Posted by: Matt Hamlin | July 28, 2014

Mass Produced Artisanal Spirits

The Daily Beast has an article that exposes a practice most consumers of craft or micro-distilled spirits probably don’t know exists – the rebottling of mass produced spirits under new, “artisanal” brands.

Lawrenceburg, Indiana (not to be confused with bourbon-locale Lawrenceburg, Kentucky) is home to a massive brick complex that cranks out mega-industrial quantities of beverage-grade alcohol. The factory, once a Seagram distillery, has changed hands over the decades and was most recently acquired by food-ingredient corporation MGP. It is now a one-stop shop for marketers who want to bottle their own brands of spirits without having to distill the product themselves. MGP sells them bulk vodka and gin, as well as a large selection of whiskies, including bourbons of varying recipes, wheat whiskey, corn whiskey, and rye. (They also make “food grade industrial alcohol” used in everything from solvents and antiseptics to fungicides.) Their products are well-made, but hardly what one thinks of as artisanal. And yet, much of the whiskey now being sold as the hand-crafted product of micro-distilleries actually comes from this one Indiana factory.

Upstart spirits companies selling juice they didn’t distill rarely advertise the fact. But there are ways to tell: whiskey aged longer than a distillery has been in business is one of the telltale signs that the “distiller” is actually just bottling someone else’s product. KGB Spirits, the company behind the New Mexico “destilaría,” was founded in 2009; but its flagship Ceran St. Vrain straight rye whiskey comes with an age statement of 15 years in the barrel. Or take Breaker bourbon, the “first bourbon produced in Southern California since Prohibition.” The Buellton, California company behind the brand, Ascendant Spirits, wasn’t started until 2013. Yet, they brag their “ultra small batch bourbon” is aged 5 years. So how do you open a distillery one year and have 5- or 15-year-old whiskey to sell the next? Not by making it.

The rest of the article is definitely worth reading.

First I don’t think this is news to people in the bar and spirits industries. But it may well be news to a lot of non-industry consumers. Brands that do this tend to use very careful language about what it is they’re selling. And let’s be honest, some of this marketing copy can be pretty weasley. Since most craft or micro-distilled products tend to come at a premium, not getting what you can reasonably expect you were getting is a big deal.

That said, I think this problem is a bit more complicated than being a question of deceptive marketing. What sort of world do you as a connoisseur of fine spirits want to live in: a world where only mega-distillers and global brands make product, with a tiny number of micro-distillers breaking through? Or a world where new distilleries can get a leg up while they age their own product and eventually bring more new, original products to market? I’d vote for the latter, though I’ve put my finger pretty heavily on the scales here…

Aging spirits, particularly whiskey but also rum and tequila, takes a long time. When many entry-level bottlings are three to five years old, with higher tier products taking eight, ten, fifteen or eighteen years to mature, it’s really hard to start from scratch. Imagine entering an industry where if you start working and spending money today, you can’t bring your project to market for ten years. It takes a massive capital commitment to start a distillery the right way, which is a big reason why we didn’t have many craft distilleries prior to the last 20 years or so.

Two ways new distilleries can bootstrap themselves is by selling unaged products or buying juice from someone else. The rise of unaged or white whiskies in recent years largely stems from distilleries seeking to go to market sooner with their own product and have it support the company while the good stuff ages. The alternative is to go to market with someone else’s juice while you figure out how to make it yourself, allow it to age, and have something that can stand on its own. This of course opens the door to confusion about spirits companies that aren’t actually making what they sell.

Note that the issue of not producing and aging your own spirits really applies only to spirits that require aging. I’m not sure there’s a great defense of new companies selling unaged products as their own. If you can’t figure out how to make a gin you like, you probably shouldn’t be in the gin business.

The solution likely lies in distilleries doing a better job of making clear to consumers when the product they are selling is not in fact produced entirely by them. This could be done voluntarily – which is unlikely – or it could be a regulatory requirement. The goal should be to both prevent consumers from being confused into paying for a premium product and getting a mass-produced one, while also giving those distillers who’ve taken the time and resources to make their own spirits recognition that they are selling what consumers assume they’re buying.

One more thing. I don’t think there’s anything bad about mass-produced spirits. Some of my favorite bottlings are major industry defining ones – Wild Turkey, Bacardi Silver, Jameson, Beefeater, Bushmills, and many more. Being mass produced does not mean low quality. The assumption, though, is that a craft or micro-distilled product can offer something unique. Done at smaller scale, it takes more money to produce and will come at a higher cost to the consumer. This may be better, but to be honest, often it is not. In my mind, the issue of bottling other peoples’ juice is one about truth in advertising, not quality of product.

As a resource, Sku’s Recent Eats has a list of all current distillers making their own product and bottlers of other peoples’ juice. Check it out and see if your favorite micro-distiller is in fact making their own product.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | July 6, 2014

Meet Hudson Whiskey’s New Brand Ambassador

Hudson Whiskey spent much of this spring and early summer conducting a contest to identify  their new brand ambassador. Some background: a brand ambassador is someone whose job it is to represent a spirit brand to the public and to the industry. Frequently brand ambassadors are professional craft bartenders and the role has evolved into one many bartenders aspire towards. Brand ambassadors travel the world talking about their spirit, pitching cocktail recipes to bars and restaurants, and educating consumers and industry professionals on the awesomeness of their product. More background: Hudson Whiskey is one of the premier American micro distilleries. One of the first reviews of a spirit I posted on this site was Hudson Baby Bourbon. It was one of my favorite bourbons when I first tasted it and it remains right up there with my favorite whiskeys to this day.

But what made me care about this contest was that one of my closest friends had entered it. Han Shan is a dear friend and an occasional contributor to A Jigger of Blog (here and here). He’s a true bon vivant and though like me he comes from a background in social and environmental justice movements, he’s a real spirits and cocktails aficionado. He’s got an outstanding home bar and helps many friends discover how great cocktails can be. I think it’s safe to say that both of our parallel developments into loving craft cocktails and spirits happened through time we spent enjoying them together.

And guess what? Han was selected. He’s now Hudson Whiskey’s brand ambassador! He’s a great fit for them, a real lover of their whiskeys and someone who can walk into any room and make a great impression on people. Congrats to Han and congrats to Hudson Whiskey for making the right choice! Hopefully readers of this blog will get to meet Han as he travels the country (and world?) to promote Hudson!

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | April 14, 2014

Dram & Grain Review

Jack Rose Dining Saloon opened in 2011 in a converted boxing gym in Adams Morgan. Prior to the opening, I was given a tour of the space and the plan for each floor. Upstairs would be a roof deck and two private event rooms, with an emphasis on barbecue and grilled foods. The main dining room and bar offered a higher end dining experience and what may well be the largest selection of single malt whisky in the world. Prior to launch, the idea was for the basement to be another, smaller bar. I can’t say the concept was 100% locked in, but in my mind I think it was supposed to be a small beer & shot type space. In any event, the launch was delayed for reasons I don’t know. Periodically I would wonder when it would open up and what it would be, but frankly there was so much goodness on the first and second floors of Jack Rose, it was pretty irrelevant to my thoughts on the bar.

Fast forward to 2014 and the basement bar is now open. It’s called Dram and Grain and it’s a small craft cocktail lounge. I’m sort of over calling such bars speakeasies if they’re not clearly claiming to be such. Nonetheless, they do preserve a sense of mystique and I’m sure would fall into a lot of peoples’ definitions of how a speakeasy might work in the twenty-first century. Reservations must be made by texting a burner cell phone, the number of which is periodically posted on Facebook. There are only 20 seats per sitting and three sittings a night – 7, 9 & 11pm.

Here’s how they describe themselves:

Dram & Grain is a craft cocktail venue located between the vibrant neighborhoods of DuPont and Adams Morgan in Washington DC. The brain child of Nick Lowe and Trevor Frye. While finding inspiration and nostalgia from the pre-prohibition era cocktails, Dram & Grain brings a contemporary and imaginative perspective to both classic cocktails and hand crafted originals.

Everything is in the details for us. From our in-house made syrups, bitters, soda, and even Amer D&G (Picon) to classic stirring, shaking and mixing methods, we promise the most palate appealing cocktail no matter what your taste preference. Along with an amazing cocktail experience, guest can expect to leave Dram & Grain with a sense of gained knowledge about the craft cocktail world and the history that got us here today.

Our venue is a very intimate, reservation only room with three seatings every Saturday at 7:00pm, 9:00pm, and 11:00pm. Each seating will last one and a half hours and is limited to 20 seats. This allows our bartenders to walk every guest through our cocktail list and ensure that any and all questions are answered and top notch service is delivered on a consistent basis. Reservations request can be made via text, please be sure to note the size of your party and which seating you would prefer, and we will do our best to accommodate.

I went this past Friday evening with my wife and two friends. We were in the 7pm seating and were seated at the bar. Though we arrive one at a time, they were kind enough to seat us as we made it through Friday’s rush hour traffic. The space is small and dark, most defined by it’s bold, natural wood bar. It’s gorgeous and pulling up to it I was immediately impressed by it.

Each guest was given a complimentary glass of bourbon punch upon arrival. The menu itself is quite large and with a diverse mix of classic and original cocktails.

Dram&Grain

I started off with the Maiden Voyage.  Made with rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, absinthe, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, it’s a delightfully creative cocktail. The vermouth, benedictine, and Angostura bitters are served frozen as a large cube of ice. The cocktail essentially starts as a Sazerac and evolves to be a Vieux Carre as the ice melts. It was fun to see this concept in action, though my only complaint was that the ice didn’t melt quickly enough to really have a major interplay of the frozen ingredients and the initial liquid ones.

My wife Lori started with an Airmail, which was just solid. Rum-based cocktails topped with sparkling wine hold a special place in my heart.  This one was no exception – providing a great combination of effervescence and backbone. The Hoppin Chihuahua had probably the single richest foamy texture I’ve ever seen on a cocktail that wasn’t a Ramos Gin Fizz and was definitely a winner. The Ode to Omaha might be the winner for most conversation starting cocktails – it included fresh hickory smoke piped into its serving vessel, which was a small, round beaker capped with a cork stopper once the smoke was infused. I’m generally skeptical of smoke as an ingredient – it’s so very easy to get wrong. But this had incredible balance and ended up offering great depth to already complex rum Old Fashioned.

My final drink was the Mother in Law. Made with bourbon, orange liqueur, maraschino, their house Amer, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, it was a bottled cocktail served straight up from the refrigerator without additional ice or water dilution. Bartender Nick Lowe explained the historical concept of wanting to keep some batched and bottles cocktails around in case your mother-in-law showed up and you needed either entertain her quickly or dull your nerves from the stress. The flavors on this were all there, but it was also an example of what I don’t like about bottled cocktails. It started off strong and was less cold coming from the fridge than a cocktail stirred or shaken over ice. In my mind it would have been dramatically improved had it be stirred over ice before being served – the water would have reduced its punch and the cold would have made it a bit more approachable. Being able to make batches of cocktails in advance and bottle them prior to service should save a lot of time down the road. But I’d say it’s worth it to trade some of that time saved back to chill the cocktail and get water in the mix so as to have a better final product.

One thing you may notice looking at the menu is that the price points are a bit more New York than DC. There is good reason for it. Most of the cocktails were essentially over-made for the glass size. You’d get the excess couple of ounces in a small glass bottle back. It was a nice touch that in my mind explains the slightly higher than normal prices.

The only other thing I’d note is that if you go, they have small snacks. The fried chicken skins were absolutely fantastic – basically fresh chicken chicharones. Delicious.

Dram and Grain is a great addition to the DC craft cocktail scene. I highly recommend making a trip and I look forward to going back again soon.

Update:
The Washington Post’s Fritz Hahn has a short review and video, both of which feature parts of me, Lori, and our friends Austin and Arianna from this trip to the bar.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | June 11, 2013

Tarbell

Some dear friends of mine are trying to launch what I think will be an awesome progressive cocktail bar in New York City: Tarbell. I’m confident it’s going to be an excellent place to get a fine cocktail, as well as an important new home for muckraking journalists and progressive activists to meet and conspire.

They have a RocketHub campaign live & it’d be great if A Jigger Of Blog readers checked it out. If you like what they’re planning, pledge a donation.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | April 2, 2013

Overvaluing Originality

Posting has slowed to a crawl here, but I wanted to go back a few months and flag an article by master barman Derek Brown of The Columbia Room (and many other outstanding efforts in DC over the years). In it he discusses the notion that bartenders should probably stop making up their own cocktails at the rate they currently do.

Brown writes:

Surely both consumer and pundit proffered this deluge by pushing the latest in cocktail trends and charting maps where you can drink new cocktails made with quirky ingredients such as dehydrated carrots, yogurt and thai chiles. Not that any of those ingredients ipso facto make a bad cocktail. On the contrary, I love the incorporation of new ingredients, but here the impetus is sadly on creativity and not craft, likely fueled by
something Sigmund Freud dubbed the “narcissism of small differences.”

With this specific narcissistic tendency, each person creates their own little world populated with minor and specific tastes that hardly do more than draw an artificial distinction between similar categories. There’s certainly a place for preference but underlying a person’s insistence on “not too sweet, floral and spicy” versus another’s “violet, tart with a hint of jalapeño” are irreconcilable differences that are waved as though they were flag and country, creating a tribe-of-one prepared to battle opposing tribes for failing to recognize the universality of their claim. What place does a well-made daiquiri have in this world?

Too often, bartenders, rather than sharpening our axes, studying, searching and trying to find meaning among the thousands of cocktails already created, the neophyte–and even sometimes seasoned veterans, I’m afraid–indulge in the worst possible fantasy: that of some mixological Prometheus who steals the eternal flame of creativity from the old, stuffy Gods and re-imagines it as lavender-infused ice or cinnamon-ancho rim. The unfortunate result is that it’s our liver and not theirs that is forever picked at by these often vile and outlandish combinations.

Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, just because you can make it doesn’t make it a good idea.

Brown goes on to suggest some solutions to this problem – basically guidelines for how bartenders can protect themselves (and their customers) from their own worst instincts.

The 90/10 Rule
This rule was born with a simple proposition. For every cocktail you create, try learning nine classic cocktails first, or 90% of your cocktails should be classics and 10% should be new creations. This rule is by no means fail-proof but it’s certainly a way to make sure you practice the basics before proceeding. The very worst that could happen is that you add nine new drinks to your repertoire. Not so bad really.

Forget About It
Remember the recipe for that cocktail you created in 2004? What was it, Sage-infused Tequila, Navan and grapefruit? No, then forget about it. If you have trouble recalling the ingredients to your past creations it may well be because the drink sucked. Trust me, the best recipes are ones that come to mind easily, are often requested and frequently suggested. Everything else is likely fodder.

The Shift-drink Test

If the “90/10″ and “Forget About It” rules fail you, your next line of defense may well be the best one of them all and it goes for both professional and amateur bartenders alike. We become the most critical after a hard-worked shift behind the stick (or any job really). At the end of the day, we just don’t have the tolerance we had at the beginning for pure and utter crap. Imagine sitting down to a Cachaça blood-orange toddy with a bacon-crusted rim. If you can’t, it’s because you have gone too far and are now teetering on that jagged cliff. Go make yourself an old fashioned and relax.

I think these are pretty spot on and, I hope, recognizable as common sense ways to ensure good practice by craft bartenders.

One of the things I love about cocktails is the ability to create, to experiment, to test. In my early days of home bartending, that’s mostly what I did because it was exciting to think I was coming up with something (presumably) for the first time. Of course most of what I came up with was either not good at all or if it was passable, it was fairly forgettable.

Over time I’ve learned that I’m better off making small changes in familiar formats that are easy to remember than trying to start from scratch. I know exactly how I like my Dry Martini, depending on what gins or vermouths or bitters I use. I love playing around with funky tiki drinks. I’ve found some very small tweaks to the Gin Ricky that work great for me. And I’m always swapping around the combinations of vermouth and amari in my Americanos and Negronis.

And that’s just me at home. When I drink out, I tend more towards classics than experimenting with new creations with lots of custom infusions, syrups, and house-made ingredients. Why? Even if I love them, odds are they won’t be replicable by me or most any other bars. They are almost guaranteed to be lost to the ages as soon as the cocktail menu changes. I want more dedicated efforts at permanence than that! I want the romance and the history of drinking 100-200 year old cocktails!

Maybe it’s just me. Or me and Derek Brown. Your mileage may vary for sure and I certainly don’t think there is a wrong answer here, so please don’t be offended if you disagree.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | December 18, 2012

Hogo Review

When you look around the Washington DC bar and cocktail scene, the influence of Tom and Derek Brown may be as strong as any other bartenders and proprietors in the city. With stints bartending, managing, designing or owning such excellent spots as Cork, The Gibson, The Passenger, The Columbia Room, New York Avenue Beach Bar and Rogue 24, the range and scope of their creativity has helped define DC as one of the top cocktail towns in America.

Hogo, a new rum bar from Tom Brown, opens today on 1017 7th St NW, just down the block from The Passenger. I was able to check it out last night and came away incredibly impressed. Per an email from Derek Brown, “Hogo is a word used in the Caribbean to designate “high taste”–shortened from the French word hâut-gout–but it really describes the funky, inexplicable taste that you find in traditional aged-rums.” The name fits the interior design of Hogo, which is a mix of comfortably-appointed lounge and nautical and Tiki themed graffiti.

Hogo Diner

Hogo’s Diner

In the back of the bar, there’s a diner. Hogo will be rotating menus on a regular basis to feature some of the city’s top chefs. To start, The Passenger’s Javier Duran is manning the kitchen and the menu is “Hawaiian diner food.” For those not familiar, Hawaiian food is mostly a mix of greasy comfort food and relatively cheap meats. I lived in Hawaii for a while and came away incredibly impressed. Spam Musubi is one of Hawaii’s iconic snacks, featuring a big slab of Spam wrapped on a bed of sushi rice. It’s available at most diners and lots of gas stations too and it’s never been something that I’ve been taken by. But the Spam Musubi at Hogo is simply amazing – something that is at once casual and fancy, paired with a wasabi aoili.

Spam Musubi

Spam Musubi

Other traditional offerings included a Loco Moco – two hamburger patties topped with fried eggs and pork sausage gravy, accompanied by rice and mac salad – and a combination plate of Kahlua pork and Kalbi beef. Both were pretty outstanding. Again, this is essentially Hawaiian comfort food. While it’s heavy on the calories, it’s rich in flavor and makes a great accompaniment to some strong rum cocktails.

Loco Moco

Loco Moco

Since Duran is only the chef at Hogo for the first month, I highly recommend checking it out soon, as this is probably the best Hawaiian food I’ve had on the mainland ever.

Tom has been hosting Tiki Tuesday every week at The Passenger for quite some time now. The practice shines through in the menu and execution in the drinks on the menu at Hogo. I sampled four cocktails last night and each was outstanding.

First up was Black Heart’s Punch, modified from a recipe from Trader Tiki that was made with Cruzan Blackstrap Rum, homemade cinnamon syrup, lime juice and tonic water. It was deep, rich, flavorful and refreshing – a perfect entry into accessible yet interesting Tiki cocktails.

Pinky Gonzales is a classic tiki drink from Trader Vic that’s basically a tequila Mai Tai. At Hogo it’s made with Espolon blanco and Espolon reposado tequila, Cointreau, lime and orgeat. It’s very light and had a well-balanced use of orgeat and citrus, so the almond syrup could shine through as a sweetener and not fade into the background.

Pinky Gonzales

Pinky Gonzales

In our final round we had a Ti Punch, which is basically a rum old fashioned made with cane syrup and rhum agricole. We also had a Jungle Bird, a cocktail created in 1978 at the Aviary Bar in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Made with Blackwell Jamaican rum, Campari, pineapple and lime, it’s about everything one could want from a Tiki drink with bitter components. It’s bitter sweet, but not overpowering, with an intense tropical feeling.

Every cocktail we had was perfectly prepared, balanced, and interesting. The menu is fairly expansive, with 15-20 drinks in all, so it will take some time for one to make their way through it. That said, I can’t recommend Hogo highly enough. From the cocktails to the food to the ambience to the fact that it’s a project from some of DC’s most respected bartenders, check out Hogo as soon as you can.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | December 5, 2012

Happy Repeal Day!

repeal day

Via The Lively Morgue:

Dec. 21, 1933: From the Mid-Week Pictorial. Americans visiting Paris celebrated the end of Prohibition in the United States in a “real two-fisted manner,” its original caption stated.

I’m not sure why Americans abroad waited 16 days to celebrate the end of Prohibition, but it sure looks like they had a good time.

Be sure to raise a glass in honor of the 21st Amendment today.

Update:

Here’s a good video on Green Hat Gin and some history from Prohibition in our nation’s capitol:

 

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | December 3, 2012

Publish your recipes!

Via Jacob Grier, Jim Meehan of PDT in NYC talks about his philosophy of publishing his recipes.

Do you think the cocktail world sees publishing recipes as revealing secrets? Or more as a way to share and communicate?

I think they fall on both sides. Certainly some of my colleagues are not as giving as others as far as recipes go. Some people proudly consider some of their recipes to be things that they developed over years, they spent a lot of time and energy and resources on them and don’t see the need to just give them away.

But I think there are others, like myself, who are on the complete opposite side. It’s more along the lines of publish or perish. Maybe not perish, but become irrelevant. Maybe it’s because I live in New York, but I find that in New York when you think of a great idea, if you don’t act upon it someone else is going to be acting upon it. I feel like great ideas are more the result of intelligent people putting different things together. So do you want to be remembered, do you want to at least document that when you did it? Or do you want to rely on the oral traditions to verify that? I personally prefer to stake claims. I’d rather document it.

Jacob goes on to write:

A cocktail might appear on my menu for just a few months before it’s replaced with something new. A recipe only lives on if other people make it, and hearing that other people are enjoying my drinks is gratifying. There are merits to making complicated, ephemeral cocktails that only last a season, but it’s also nice to see them proliferate.

I’m with Meehan and Jacob. I’d hope more bartenders share their original cocktail recipes, as a way for helping them spread beyond their own bar. It’s a hell of a lot easier to visit a bar and ask for a modern creation from another cocktail bar if you know the recipe and don’t have to guess at the proportions of ingredients.

But more importantly, one of my favorite things when I go to a craft cocktail bar is seeing them include contemporary recipes from other bars. Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco is the one who always comes to mind when I think of this phenomenon, but others do as well. And when I belly up to the bar and dream about opening my own joint some day, I would absolutely plan on including a section of the menu dedicated to the brilliance and creativity that currently exists in the cocktail world.

There are scores of cocktail bars in America today and hundreds of talented, creative bartenders, coming up with thousands of new cocktails every year. The odds are only a couple of these cocktails will survive the test of time and still be around in fifty or one hundred years. But (essentially) the only way that’s possible is if the bartenders who created them are publishing their recipes. So I’m all for publishing of recipes and helping spread the good ones around. Hell, that’s a big part of what I want to do with this blog.

 

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | November 21, 2012

The Bukowski

I’ve never seen a cocktail recipe that included Jeppson’s Malort before. Malort is a famously bitter (some say unto disgusting) spirit, popular in Chicago and amongst masochistic cocktail enthusiasts. As I am a sane person with no desire to regularly inflict too much pain on my taste buds, I do not keep a bottle of Jeppson’s Malort around my house and therefore have not tried this cocktail to assess its merits. Nonetheless, if for no other reason than novelty (and possibly trolling the gentlemen of Scofflaw’s Den), I present to you The Bukowski.

The Bukowski

1.5 oz Malort
0.5 oz Drambuie
0.75 oz fresh lemon juice
0.5 oz fresh orange juice
0.5 oz honey syrup (1:1)
5 large basil leaves

Combine ingredients in an ice filled shaker. Shake until you’re confident the Malort is mostly hidden behind the other ingredients. Strain and serve on the rocks, but be prepared to duck in the event the person drinking this cocktail throws it back in your face.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | October 22, 2012

Four Year Blogiversary & A Call for Help

Four years ago today I launched A Jigger of Blog. The blog has always been a project that represents my exploration into fine cocktails, bars, and spirits – with occasional forays into beer and wine. I started out pretty hot, with a high frequency of posts. This helped me get attention in the cocktail blogosphere, but turned out to not be sustainable. In the last year or two, posting has become less frequent. I still consider cocktails a passion, but as my life has evolved I’ve simply spent less time mixing cocktails at home or visiting craft cocktail bars. I’ve kept this blog open, but have become more comfortable with the idea that I’m not posting one to two times a week. For now, it’s my intention to continue to post when the urge hits me. In some regards, I wish I was posting more frequently, but at the end of the day, I’m not broken up about this blog not being a major hub of bustling cocktail activities.

OK, enough navel gazing.

I do have something important that I want to share with readers today. Paul Clarke has a post up at The Cocktail Chronicles alerting readers that iconic Seattle barman Murray Stenson is ill and in need of help. Paul writes:

Murray has a heart condition, and may require intensive surgery. As with bartenders everywhere, Murray doesn’t have medical insurance, and he’s unable to work while incapacitated with this condition. Evan Wallace, a longtime friend of Murray’s, set up a MurrayAid page on Facebook, where people like me and you (hint, hint) can make a donation via PayPal to help defray Murray’s medical expenses. UPDATE: There’s now a website for the coordinated efforts to help Murray: murrayaid.org. Also, donating directly through PayPal, as described on the website, ensures your full donation will go to help Murray, without Facebook taking a cut.

I’ve never met Murray Stenson – by the time I made it to Zig Zag Cafe, he had moved on to Canon (and I failed to make it to Canon). But I’ve heard about him for years, most often in connection for his role in bringing The Last Word to international prominence in the modern craft cocktail movement. The Last Word is a truly delightful cocktail:

Last Word

3/4 once gin
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
3/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
3/4 ounce green chartreuse

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake well for 10 seconds and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Ta-da!

I’m a big fan of this drink. I first heard of it on Paul Clarke’s blog and remember thinking to myself, “I have to go home and make this right away.” The Last Word is the sort of cocktail which demonstrates not only the value of fresh and rare ingredients that is a hallmark to contemporary craft cocktails, but does so while being simultaneously accessible and complex. That is, it’s a great drink to put in the hands of someone who hasn’t experienced quality craft cocktails before.

In fact, a couple of good friends were at Zig Zag a few years back and texted me to ask what they should order to drink and I suggested The Last Word.  I don’t know if Murray was working behind the bar that night, but one of them fell in love with it and as a result has probably finished more bottles of green Chartreuse and maraschino in the last two plus years than any home bartender in America.

If readers of A Jigger of Blog can spare a bit of cash, I’d greatly appreciate it you can chip in at MurrayAid.org.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | October 12, 2012

Garagiste

I’ve been ordering wine from Jon Rimmerman’s Garagiste email list for about a year. It’s an email sales only email list, with usually one offer per day of wine. When I buy wine in the liquor store or super market, I’ll usually buy in the $10-20 price range. When drinking wines I’ve never had before bought this way, I’d guess two out of three bottles I buy are pretty mediocre (I’d guess I do better at certain places like Ace Beverage where I have a relationship with the store and can really talk about what I like). While I am into wine, I don’t consider myself an expert and ending up with mediocre wine is one pretty sure indicator of that.

On Rimmerman’s list, I generally stick within that same price range – occasionally going a bit lower or a bit higher, depending on the offering. But in the year I’ve ordered through Garagiste, I haven’t had a single bad bottle of wine. All have been good, some have been great, and at least two have been other-worldly.

Rimmerman is profiled in this week’s New York Times Magazine. It’s a good read. I’m sure it will add tens of thousands of subscribers to his email list. But frankly, that is an earned consequence. The list is stellar and I highly recommend anyone who’s reading this blog to subscribe to it. You can do so through their website. Rimmerman’s daily emails are educational and his wine is top-notch, so even if you’re not already a big wine enthusiast, you can use this list to expand your knowledge base and decrease the amount of money you’re spending on bad wine.

Two words of caution:

First, this is a potentially expensive email list to be on. You provide your credit card information once, then just order by replying to emails. That is, you don’t have the gut check of typing out your credit card digits that may otherwise slow your online purchases down. Be warned.

Second, this is not a source of instant gratification. Shipments come out by season, not immediately after you place an order. I think it was at least four or five months after my first order before I received the wine. But I promise you, it’s worth the wait.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | October 2, 2012

Every drink made in “Mad Men”

And there’s a lot of them…

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | September 20, 2012

Lessons from Hidetsugu Ueno

Hidetsugu Ueno, world renowned bartender and owner of Bar High Five in Ginza, Tokyo, Japan, gave an interview to Nick Koumbarakis, proprietor of The Alchemist Says…. It’s a great read on the philosophies of one of the kindest, most thoughtful bar men I’ve come across in the world. When I was in Japan a couple of years ago, I went to Bar High Five and had a fantastic experience. While there I mentioned that I hoped to buy some Japanese bar ware (which is high quality and very expensive in the US), as well as some bottles of Japanese whisky which aren’t imported to the US. First Ueno-san set up an impromptu tasting of a range of high end whiskies, then recommended me to a nearby liquor store which would have them available at better prices than big stores or duty free. Then, much to my delight, Ueno-san said that he was planning on going shopping for bar ware the next day and offered to take me around to the best stores to make my purchases. I happily accepted his generous offer and was able to make some great purchase in a restaurant supply stores that I would have had a hard time navigating otherwise. Oh and in addition to being a complete mensch (as we say in Yiddish), he’s a world-class bartender.

While much of the interview is about his philosophies for bartending and life, Ueno-san’s observation of what makes Japanese cocktail culture unique is really interesting to me. From the Koumbarakis interview:

In Japan we focus entirely on the classics, the vintage way of bartending and not on current trends. There are some trends and techniques that I personally like; People are starting to make their own bitters and vermouths. In saying this, I do believe bartenders should be good at using available products, not making products. There are plenty of products that one can play with. Speakeasy style of bars, vintage books, Mescal in the United States and Rye Whisky in Europe…they are all just trends personally. You can imagine why the Japanese style of bartending got increasingly popular overnight? We are the ones who are constantly surprising. The Japanese style of bartending has not changed in the past 100 years. The rest of world is always looking for something new, something different. We are always focusing on the classics and interpreting those classics in our own way, meticulously and effortlessly.

In my experience, the focus on classic cocktails and perfecting techniques ahead of creating ones’ own ingredients for ones’ original recipes leads to excellence in Japanese bartending. I can relate to the idea that the classics are what are most likely to survive and therefore are the best things to be drinking. Many drinks which have survived from fifty to two hundred years survived because they’re great drinks. Continually trying to make them with greater care and perfection will lead to ever more enjoyable cocktails. While there are literally thousands of contemporary creations by craft bartenders around the globe which are balanced, pleasant, and creative, how many will be around and widely consumed in 100 years? If it’s more than a dozen or two, I’d be surprised. Thus there’s value in what is classic and the Japanese cocktail world seems to place more importance on this than cocktail cultures elsewhere in the world.

I can also relate to the idea that we should use the ingredients which are available not only to us as bartenders, but to the general public. While I appreciate and celebrate the creativity of craft bartenders who create their own ingredients as a vehicle to make the epicurean art they wish to make, it makes it hard for home consumers or even their peers elsewhere in the bar world to follow along. The ability to offer a drink that simply cannot be had elsewhere in the world is surely a good marketing move, but it creates a wall between the bartender and those who would want to enjoy her cocktail outside the confines of her bar.

One of the things that makes bartending incredible is that it is closer to baking than savory cooking. Given a recipe and knowledge of proper techniques, any cocktail can be replicated, providing the ingredients are available. This is challenged when bartenders use products which aren’t available on the market and thus serves as a barrier to the spread of good cocktails.

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon. Part of where I stand is based on a recognition over time that while I appreciate the original cocktails of many bartenders and bars, at the end of the day, there are very few which I find truly memorable. I find much greater joy in a perfectly made Martini or Daiquiri than a creative original creation, as the novelty of the new drink wears off with each sip, while the perfect of a classic can last centuries. As much as I appreciate the creativity of bartenders like Phil Ward or Gina Chersevani, at the end of the day I’d rather see American bartenders focus on perfecting classics than buying lotto tickets that their next original creation might stand the tests of time to become a classic itself.

This isn’t about the bartenders, though. It’s much more about the cocktail consuming public. Somewhere along the lines we consumers developed an expectation that every cocktail bar we go into have 8-20 original cocktails. If consumers instead demanded more and better classics, this could change. Though I have no clue when it will be, I would someday like to open a bar and serve only the finest classic cocktails. Until then, I’ll go around, try a couple new drinks when I visit a bar then switch to classics that I know I’ll truly enjoy.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | August 14, 2012

Age of Reason

My good friend Han Shan is, among many other things, a part time bartender at B-Side in the East Village. B-Side is a concrete floored, punk rock juke box, tiny pool table, beer and shots dive that seems to only exist in its purest form in the EVill. But when Han is behind the stick, he’s been known to bring some high end ingredients from his home to make craft cocktails. His bartending is totally incongruous with B-Side and yet totally perfect for a night of drinking.

One of Han’s originally created cocktails was recently named by bartending luminary and master craft cocktailian Gary Regan to be one of the 101 Best New Cocktails of 2012. Here is the Age of Reason:

Age of Reason by Han Shan

2 oz Michter’s rye whiskey
5 oz Pierre Ferrand Cognac Ambre
.5 oz Cochi Americano
1 generous barspoon green Chartreuse
1 generous barspoon yellow Chartreuse
10 drops Bittermens Elemakule Tiki bitters
1 lemon twist

Stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Run the twist around the rim of the glass, then discard.

Here’s how Han describes this cocktail:

“The spicy Michter’s rye is the backbone while the cognac smooths the rough edges a bit and the sweet herbaciousness of the Chartreuse(s) play off the spicy bittersweet of the Cochi, with the tiki-inspired bitters doing something alchemical that nothing else on my bar quite did to bring it all together. The lemon oil swipe gives it a brightness in the nose upon first sip and mostly stands back after that as you enjoy this (hopefully) balanced and delicious, easy-drinking, amber-colored quaff.

The drink is named for Tom Paine to recognize the coming together of French & American ingredients. I should have endeavored to find something English to put in there to really make the case but then I’ll call that one the ‘Tom Paine.’

BTW, for me, ‘generous barspoon’= about 1/4 oz. but I always have trouble nailing that with my jigger and one can use a tiny bit less or more to suit one’s tastes. The barspoon works for me. Last note is that the only way you can get one of these (or a decent Manhattan or Sidecar or whatever) at our friendly neighborhood beer-n-shot dive B-Side where I’m currently tending is to alert me ahead of time so I can bring the ingredients with me from home… which I sometimes do.”

And here’s Gaz’s commentary:

The combination of straight rye whiskey and a great (really great) cognac, immediately reminds me of a Vieux Carré, but the similarity ends right there. Han made some bold moves with this drink, and they paid off well—especially in the case of the Bittermens Elemakule Tiki bitters which, on paper, make no sense. In the glass, though, they play a ukulele while the other ingredients dance like Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. It’s a drink that brings a smile to my face.

Congrats Han, for making a creative new drink that impressed Gaz Regan!

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | July 31, 2012

Sh*t Brand Ambassadors Say


Obviously I’m less in the craft cocktail scene than I once was, but this still is pretty hilarious.

For those that don’t know, most liquor brands hire brand ambassadors to help sell their spirit to bars, restaurants, bartenders, and the public. The brand ambassadors do things like consult on cocktail recipes that include their brand’s spirit, teach bartenders how to effectively use their product, and travel around doing events promoting it. It’s become a common move for established craft bartenders to go from working behind the stick to traveling the world as a brand ambassador. The New York Times had a piece on this a couple years ago.

As far as it goes, I think it’s great that talented bartenders are able to make the move to jobs that traditionally pay more than bartending. As the video above pokes fun, it’s clear that a brand ambassador is both an amazing job (travel the world, drink on an expense account, go to top bars with top bartenders) that has real drawbacks (always going, always drinking, pressure to get results in a highly competitive market). Still, the fundamental ability for a talented bartender to have an option to move upwards beyond simply opening their own bar is a good thing in my book. As a consumer, though, I’ve had quite a few great bartenders make the jump to brand ambassador, resulting in them spending less or even no time bartending any more. That certainly sucks for me, but it’s hard to root against the people who think are talented finding greater levels of professional success.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | June 24, 2012

Corpse Reviver No. 2


Simon Ford demonstrates one of my favorite cocktails, for brunch or otherwise.

Corpse Reviver No. 2

0.75 oz Gin
0.75 oz Lillet Blanc
0.75 oz Cointreau
0.75 oz fresh lemon juice
Absinthe.

Rinse chilled cocktail glass with absinthe. Combine gin, Lillet, Cointreau & lemon juice in an ice filled shaker and shake it hard enough to wake the dead. Strain and serve.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | May 31, 2012

A Decent Frozen Margarita

It’s hot out. Well today it isn’t too bad, but the last week or so in DC has felt like…a summer in DC. The point is, it’s hot. When it’s hot out, really hot out, upper 80s and beyond with high humidity (that is, almost any day in DC between now and mid-October), there are really only three things I want to drink:

  1. Cheap, cold, light beer
  2. Gin Rickeys
  3. Pina Coladas

The problem with Pina Coladas, though, is that cream of coconut is so sweet and the consistency makes it a pain to work with. Straight from the can it’s an unmixed pool of syrup and solidified (but delicious) fats. Opening a can means you’re making a bunch and sometimes I just want one. There’s nothing wrong with an inconvenient ingredient, but it certainly makes me think twice about diving head first into making a frozen drink to cool off.

And then there’s America’s most popular cocktail, the Margarita.

I love Margaritas, though I basically only drink them on the rocks, never frozen. To me, a Frozen Margarita is the epitome of a bad cocktail. The tequila is almost always low quality junk. There’s never even a thought to using fresh lime juice – sour mix is a guarantee. The consistency is usually a mess, meaning after five minutes you have half a glass of slush and half a glass of a soon to be warm sour mix and cheap tequila slurry. And yet this is a variation that makes the Margarita the most popular cocktail in America. It’s enough to make one seriously question our national palate.

With all that as a preface, I decided over Memorial Day weekend that I needed to find another frozen cocktail to quench my thirst on hot days. The fact that most places can’t serve a good Frozen Margarita is really no more determinative than the fact that most bars can’t serve a decent Martini. This is a problem that could be solved.

I started doing research to find recipes from bartenders I trusted who might make a decent Frozen Margarita. Not shockingly, Dale DeGroff came through with a killer Frozen Margarita recipe. DeGroff’s book, The Craft of the Cocktail, is one of the canon in my bartending library. DeGroff is a phenomenally important American bartender who helped the craft of bartending well-balanced cocktails survive the dark years of the 80s and 90s. The Craft of the Cocktail both is a great resource for fairly standard, classic recipes for classic cocktails and contains many DeGroff originals which are interesting and worth knowing. But most important of all for me, in a space with numerous cocktail luminaries who’ve published numerous tomes of the same or similar recipes, I’ve always found that DeGroff’s recipes strike the right note for what I like and look for in cocktails, regardless of the recipe. I just see eye to eye with him a lot of the time, which makes his recipes a tremendous resource for me.

And so I turned to The Craft of the Cocktail and sure enough, DeGroff had a recipe for a Frozen Margarita that looked like it was worth trying. Here it is:

Frozen Margarita (DeGroff recipe)

2 oz tequila
1 oz triple sec
1 oz fresh lime juice
2 oz simple syrup
3/4 cup cracked ice.

Combine all the ingredients in a blender. Blend and pour into a large goblet rimmed with coarse salt.

Since quality ingredients make for quality cocktails, I used Cointreau in lieu of regular triple sec. And instead of cheap rail tequila, I used top shelf stuff – Partida Reposado, until that was gone, then Patron Silver. My simple syrup was a 1:1 formulation of water and sugar.

This is a killer Frozen Margarita. It’s light, crisp and you can enjoy the tequila in it. I could probably be fine with the simple syrup dialed back a touch, but I wasn’t so bothered by the sweetness as to change it in multiple batches. Best of all, this is a recipe that I can turn to on out summer days. Or, as noted above, most days from here on out in DC…

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | May 14, 2012

Wanker of the Day

Diageo:

BrewDog, a small craft brewery based in Scotland, was told it would receive an honor for Bar Operator of the Year, but things went awry when mega company Diageo, which happened to be the awards’ main sponsor, found out just before the ceremony and demanded it be given the award instead. Diageo operates several major global brands, including Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Captain Morgan, Bailey’s, Tanqueray and Red Stripe.

After its staff allegedly made a scene, Diageo was handed the award trophy with BrewDog’s name clearly engraved on it.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | May 7, 2012

Becherovka!

becherovkaThere are many benchmarks on the way to becoming a cocktail geek. Do you drink your Martinis with a 2:1 ratio or more? Do you have a favorite 19th century bar man? Do you own more than four types of bitters? Is the Negroni one of your Desert Island Cocktails? Appreciation of bitter spirits and bitter cocktails is a hurdle that truly shows you’re on your way being a certifiable cocktail enthusiast.

The appreciation of potable bitters opens up a world for creativity and experimentation. While I don’t spend nearly as much time as I used to coming up with my own original cocktails, one of the areas where I’ve never stopped playing is with Negroni and Americano variations. Every new bitter spirit which graces our shores allows me to try out new variations on the classic base/bitter/fortified wine formulation.

Best of all, once you appreciate potable bitters, you find that many, many countries have their own favorites. This brings me to the Czech Republic and Becherovka. Josef Becher first began producing liquor in 1794 and with an English Dr. Frobrig developed the basic recipe for Becherovka in 1805. Becher finished refining the recipe in 1807 and began selling it, like many other potable bitters, as a cure for stomach ailments. Skip ahead 200 years and while Becherovka can settle an upset stomach like most other digestifs, it’s much more fun to enjoy in its own right.

Becherovka is 38% abv and comes in a striking green, flask-shaped bottle. It is a golden, straw color. On its nose are clove, anise, allspice and honey. Sipped neat, I get clove, bitter quinine, allspice, cinnamon, honey and pepper. It’s delightfully unique, but warm and familiar to anyone who likes potable bitters.

I haven’t played around with Becherovka enough yet to have a preferred recipe where it’s used in a Negroni or Americano variation. But most of the time if I am drinking something bitter, it’s either with club soda or tonic water. Not shockingly, Becherovka is so good with tonic that it has its own name, the Beton:

Beton

2 oz Becherovka
Top with Tonic Water (I used Fentimans)

Fill a Collins glass with ice. Add Becherovka and tonic. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

This is a fantastic tall drink. It’s very light and refreshing, with calming herbal qualities. As we head into summer, this is a great drink to keep in mind for afternoons in the sun, by a pool or the grill. It will keep you cool and will also speak to your worldly character as an enlightened cocktail enthusiast.

Disclosure: This post was made possible because I received a free bottle of Becherovka for the purposes of sample and review.

Posted by: Matt Hamlin | April 10, 2012

Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc 2011

I’ll hopefully be traveling to New Zealand at the end of this year or early next, so I’m trying to become more familiar with New Zealand wines. I recently tasted the Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc 2011. Stoneleigh is in the northern Marlborough region and has fairly good availability around the United States.

The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc is almost clear with light yellow hints. On the nose is strawberry, honey, hay and green apple.

The first impression is of tart apple, with a lot of minerality and touches of passion fruit. It finishes with a sweet tanginess and good mouthfeel.

The Sauvignon Blanc is crisp to the point of light effervescence. It’s a touch sour, but otherwise has good balance with interesting tropical notes.

Depending on where you are, this wine retails for $15-20. At this price point it’s a very good deal. It’s pretty much what I look for in a Sauvignon Blanc, with many layers and notes that you just can’t find in most wines that are at the lower end of its price range. I liked it so much that I’m actually going to be serving it at my wedding later this month, so if that doesn’t work as a positive review, I’m not sure what will.

Disclosure: This post was made possible because I received a free bottles of Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc for the purposes of sample and review.

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