, and the Surfer on Acid were all on the menu. I took the essence of all of the drinks and reworked them using quality, fresh ingredients, and astonishingly, they were all good cocktails. Were most of them great? No, but they were all on par in terms of balance, drinkability, and believe it or not, interesting-ness. One drink, however, stood out. I reworked the original Jager-based shot by adding fresh lime juice, fresh pineapple, by ditching the artificially flavored Malibu and subbing a combination of El Dorado 5 yr Guyana Rum and Coco Lopez coconut cream. I served it long and on crushed ice, or was it cubes?… I initially thought that there was no way it would work, but kept it on for the staff and regulars at Grand Prize who have turned Jager into the new Fernet. So we made one and it was as ironically enjoyable as the words on the menu, it has every element of a great tiki drink. Was it a Pina Colada with Jager, or a Painkiller, with Jager subbed for Orange, who cares? Is it “played out?” Maybe, but so is lime juice.
1.5 oz Jagermeister
.5 oz El Dorado 5 year Guyana Rum
1 oz Fresh Pineapple Juice
.5 oz Coco Lopez
.5 oz Fresh Lime Juice
Shake, Strain into a Collins glass, fill with crushed ice.
Garnish w/ lime wedge (or more elaborately if you fancy)
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, when a chef gives Lainey a bushel of lemon grass, I make lemongrass syrup, and when I make a syrup one of the first things I do to test its workability is make a gin Collins (notice I said gin not Tom, a tom Collins requires Old Tom Gin, and since I am testing a sweetener, I don’t want a gin that sweet). That’s just what I did here, when Benjy from Downhouse tweeted that he needed someone to help him with his lemon grass problem, Lainey was on it, and suddenly, I too had too much lemongrass on my hands. The solution was simple, make a flavored cocktail syrup. (did I mention I like making syrups? Well I do, in fact I’m in the process of getting a syrup company started right now.) This is a great example of how a tried and true classic can really sing with subtle and restrained modification. Will this drink win you any transcontinental flights, naw mane, but it will make your guests at home and at the bar think you actually love them.
2 oz Dry Gin (Citadelle and Bombay Sapphire East both work nicely )
1 oz Lemon Juice
.75 oz Lemongrass Syrup
Shake, Strain into a Collins glass, add cubes, top with Soda.
Garnish with lemon and blades of Lemon Grass.
To make Lemongrass Syrup, follow Benjy on twitter, get Lemongrass, put it in a pot with 21oz water and bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes (making a tea) Strain through mesh strainer or China cap, then add 32oz White, granulated sugar (there’s that 3:2 ratio again), bring back to a boil, then remove from heat allow to cool slowly at ambient room temperature.
Cocktails, photos and post by Alex Gregg.
The voices started a couple of years ago. The voices got louder and began to swell. Now, it's a roar. The guest is angry. Pitchfork and torches angry. Bartenders have become self involved, mean-spirited, talk too much, snobby snob, fancy panted mixologists... or bar chefs... or cocktail artists. Polite conversation and warm welcome has been replaced with diatribes on ice dilution and the hauteness of hollywood princesses.
Its been nearly three months since I chronicled Peter Jahnke’s heroic Ramos Gin Fizz marathon in my first blog post here on Commercial Free. In it, I made note of the “back of the house mentality” that my good friend brought to the craft and how greatly that inspired me. Well, for some reason, I have been thinking about that a lot lately. Perhaps it has to do with my own professional transition, as I am helping to open a bar in one of our city’s most anticipated restaurants. Leaving the raucous energy of a place like Grand Prize behind me in favor for a more “buttoned up,” regimented restaurant environment, I find myself once again looking to the kitchen for inspiration, both creatively and professionally. Its an amazing thing to see cooks from around the city, many of whom were running their own kitchens or sous at wherever they were before, graciously grinding it out with their heads down and a “yes chef” mentality. I think about the sacrifice that cooks make on their long and tireless journey of a career, and how we as bartenders really do have it easy. But then again, bartenders are a different breed, and some would argue that if we were meant to be cooks or chefs, then that’s what we’d be.
When I bit down on the whole craft cocktail bug, nearly four years ago, a large part of what inspired me was the idea that it is a “craft,” a set of skills to develop, explore, and attempt to perfect with the knowledge that you’ll never actually get it exact. At Brennan’s, I was fortunate enough to spend an entire day assisting Dale Degroff, during my infancy as a craft cocktail bartender, before I had even committed the Corpse Reviver #2 to memory. Sure I had his books, but at the time I don’t think I was fully aware of the greatness that was in front of me, and I was certainly unaware of his celebrity status. What I saw was a man completely devoted to his craft, who showed up with his own tools, much like a chef; who knew his shit and could engage a crowd; and who was still doing the work. Sure there was a book signing that day, but only after Dale had put in a solid ten hours prepping, batching for two events and then hosting them, one of which was a private staff seminar. Back then, to tell me there was such a thing as a celebrity bartender would have been like telling me about a lead bass guitarist or an award winning cashier.
Another thing that got me sipping the craft cocktail kool-aid was the notion that bartending is once again becoming a career that you can be proud of, a job that is no longer just a stepping stone to make a little cash while you search for a real one, or something to do until your music gig actually starts to pay or until your paintings become worth something. It was that notion that armed me with the devotion to start investing in my own tools, to start buying books and reading them repeatedly, to attend any and every seminar I could get in to, to join a guild, and to begin to explore ways to be creative behind the bar. Something I took away from all the reading and lectures was this recurring notion that it is hard work, and that it is a thing to be mastered, so I set out working my way through books like the Old Waldorf Astoria, the Bon Vivant’s Companion and Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, attempting merely to understand what these cocktails meant or were supposed to have meant. Sure one could follow a recipe, “but do you hear Jimi?” I think it was probably the mentors I had at the time, people like Lu Brow and Justin Burrow, who instilled this notion in my mind that the classics had to come first.
I look around at the industry today and I see that the whole thing is changing once again. The sort of punk rock ethos that defined the craft cocktail movement when I jumped on has now signed to a major label. And while folks like Dale Degroff, Tony Abou-Ganim, Gary Regan and others were the Johnny Thunders, Joe Strummers, and Dee Dee Ramones of their generation, they have simply paved the way for a newer generation of Green Days and Blink 182s to carry the torch. I see a great many bartenders these days who are not focused on mastering the classics at all, but who have the fancy Japanese bar spoons, and cool branded doctor bags filled with more branded swag. The focus has shifted from being great at your job, to trying to be a celebrity. And the formula is pretty straight forward: attend the right events and conferences, follow the right people on twitter and be sure to interject some brown nosey comment into their conversations as often as possible, always know where the cameras are and be sure you get in the middle of the frame, make friends with the local food writers and foodies, exaggerate your experience and qualifications, and whatever you do don’t make cocktails if at all possible. While that statement is obviously not fair to the many personalities that have rightfully earned their laudable positions in the industry, it nevertheless is a recurring theme.
And what does all this celebrity status get you? A brand ambassador job, a feature in Imbibe, a trip to New Zealand if you’re lucky? Okay, well the trip to New Zealand sounds pretty friggin awesome, but I have always been confused by the whole progression of being recognized for doing something you love and the reward being not having to do it anymore. You kick ass at cocktail competitions and the prize is you don’t have to bartend anymore. That’s like telling a musician “okay dude, you’re signed, now you can put that guitar away, you didn’t seem to really like it anyway.” It leaves me wondering how much the movement has truly affected the actual job of bartending. Sure, there are more places with fresh juice, stirred Martinis, and bonded rye whiskey, but it seems as though the physical act of bartending is still this thing to get away from as soon as possible, and I’m left wondering why. Perhaps if we behaved more like cooks and kept our heads down until it we master the basics, we would value our jobs a little more. Just a thought.
So how bout a drink?
Post by Alex Gregg
Few people in Houston can boast about having dined at as many non Western establishments as Chris Frankel. A self proclaimed ethnic food junkie, the guy has dined at nearly every obscure, ethnic hole in the wall food counter from the reaches of Stafford to Pearland, Bellaire Boulevard (of course!) and into the reaches 45 north, well past the comfort zone of many “inner loopers” who rarely venture west of Buffalo Speedway or south of the “Village.” Frankel is even arguably, solely responsible for the recent adoration by Houston food lovers and chefs alike of Mala Sichuan Bistro, a place he discovered while on one of his Chinatown exploration missions where he starts at one end of a strip center, works his way to the other, while stopping at every eatery along the way. His weekly dining companions often read like a who’s who of local food journalism.
Frankel’s passion for Haleem isn’t the only thing that has gotten him noticed in local media circles; that, would have to be his creativity behind the bar. An original member of Anvil’s opening staff, Frankel quickly developed a quirky style focused on fortified wines like Sherry, Madeira, Quinquina and Vermouth while often incorporating uncommon ingredients such as raisins or apple vinegar into his cocktails (evidenced by his ‘Bitter Roots’ being featured in Imbibe.) After Anvil, Frankel went over to Underbelly, where he developed the city’s first “in house” fortified wine program, which was critically acclaimed by esteemed food critic and James Beard Nominee, Allison Cook of the Houston Chronicle.
Since his departure from Anvil and Underbelly, local bartenders, chefs, cooks and food enthusiasts (for the record I hate the term “Foodie”) are fond of asking “what’s Frankel up to?, Any Idea what Chris (Frankel) is going to do next?” While no one may be exactly sure, he is putting himself back in the public eye, at least for the month of September, with an inventive promotion at Double Trouble. “Drink with the Chefs,” Frankel’s current project, is a month long event taking place Monday nights in September where he teams up with leaders in the H-Town culinary circuit, with a singular goal in mind, to put a tasty cocktail down your gullet.
This past Monday, he collaborated with Grant Gordon of Houston institution, Tony’s on an all Scotch Whisky themed menu, and I was fortunate enough to find time to make it over for a few libations. Highlights included “Grant’s Sherried Scotch,” a straightforward, yet complex and classic marriage of blended Scotch, cream Sherry, honey and orange Bitters; “The Jacobite,” a nuanced and refreshing cocktail geek’s haven with blended Scotch, Dubonnet Rouge, Yellow Chartreuse and lemon juice; the rich, bold and intensely smoky “Peat Bog”- Islay Scotch, Blackstrap Rum, Iced Coffee and Orgeat; and the crowd favorite, “Speyside Summer,” a pink refresher comprised of Blended Scotch, Sauvignon Blanc, Aperol, lime juice, agave nectar, and Angostura.
If you missed Frankel and Gordon this past Monday, slap yourself in the face, but not too hard, because there are still three weeks left in this unique series. Next Monday will feature Justin Bayse of Pappas Restaurant Group, former host of last years successful pop up Les Sauvages, who is sure to bring inventive flavors and an obsessive attention to detail to the shaker tins. After that, you can catch Erin Smith of Plonk! on September 17, followed by Brandi Key, exec. at Coppa alongside Amanda Mcgraw of Brasserie 19 on September 24. This type of collaboration between one of our city’s best cocktail minds and most discerning diners, with some of the city’s most advanced palates and technique driven chefs is definitely something I wish we would see more of, yet certainly a thing that makes our community so unique. So get over there, what else are you gonna do on a Monday night?
Post and Photos: Alex Gregg
Lindsay Heffron joins forces with Commercial Free this Wednesday
To say that Liberty Station’s Lindsay Heffron is on a roll would be an understatement. Earlier this year she took second place overall in an easily debatable Speedrack competition that put the region’s best bar women against one another in a craft cocktail, timed setting. Last week she took first place in what is regularly considered the most important cocktail competition around, Bombay Sapphire and GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender Search. In just over three weeks, she flies to Las Vegas to represent Houston in the national round of this competition. If she succeeds in Las Vegas, Heffron will “be featured on the cover of the GQ “Men of the Year” Issue, be a guest bartender at the GQ Man of the Year event in Los Angeles, attend the Global Finals, host a VIP Magazine Launch Party at their account and become an honorary Brand Ambassador.”
While that may seem like a tall order for Montrose dwelling Heffron, she’s up to the task, but may need your help preparing. She’s joined forces with last year’s Houston winner and representative in Las Vegas, Alex Gregg of Commercial Free. This Wednesday at Grand Prize (1010 Banks, 77006) Lindsay and Alex invite you to come out to ameliorate and jeer any jitters and butterflies which may and will spring up during the Vegas competition. The group ask that you bring any and all bizarre or weird ingredients to try to stump Lindsay (No alcohol though, It is strictly against TABC code to bring any outside alcoholic beverages into a licensed venue!), including fruit, produce, sweeteners, jams, vinegars, etc. Heffron will make you a Bombay Sapphire or Bombay Sapphire East cocktail with your ingredient in preparation for the “Iron Chef” style finals in Nevada.
The evening will be filled with videotaped “Olympic Style” time trials, while the regular Commercial Free crew prepares classic cocktails, not from a menu, but a book – Ted Haigh’s (aka Dr. Cocktail) Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Grand Prize’s comprehensive back bar is a cocktail geek’s dream and is the only Houston venue capable and willing to host such an event for one of our own. We hope to see you there, with your farmer’s market, brown paper bags filled with local, seasonal ingredients alongside your air horns, noisemakers and thirsty, discerning palates.
Tales of the cocktail, the country’s largest and longest running craft cocktail event turned ten years old this year. While people from Houston have been making the trek for years (Bobby Heugel has been the last seven), no prior year has seen as much involvement from Houston based bartenders and beverage industry professionals. Additionally, this was the first year that nationally acclaimed Anvil Bar and Refuge received a nod from the Spirited Awards Committee, making the final four for Best American Cocktail Bar (somehow, they were once again, curiously left off of the best high volume cocktail bar nomination, obviously no one on that board has ever seen that place on a Saturday night.)
However the nods and awards don’t stop there. Leslie Ross, a Mixologist and party host at our beloved Saint Arnold’s Brewery won the Caorunn Gin Storytellers Competition, a contest which asked competitors to incorporate the art of storytelling into their classically inspired original cocktail. Additionally, Anvil took part in this years’ Bar Room Brawl, an event which places the country’s best cocktail bars against one another in a pop up setting where they are judged not only on the drinks but on overall concept.
And yet it keeps going, as the members of Houston LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails); Ornella Ashcraft, Lainey Collum, Sheridan Fay, Lindsay Heffron and Yael Vengroff were all notably busy at various events including the blowout finale known as Juniperlooza held at the Sugar Mill. For those attending seminars, you were likely to find the man known to deplore sleep, Bobby Heugel, speaking on panels such as How to Open Your Own Bar and Not Screw Up ,Fruit of the Still- a look at fruit based brandies, and Agriculturally Anonymous -a look at how spirits and bars can begin to support more sustainable agriculture.
Many Texas bartenders took time to pay it forward at the Pig and Punch volunteer kick off on Tuesday, an event organized by San Francisco’s Bon Vivants where bartenders from around the country spend the day renovating an underfunded high school in East New Orleans. More than a handful of Houston and Austin bartenders were busy painting hallways and classrooms for those less fortunate than themselves.Check out Austin’s Bill Norris of Midnight Cowboy rockin the paint roller (right).
It was such an amazing feeling to see my friends and former colleagues taking such active roles in the premier event for our profession. Here’s to an even bigger turn out next year, and here are a few photos in case you couldn’t make it.
Tales of the cocktail in New Orleans is considered by many as the alcoholic beverage industry’s premier annual event. It is a weeklong conference centered around “education, networking and promotion.” I was fortunate to attend the entire week this year and I have much to post and to talk about, etc. Already a week has past since I first started packing my bags for the big easy, and I’m just barely condensing all of the information I gathered at the spectacle. Check back regularly for posts as I find time to put them together here on the blog.