Lindsay Heffron Wins Houston Round Of Bombay Sapphire / GQ Comp

Lindsay Heffron joins forces with Commercial Free this Wednesday

Lindsay and Ivy 

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 Texans

Lainey Collum

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.

LindsayHeffron                                                                                                                             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. Bill Norris with roller

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).

Additionally it was a great opportunity for myself as well as I had my first piece published in the Houston Chronicle and also saw my photographic coverage of TOTC featured in the Houston Press.

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.

View albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView albumView album

Cheers!

Tales of the Cocktail 2012.

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.

Cheers.

Alex.

totc banner-1

Something I learned today (part 2 )

Roasted agave on glassWell, by now, its actually been about a week and a half… but as promised, here’s the conclusion to the Tequila Seminar that took place at Anvil on 7/10.  In the first post, we covered the nuts and bolts of the actual tasting and talked a little bit about things like terroir and different styles of production. In this post, I’m going to recap the information shared by panelists, David Suro (Siembra Azul Tequila), Tomas Estes (Tequila Ocho), Ron Cooper (Del Maguey) and Bobby Heugel (Anvil, T.I.P.) regarding the Tequila Interchange Project (T.I.P.). For those of you that aren’t aware, there is battle being waged south of the border involving agave based spirits.  Large transnational corporations are backing legislation in Mexico that would make it nearly impossible and in some cases, illegal for many Mexican families to continue to survive, doing what they have been for thousands of years- growing agave, harvesting it and making distilled spirits and other beverages from it.  Why would they do such a thing? Money. Lots of big, evil corporate money.  The companies that make the ubiquitous gold paper labeled mixto tequilas are actually threatened by a group of small independent farmers and distillers, but more of that in a bit.

The first thing to understand is where Agave comes from, the Earth.  It comes from the Earth, takes an average of eight years to mature (the only agricultural element in spirits that isn’t on a yearly growth cycle) and during that time the plants are tended, nurtured and harvest by local Mexican farmers known as jimadors. The training for a jimador begins shortly after birth and most of these men continue at the trade until death. In order for an agave farmer to break even on his expenses, he needs to sell his agave for 3 pesos per kilogram. Additionally, it takes on average, 7 kilograms of raw agave to produce 1 liter of 100% agave tequila.

During the shortage of 2002 the price jumped to 16pesos at which point brands were forced to double and triple their prices. We saw tequilas reach into the $60, $70 even $100 range for the first time.  Now, fast forward to 2011 and we see a record low due to over farming of the crop, a reaction to the mentioned shortage, and agave was back down to .35pesos per kilo (well below the break even number for farmers) yet the high prices for bottles of the early millennium remained in tact. These super low prices are very attractive for the big companies who can pay bargain basement for their raw materials and continue to charge super premium prices for their packaged goods. And the fluctuation continues, in the past six months, agave prices have spiked once again, a 90% increase, to 3.5 pesos per kilo (with current currency conversion that is just 2 American cents above the break even number for farmers, 2 pennies!)Agave Price history

 

 

 

 

 

 

So you may be wondering… Why does this happen?  Well a large part of the problem is the lack of biodiversity, which lowers the plants natural defense mechanism against things like the bug the pecudo. This lack of biodiversity is a side effect of the fact that the tequila industry has grown more rapidly than the natural process is able to handle.  Remember it takes an agave plant 8 – 10 years to mature. In an attempt to keep up with production demands, some farmers have begun cloning the plants, which in turn, after generations, weakens the species (think about inbred humans) creating monocultures and forces the farmers to use more and more pesticides.  According to David Suro, one of the reasons we frequently see such low prices for the agave is “because these agaves are sick, they are plants that have been infected and attacked by insects like the pecudo…  the plants that develop and grow by themselves develop defense mechanisms, enzymes that the insects don’t like.” All of this translates into an unfortunate reality, that sick plants are often used in the production of industrialized tequila. 

agave2-1-5

Its not just the plants that are affected, it’s the people too. As the prices of agave fluctuate wildly and often dip to levels below what a farmer can feed his family on, and with zero incentives to remain in the trade, many are forced to migrate north to America.  When this happens, hundreds of years of shared knowledge and a life time of training is permanently removed from the agave fields.  The jimadors with their highly specialized training and knowledge are irreplaceable. “There is no way you can put an ad in the paper and hire a jimador.  The jimador is a highly specialized profession and complicated job.  Only people that have been working agave fields since they were literally babies are capable to perform.” This then causes a wave of domestic migration of workers from places like Chiapas (Mexico’s poorest state)  who cant afford to pay the coyotes to bring them to America. They take jobs in Jalisco replacing displaced jimadors, only without the skills necessary to perform safely. The tool used to trim the leaves off of the pinas, the coa, is like a giant heavy razor blade on a stick and with one wrong slip, it will slice through a foot “like butter.”

If that weren’t enough for the agave industry to deal with, they now have a new foe, NOM 186. (Read about it in detail here) Described as “nonsense legislation, an interesting case of bullying,” the scenario is not unlike the fight between craft brewers and the industrial beer manufacturers who are threatened by these creative individuals with minute market shares.  When Heugel and Suro confronted the Chamber of Commerce of Tequila, asking “what research (sic) you come up with this regulations which are pretty much putting in danger this thousands of years of tradition of agave distilled spirits?” The answer: A market survey which states that the niche of artisanal products is growing and that the companies who account for 75% of the industry feel that it is unfair.  The solution: impose regulations that make it impossible and illegal to do what they have been doing for thousands of years.

Agave

In the words of Bobby Heugel:

“An estimated 20 thousand families work in tequila, not only large producers, but also people who make stuff consumed locally, and essentially these laws are going to make their livelihood illegal.”

“The decisions that you make in your bar have far reaching consequences beyond just what you like to drink, or what people want to consume, and those issues, they’re important.”

“ The whiskey that you choose to stock isn’t going to have the ramification of putting a family out of business.”

Okay, ready for some good news?  If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you are.  During an awareness campaign that took place last year, by the Tequila Interchange Project, which collected close to four thousand signatures, and lobbied directly to the Mexican Government, the group was able to effectively kill the most dangerous and evil part of NOM 186.  The proposed legislation attempted to monopolize the use solely of Blue Weber Agave and only have it allowed to be produced in appellations of origin.  In other words, of the dozens of varietals of agave that are used in agave based spirits productions, only one would be allowed, and of all the various places that currently produce these spirits, it would have been illegal outside of these appellations of origin.  So why is this bad?  Well it all goes back to biodiversity.  If only one species out of dozens is allowed to be farmed, that species is weakened, because it gradually loses its natural defense mechanisms and the ability to adapt to new threats.  “If we kill all the other varieties we kill all the chances of the blue agaves survival, lack of biodiversity.”  Regarding the appellations, Suro had this to say: “appellations of origin make absolutely no sense from a historical perspective,” because the people of Mexico have been producing agave based spirits all over the land for thousands of years.

While the minor victory is excellent news and great to hear, Suro insists that it is “important to support and continue fighting.” The revised version of NOM 186 is “not as evil,” but the big money lobbyists will continue to push forward with new initiatives.  For example, the lobby is apparently working on a new proposal which would brand the word agave solely for use in tequila, mezcal and baccanora.  “Its like  ketchup regulating tomatoes so that tomatoes can only be used to make ketchup.” Additionally, the industrial tequila industry apparently wants to kill the NOM altogether, because “it is not evil enough,” so that they can draft new, more restrictive proposals. At the end of the day, the T.I.P. has been able to buy some time for the little guys, but are in need of continued support to help pay for things like expensive lawyers who navigate confusing legislation, that even top university professors in Mexico have a hard time understanding. 

Agave-18

For more information or to help with the fight visit: http://www.tequilainterchangeproject.org/

I leave you with a spiritual tidbit from Mr. Ron Cooper::

“I find agave spirits to have a stimulating quality, some call it liquid speed. I’ve had many agave based beverages that were able to transform me in one sip put me in a whole other state, a state of mindfulness that is totally different…” “the producer of Tobala before harvesting, makes offerings to the Gods and Goddesses asking permission or the harvest to be successful producing his under 1000 bottles per year of this wild mountain agave based spirit, and the Minero producer (who) uses an ancient Chinese clay still with bamboo tubing says that by the will of God and the will of the agave, I can make good mezcal.  When something is industrially produced, it leaves little room for the will of God and the will of agave, so these people are working with the spiritual essence.”

“Every plant has its own consciousness and when we consume plants we consume that consciousness, so when we drink agave based spirits we consume the cosmic energy that that plant soaked up for  6 – 25 years.”

 

If you would like a copy of the audio file from the seminar, just leave a comment, with contact info and I’ll get it to you.

 

Photos and post by Alex Gregg.

 

 

Something I learned today… (Part 1 of 2)

tastings mis en placeWell to be fair it was a few days back, but I just wanted to share some of the things I picked up at the Agave Seminar that took place at Anvil Bar and Refuge this past Tuesday (July 10, 1012).  The Agave industry’s most outspoken and brightest minds descended on Houston for a two hour plus lecture, which covered a broad range of subjects related to tequila and mezcal including production, terroir (yes tequila and mezcal have terroir), glassware, social impact, the effects of industrialization and spirituality.

We were greeted with a spread of tacos  from local favorite La Guadalupana, which particularly impressed panelist David Suro (he mentioned them at least twice!).  As we took to our seats, the first thing we noticed were the three tasting glasses covered by watch lenses, with a piece of some type of cured meat resting atop one of the lenses.  It turned out that it wasn’t jerky or cured ham, but a sliver of roasted agave heart from Chicicapa -the raw ingredient used to produce tequila and mezcal.  Ron Cooper reported to have carried this stuff with roasted agave hearthim all around the world and that the pieces we had in front of us had been with him on the road from Chichicapa, Oaxaca, to Taos, New Mexico, London, back to Mexico at Arandas, then Austin and finally here in Houston. To taste the Agave, we were asked to treat it kind of like an artichoke and bite into the meat, scraping it off, leaving the fibrous material behind (shown right).  The flavor was subtly complex, rich and sweet, with notes of honey and caramel accompanied by earthy, slightly smoky vegetal undertones.  Upon deeper inspection, hints of cocoa, vanilla, and a slight florality became apparent. Due to the long travels of this particular sample, “it had actually started to ferment a little bit”, making it slightly less sweet (according to Cooper) and adding a hint of bitterness on the finish. This was the first time I had ever tasted the ‘material prima,’ or raw ingredient of tequila and mezcal and it was a wonderful exercise.  To put in context, consider the raw ingredients of the most popular spirit categories, and I’m pretty sure you’ve tasted them at least once, probably without even considering that it was used in alcohol production.  Take corn, for example, it forms the base of American Bourbon, and many grain neutral spirits including vodka and sometimes gin.  Then there are the flavor grains of bourbon: wheat, rye and sometimes barley, all of which I’m sure you’ve tried at some point whether in a slice of bread or cup of soup. Consider now, grapes, the basic building block for most brandies, including Cognac and Pisco, and while you may have never had an actual Ugni Blanc grape (I sure haven’t) you still have a general idea what grapes taste like.  Same goes for the Rum category with sugar cane and molasses.  At the very least, these ingredients are available at most specialty food stores, but when was the last time you stumbled across sliced roasted agave heart?

We soon rolled into the tasting portion of the seminar, starting with Siembra Azul Blanco tequila, but before doing so, panelist Tomas Estes pointed out the need to expand the image of tequila into that of a world class spirit that should be sipped, savored and enjoyed rather than a one that is quickly shot often resulting in regrettable experiences. He also strongly pointed out that tequila’s heritage of image as a shooting spirit could not be denied and that it would be wrong to do so as it has been an important part of tequila and mezcal’s image for so long. According to Tomas, “its not just an American, college holiday south of the border phenomenon.. I see it all over the world, that sort of reckless abandoned drinking it at the end of the evening and regretting it the next day.” Estes re-emphasized the need to expand the image, not change it, by having it be recognized as world class spirit alongside the finest Scotches and Cognacs.  One of the ways in which we could do so, he points out, is by serving it in appropriate vessels, ones that actually benefit the spirit.  Noting that when we shoot spirits, we rob whatever we’re shooting of its full expression of flavor. Glassware also helps to change the psychology of the consumer by presenting it in a way that makes the customer think “maybe Ill treat this differently, maybe Ill sip it.”

Suro discusses glasswareDavid Suro remarks that there over 500 detectable organoleptic elements in tequila, possibly more in mezcal (more than any one person could ever possibly detect alone)  making the case for appropriate glassware even more important.  According to Suro, to properly serve tequilas, you should have at least five different glasses, but that at his restaurants, he uses 25.“It all depends where the tequila is coming from and the terroir.”  To explain the effect of glassware, he notes how on the previous night while at Austin’s Bill Norris’ house, some of the guests, including Suro were unable to identify their own products when served in different glassware “I know my product Siembra Azul, I’ve been working on it for ten years, but when you put it in la copita, I was not able to identify my own baby.” Suro explains the basic rules of thumb for glassware for agave spirits, based on terroir. Tequilas from the highlands, he states work best in the Reidel tequila glass which resembles a hybrid between a champagne flute and a sherry glass, because of its ability capture the sweetness and floral components of that style. Lowland tequilas on the other hand benefit from being served in wide snifters which increase the flow to the mid palate.  All of the samples poured that day were served in Glencairn glasses (commonly regarded as the perfect glass for tasting Whisky) which work as a nice happy medium with its wide-ish bowl bottom and chimney style sides (shown above).  It is important to note that these experts consider the drinking vessel as a tool and not an aesthetic decision whether it were a Reidel stem, a Glencairn, a clay copita or half of a dried gourd which, apparently “is quite lovely.”

A note on terroir, while this is at best an oversimplification of a very complex topic, it will have to do. In general the concept of terroir is no different in the agave fields of Mexico as it is in the vineyards of Burgundy. Terroir refers to all of the variables from the earth that affect plant and change its flavor chacteristics from place to place: type of soil, climate, and elevation are the big three. In Mexico the regions known as Los Altos or the Highlands produce sweeter, fruitier and more floral tequilas. This is due to largely to the elevation and climate of the region which is drier and cooler which means plants live longer and can take longer to mature, and are therefore higher in sugar than their Lowland counterparts.  Not to be overlooked is the soil, which, in the Highlands is deep, fertile, and high in minerals such as iron. (Most, around 60%, of tequila is made in the Highlands). The Lowlands on the other hand produce Tequilas which are drier, spicier (peppery) and overall, more ‘masculine.’ Again it all comes down to climate, elevation and soil. The lowlands, being lower in elevation are warmer and wetter and the plants ripen more rapidly resulting in a shorter, mineral forward, dry finish.   Like with wine, the concept of terroir can be expanded to also take into account other plants grown in the vicinity, like roses that are planted near the vulnerable pinot noir grapes, citrus grown near the agave fields is thought to contribute a flavor/aroma element to the tequila, as was evidenced in the Siembra Azul.

Tomas on single ranch tequila

Taking the idea further, Tomas Estes makes his Tequila Ocho (in collaboration with Carlos Camarena) from single ranches not unlike single vineyard wine. The example we tasted was from the Las Pomas Ranch in The Lowlands and bore a reposado age statement. The nose was sweet and earthy displaying notes of straw, clay, cinnamon with agave character poking through the subtle barrel notes. David Suro described it as being a  “beautiful balance between barrel and agave.” On the tongue, Ocho starts off sweet, moves into a mid palette flourish of caramel, and finishes earthy and coffee like.  The Lowland plants sourced for this tequila are intentionally very ripe  which not only creates more sugars, but also adds extra acidity that helps balance the sweetness and forms the structural backbone, supporting the other components. Estes is quick to point out that he prefers tequila in its purest form or unaged, i.e.: blanco, plata, silver, “Anybody that really gets into agave spirits goes towards a silver,” but that for this reposado he was careful not to interfere with the Agave character too much. To do this, he uses barrels that have been fatigued or really used (Ocho uses barrels that have been filled and refilled up to seven times), resulting in less char, less tannin and overall less interference. In addition to using these less intrusive, fatigued barrels, in Ocho, Estes and Camarena age the tequilas for the minimum legal requirement, meaning that the blanco is unaged, the reposado is just over two months old, anejo 12 months and their extra anejo is only matured for 36 months. According to Estes, “The longer any spirit is in a barrel the more they start approximating one another” indicating that after so many years, it becomes harder to tell tequila from rum from whiskey from brandy and so on.  Although Tomas does suggest using a reposado or anejo as a way to introduce the spirit to people who generally “don’t drink tequila” or had a bad experience in college.  The additional oak and taming of agave character can make it more accessible to those who primarily drink whisk(e)ys or brandies, which is why tequila producers began aging the spirit in the first place some 5o years ago: to compete with the other major spirits categories.

“Its rumored that Cuervo uses agave.”

Cooper explains the mezcal processNext up was artist, sculptor, spiritual shaman and Mescalero, Ron Cooper, creator of critically acclaimed Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals.  Of his craft, Cooper states, “ I am an artist, I have the right to work in any medium whatsoever,”  and he views his mezcals, not as a commercial enterprise, but as an art project. Of the 28-30 types of agave legally allowed to be used in mezcal production, Ron is currently using 6 to 7. The plants are called magueys, mezcal and agave. Much of Mezcal production uses the Espadin (Spanish for spear or sword) varietal, however the mezcal we tasted Tuesday, which Ron dubbed “the missing link” was produced from Blue Weber Agave (the varietal used in tequila production in Jalisco.) Blue Weber Agave doesn’t normally grow in Oaxaca, but was introduced to the region during the agave shortage of 2002-05.  During this time, Jalisco producers exported thousands of tons of the Espadin grown in Oaxaca to Jalisco to keep the factories going. Those producers later brought baby Blue Agave plants back down to Oaxaca so that they wouldn’t have to use Espadin in the case of another shortage.  Ironically, Espadin is the genetic mother of Blue Agave.  We essentially had a hybrid; Blue Agave prepared in the ancient ways of Mezcal.  They are roasted the ancient way, bat ground or stone milled, rested in shade for a week to start fermentation, followed by a slow distillation in low volume, small stills and, distilled to proof, meaning that no water has been added. (The fact that it has been distilled to proof is very rare in the spirits biz, as most distillers distill high, then bring the spirits back down to bottle proof using water.)  What we had in our glasses in front of us is more like what tequila would have originally tasted like before industrialization, “what tequila should taste like.” The flavor of this San Luis Del Rio (2011, 8th distillation of this village) single village mezcal was sweet and fruity with up front containing notes of ripe stone fruit alongside bright green bursts, followed by the signature mezcal smokiness and a lingering minerality. Seeing how the blue agave responded to the traditional mezcal treatment  was truly a treat.  This was easily the best spirits seminar I have ever had the pleasure to attend.

Recap: glassware is important, terroir matters: highlands= sweeter, fruitier; lowlands=drier more masculine, aging is over rated.

That wraps up the tasting portion of the seminar.  In part two, I’ll recap the portion regarding the Tequila Interchange Project which includes industrialization, migration, social impact, and more.

photos and post: Alex Gregg

How cold do we need em?

Chilled Glass-2

Shortly after last week’s post regarding the use and  misuses of beverage napkins, I was approached by a friend who called bullshit.  “So I wanna know where all this ‘no bevnaps under coupes’ business came from….”  We soon discovered, over glasses of Havana Club, that her cocktail bartending experience and mine had differed in one significant way.  While bartending at some of most respected, revered, or as we say down here, ‘high falutin Yankee assed’ bars in the country, she had always used pre-chilled cocktail glasses.  I on the other hand had used chilled glasses while working at steak houses and fine dining restaurants to serve dirty Grey Goose “martini’s” with blue cheese stuffed olives, but never in craft cocktails.  I had a mental divide; that part of my career seems so far away to me at the moment, that I forgot that a sub-frozen, smoking cocktail glass can be cold enough to create ample condensation to warrant a napkin or coaster.  My bad!

But that got me thinking, do we really need chilled cocktail glasses?  The idea that a chilled cocktail glass could require a bevnap seems suspicious since stemware should never get one (that’s my story and I’m stickin to it).  Assuming there is a benefit from slightly chilling a glass, do we need them to be colder than a flagpole in a blizzard?   Furthermore, are we serving cocktails too cold in general?  I’m inclined to say maybe…, yea…, quite possibly.  There is lots of information and plenty of opinions out there on what the ideal temperature is for serving spirits, liqueurs and wine products.  Likewise, there is also a plethora of data regarding ideal cocktail temperatures, unfortunately the two sets contradict one another.  Most of the recommended serving temperatures for cocktails hover in the –5o to –15o C range while spirits guru Paul Pacult suggest we serve brandies and whisk(e)ys between 12o and 17o C, ports and sherries 9o to 13o C .  Wine temperature recommendations adhere to a broader spectrum, but bottom out for sparklers like Champagne and Cava at 6o C, and it is generally understood that as wines and spirits warm up from a chill, their aromas and flavors become more readily identifiable.  In fact the only spirit that is generally recommended to be served out of the freezer, is vodka which just so happens to be flavorless, therefore not adversely affected by over chilling.Chilled Glass-1

Now, for the sake of this argument, allow me to primarily focus on cocktails served “up,” and more specifically those of the stirred “aromatic” category.  (No one can refute the refreshing attributes of a frosty Rum Swizzle, Mint Julep or a Pimm’s Cup over ice on a balmy Summer day, and I wouldn’t dare).  The Manhattan is the perfect representative for this exercise.  By now, proper cocktail making technique is widely accepted  and we can generally agree that the Manhattan consists of Rye Whiskey, Sweet or Italian Vermouth and Aromatic (Angostura) Bitters in the neighborhood of a 2:1:2dashes ratio and that it is a stirred cocktail served up.  Right?  Ok good.

So the big question is: Do you enjoy and appreciate all of the ingredients listed or would you rather their flavors be hidden and disguised by their temperature?  If you answered yes to the former, why then would we take a list of excellent, properly stored ingredients that we happen to like, put them together because we think they may react well to one another, then choose the latter?  It kinda defeats its own purpose.

One of the first steps I took when I decided to actually take the job of bartending a little more seriously and start viewing it as a profession, was to study wine.  One of the first things I learned about wine, is that in America we often get the temperature dead wrong.  Much of this has changed, at least at the places I hang out at, but ten years ago we were serving whites blisteringly cold and reds at room temp., (Shut it wine geek peanut gallery!  I know none of you ever did this, just bear with me, I’m trying to make a point here) but as we all got more savvy-guests, waiters, bartenders, floor managers, chefs, somms.- we began letting the whites come up a little in temp and conversely adding appropriate chill to reds, because we began to understand that there are ideal temperatures that our alcoholic beverages should be served at.

Unfortunately, we are still, in my opinion, in an ice age when it comes to cocktails.  The top minds in this business continue to insist that we must serve our cocktails as cold as possible, in vessels that preserve that frigidity.  If that were the case, why then don’t progressive bars store all of their inventory in freezers, add the desired water dilution and skip the whole ice thing altogether?  I think its because that would be an improper way to treat my friend Mr. Rittenhouse Bonded Rye Whiskey (he doesn’t like to be oppressed). Or why don’t we just build bars inside giant walk-in freezers?  Oh yea they did that and it was stupid. Now back to my big question, if you happened to have chosen the latter, and prefer the flavors lay dormant, I would just suggest you find another cocktail whose ingredients you do actually enjoy.

Yes, there is something to be said about the tactile sensation of a bitingly cold beverage, but as long as the primary focus is flavor, I think that a great cocktail actually does improve dramatically as it warms up a bit and the flavors begin to awaken.  And since I do prefer my Manhattan just a bit warmer than when it was first poured, I don’t need a chilled glass preventing this action. Now that isn’t to say that I don’t think we shouldn’t chill  in the first place, I don’t want  most of my drinks at room temperature (although one of the best cocktails in Houston is a “scaffa” or non chilled cocktail), and thankfully, it doesn’t seem like Ill be having that problem any time soon as good cocktails never seem to linger around long enough to die when they’re in my possession.  Some historians would likewise argue that the entire purpose of a cocktail is to be a somewhat rapidly consumed drink, again negating the need for the chilled glass.  Anyway, that’s all I got for now, I think its about time for that Manhattan.

Cheers!Chilled Glass-1-2

Photos and post by Alex Gregg

…for any photo geeks out there, here’s a setup shot from this post.

Chilled Glass-1-3

Beverage Napkin 101

Beverage Napkins, or as they are very commonly referred to as BevNaps, are a service device that are used to perform a very specific function – absorb condensation.  As such, they have a place under any glass that will potentially sweat (as a result of ambient temperature differentials that exist between the air around you and the chilled product in your glass) and possibly leave a pool of condensation which threatens to stain the cuff of your shirt or short out your fancy new smartphone. The crazy thing, is that the forefathers of the boozing it up figured out a way around this, the stemmed glass.

A bevnap should never be placed under a stemmed cocktail or glass of wine

The stemmed glass, whether it may be holding wine or a cocktail, will not sweat and therefore needs no bevnap.  The one exception may be the stemmed “tulip” style beer glass, but not because it can or will expel condensation, but due to the fact that sometimes when draft beer is poured, a small amount of excess beer may be poured over the side of the glass while getting the “head “ just right.  I’d much rather see a bevnap or coaster in this situation than see the bartender wipe my glass with a soiled bar towel.   Anyway, what I’m getting to, is that I like, enjoy and implore BevNaps in the right scenarios; i.e.: under your water, beer, highball, and swizzle, but I never wanna see them under stemmed glassware.

They don’t belong under your Martini, Champagne Cocktail, glass of wine or Pisco Sours, and why not?  Because those classic cocktails all came with their own condensation defense mechanism we collectively refer to as a stem.  Those drinks, no matter how long you nurse then, will never create a pool of water on the bar top. Oh and bevnaps  NEVER EVER go on top of a table cloth!

What really upsets me is when I serve someone a stemmed cocktail like a Death In The Afternoon, and the patron belligerently takes the napkin from beneath the glass of water I greeted him/her with and places it, under the sparkling wine flute, that will never sweat.  Now there is a pool of water where the bevnap should be (and was) –under the iced water.  It’s like being called a dumbass by an idiot.

So where did all this misuse of beverage napkins get started.  I have my ideas. One is the fact that It’s a used as a communication tool in many concepts to let floor managers, fellow servers and bartenders know that the guest(s) have been greeted, which is fine and I get it.  The problem is that these high volume casual dining chains have trained customers to expect a napkin for just about anything including their room temperature glass of merlot, just like they’ve trained them to expect free breadsticks or grated parmesan.

Now thats just silly!

Other egregious misuses of the bevnap include, removing it from underneath a glass of iced water to place it under your phone (if you just let it do its job your phone would have nothing to worry about) or using it to wad up your gum (do adults really chew gum anymore? shocking!).  Anyway it may seem as though I am being hyper critical about a thing as insignificant as a 3.5” square piece of tissue paper, but isn’t it all about the details?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post and photos by Alex Gregg

Final Update!!

Well, we did it!   At exactly 1:50 a.m. last night, the Commercial Free crew served Ramos Gin Fizz number 150.  What a fun shift!  As I struggle to type at this very moment due to sore shoulders, forearms, wrists, neck- you name it, my heart still races reminiscing on what was quite possibly the most fun I’ve ever had behind a bar.  It was so far down to the wire, that Underbelly sous chef Lyle Bento put in the last call order for six to take us to our goal.  We finished the night strong with more than seven people shaking behind the bar at a time, followed by shenanigans which included one Ramos being divvied up into ten glasses and bombed (that’s right Ramos and Red Bull).  No one will ever accuse us of taking cocktails too seriously!  And isn’t that the point?  Shouldn’t drinking be fun after all? We think so.  Cheers!

Peter Jahnke will again shake Ramos Gin FIzzes.  On the one year anniversary of his momentous achievement (described below), Peter sets out to plunder last years’ record. He’s agreed to join myself and Billy Boyd next Wednesday at Grand Prize Bar, along with a few of our closest friends (as shaker boys and girls) as we try to hit 150. Stay tuned for more…

Peter Jahnke’s Ramos Gin Fizz Marathon Turns 1

Image

Image

Peter’s Ramos Gin Fizz Marathon

How one quits a job will tell you a few things about a person.  Fired? Quit? Walk out in the middle of a shift?

Phone in and report to have been abducted by aliens?  Ive witnessed all of these, but what I haven’t seen is someone put in an incredibly courteous (two month or so) notice and on their final day make it a point to work harder that day than any day prior, to the point of near collapse.  That was until I worked with Peter Jahnke, who on his last night at Anvil, set out to shake 100 Ramos Gin Fizzes, and succeeded.

It was an amazing feat, and as the one year marker of that date approaches (June 27), I’ve decided its the single most impressive thing I’ve ever seen a bartender do.  Flamed orange peels and behind the back elbow stalls are cool and all, but this dude literally shook RGF’s for nine hours straight, simultaneously building seven more at a time, and slowly marking each one with a chalk hash mark.  Keep in mind, there were no blenders used, no dry shaking, no little metal cheater tins, he never dismantled a

Image

Hawthorne strainer and stuck its spring in the drink and he’s working with Kold Draft ice. To complete the task in time,  he had so increase the speed and force of his shake,  to bring the shake time down to around  five minutes (instead of seven- do the math). In all, he made 102 of the refreshing classics, went through 408 drops of orange flower water and 51 ounces of cream.  There were literally people running eggs and cream to his station in waves that reminded me of the way people bring water to marathon runners, or how a NASCAR pit crew changes a tire.  Peter later told me that he physically couldn’t move at all that next day.

After Anvil, Peter went over to Revival Market to focus full time on butchery and charcuterie.  He had been there since before the opening, while also working full time at Anvil, and pulling weekly shifts with the Houston Dairy Maids.   There were countless times when he would leave the bar at four a.m. or later, be at the butcher shop by 7 a.m. that same morning, then back at the bar that night for another eight hour closing shift.  Working with him made me think twice before complaining about a long shift or working on a day off.   Peter brought a “back of house” mentality to the craft of bartending that I strive to maintain in my own work today.

And now Mr. Jahnke is leaving the butcher room of Underbelly, where he’sbeen  in charge of maintaining their ambitious whole animal program, setting out for the Mediteranean, a cross country motorcycle ride, and finally San Francisco.  Like a drummer, hes content to rock out in the background  and avoids any sort of self promotion.  He will probably be slightly annoyed when I show him this post, but what are friends for?  And here’s to you old pal, Houston’s gonna miss you.  Readers: Keep an eye on this fella, he’s definitely going big places in the culinary world, and if you happen to find this guy behind a bar in Houston, the Texas Hill Country or San Francisco, you already know what to order (don’t worry, he actually enjoys the pain).  And for you bartenders out there, remember this story next time you put in your two week notice and start planning a Fernet-palooza, you might decide to leave a more lasting  impression.

Cheers!

photos and post by Alex Gregg

psst! you can find more photos of that night here

Image