Today’s cocktail is an original from New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian of Bar UnCommon, and it’s my favorite of his. “I don’t really come up with that many originals,” he said (although I’ve had several), “but I think this one might be the best yet.”
It’s deceptively simple — only two ingredients in a simple proportion — but what a pair of ingredients … oh so complex.
First off, Old Raj Gin. There are two that you’ll see on your spirits store shelves if you’re lucky — one at 92 proof and the other at 110, the more common of the two and the one you want. Despite its alcoholic heft it’s quite smooth and has no burn, juniper present but not overly forward, plenty of citrus and earthy spices. The straw-yellow tint comes from a bit of saffron among the botanicals, but the saffron is very subtle and understated.
Next, our old friend Chartreuse of the green variety, an herbal knockout also at a hefty 110 proof. The alcohol-by-volume in these combined ingredients is, as you may have noticed, 55%, hence the name of the drink. These two powerful ingredients combine with that delightful cocktailian alchemy into a very well-balanced, highly sippable drink in which the herbal onslaught of the Chartreuse is stretched, rounded and balanced by the gin and its own herb-and-spice profile. What you might think would be over the top is anything but, and might be just the thing to offer a Martini drinker who might be looking for something a bit more exotic for his or her next drink.
You knocked this one out of the park, Chris … thanks!
The 55º Cocktail (by Chris McMillian, Bar UnCommon, New Orleans)
1-1/2 ounces Old Raj Gin, blue label.
3/4 ounce green Chartreuse.
Combine with ice in a mixing glass and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. No garnish.
La Descarga has been open almost three weeks now, after a grand opening night on February 2. I absolutely love how the bar is revealed to you — you read a brief description of the entrance in the above-linked article, but fortunately it didn’t give away the good parts. When you do walk in you’re transported to Old Havana, pre-Fidel and ignoring the despotic dictators and corrupt American corporations, concentrating on the good stuff — rum, cocktails, music, floor shows and letting the good times roll (I don’t know how to say that in Spanish, sadly).
Check out the profile video from the Los Angeles Times …
Steve Levigni, formerly of The Doheny, is the general manager and Pablo Moix is behind the stick with a talented crew of bartenders, all of whom took good care of us on our first visit (first of many, I hope). We actually had reservations on opening night, as part of a group of friends, but unfortunately we had to cancel. We finally made it in four nights later, and they were already in full swing.
This isn’t really a full review, as we’ve only spent the one evening there so far, but Pablo and the rest of the folks behind the stick kept us and a two-deep Saturday night crowd well-oiled with excellent drinks from a good menu that will likely only get better. As it’s a rum bar that’s the featured spirit in the currently offered drinks, but I’ll be looking forward to seeing what else they’ll be offering, including cocktails blending different rums (always a favorite among aficionados of that spirit). I’m also looking forward to having a chance to sample tasting flights from their collection of 70+ rums … I’ve got my work cut out for me.
For an extra treat, if you go on the weekend, you’re treated to a bit of Caribbean cabaret as well.
You’ll want to call ahead for a reservation — they’re not required at this bar, but it’s a good idea to have one, so that you can be escorted right in without having to wait, especially on weekends. We tend not to go out on weekend nights anyway, as crowds are not my thing — and if they’re not yours either do as we do and go early, as after 9 or so it gets very, very busy — if you don’t mind them let the bar know you’re coming and you’ll become part of that crowd a lot faster. You’ll want to dress up as well; the bar prefers ladies and gentlemen to don their snappiest outfits when they visit, and at this place it’s warranted. Besides, who wants to be underdressed in Old Havana? Be a part of the fabulousness!
The three drinks I had were excellent, and this one, which Pablo was kind enough to confirm my guess of proportions, was probably my favorite. I love aromatic cocktails, and it’s particularly nice to enjoy a complex rum cocktail that contains no citrus (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s currently made with the new incarnation of Zaya rum from Trinidad, and fortunately not with rum from a barrel containing the remains of Admiral Nelson.
Stir with ice for 20-30 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe, orange peel garnish.
I had a couple of others for which I didn’t get a recipe, as I was actually talking to my friends and having fun instead of being a cocktail geek and watching Pablo like a hawk. The Tropical Holiday was nice, with a J.M. Rhum Blanc base (mmm, rhum agricole!) sweetened with simple syrup and John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum for a dose of island flavors, plus lime and bitters, topped with soda. Tangy and refreshing. Wes’ Honey Swizzle is based on Cristal Aguardiente, a rather fiery cane spirit from Colombia with an anise flavor that I found surprising and ultimately delightful when I first tried it about 10 years ago (and a belated thanks to Patrick for bringing a bottle of it to that cocktail party at our place back in ’00!). Besides the honey syrup and citrus I forget the rest of the ingredients, but I’ll return to this one as well.
I’m going to have to visit a couple more times in the next few weeks, but y’know … I think I could fall in love with this place.
They don’t serve food at La Descarga but have no fear — right next door is Tacos de Patio, open late and serving excellent street-style Mexican food. Mmmm, tacos al pastor …
If they were smart, given who’s just opened up right next door, they’d add Cuban sandwiches to the menu.
La Descarga is at 1159 Western Ave., Los Angeles CA 90029, between Lexington and Virginia, just south of the 101.
Cocktail of the Day today is one that it took me a while to get to, because oddly enough until last year I never had any aquavit in my bar.
That’s not just an oversight on my part. For a long time I wasn’t a fan of that spirit’s major flavor component.
Aquavit is a flavored spirit, usually distilled from grain or potatoes, which comes from the various Scandinavian countries. I see it as a fellow traveler to gin — they’re both neutral spirits flavored with botanicals, with gin’s primary botanical being juniper, and aquavit’s being caraway. (That was the taste I had to acquire.)
Although a cousin to gin in that respect, the cousins get once or twice removed fairly quickly. A lot of aquavit spends time in wood and thusly picks up color and flavor. Linie, from Norway, is perhaps the most well-known example. It’s a potato-based aquavit that’s made in Oslo, then stored in oak sherry casks and aged in the holds of ships, as it travels across the equator through temperatures hot and cold to Australia and back (“linie” means “line” in Norwegian, referring to the equator) — for the makers, just the right amount of time and temperature variation spent in the barrels for a deeper flavor. Aquavits from other countries tend to be lighter in color, and some, like Krogstad, a domestic aquavit produced by House Spirits in Oregon — is clear. (However, North Shore Distillery’s Aquavit Private Reserve, which I have yet to try, is oaked, and I’ve just picked up a small bottle of experimental Krogstad that’s spent some time in oak as well. More on that, and some other House Spirits experiments, in a later post.)
In its native lands aquavit tends to be drunk neat and chilled from the freezer, but talented mixologists are finding it to be an intriguing cocktail ingredient. At Copper Gate in Seattle aquavit is the house spirit (and there’s a housemade one to boot), with several aquavit-based cocktails on their menu.
There aren’t a whole lot of aquavit-based cocktails (CocktailDB lists 18, most of which are fairly obscure), but what’s probably my favorite one isn’t on that list. It’s an original by Robert Hess, who about 10 years ago was playing with Fee Brothers’ Peach Bitters plus thinking about trying a variation on the Negroni. Aquavit replaced gin, Cynar (the Italian artichoke-based bitters) replaced the Campari, and sweet vermouth gave way to dry sherry. The peach bitters added a nice aromatic, fruity finish and the final product is a really lovely and complex drink from three really offbeat ingredients (to many folks, at least).
Murray put it on the menu at Zig Zag, and according to Robert that one drink on that one menu is responsible for Zig Zag being the largest consumer of Cynar in all of Washington State. So nice to see how all our Seattle friends drink so well (and even better to drink well with them!).
Just back from another visit to Houston (my stupendous nephew Thomas just turned 3!), and as is my wont it included a visit to one of my favorite bars, the stupendous Anvil Bar & Refuge. It was an even rarer treat this time, as my sister got to come with me — I hadn’t gotten to take her to a bar since well before the kids were born, and my brother-in-law kindly volunteered to stay home with the kids (the fact that he had to work from home that night was a factor as well). “It’s 7:15 and I’m driving away from my house with no children, and going to a bar!!” It makes me happy to facilitate the occasional boozy evening out for the mother of a two-year-old and a three-year-old.
On my previous Anvil visits I got to hang out with bartender/co-owner Bobby Heugel and have him take me through Anvil’s always challenging and exciting menu. This time Bobby was in South Africa, happily swilling Pinotage and having a well-deserved vacation, and behind the stick this was Justin Burrow, one of the other Anvil crew who I finally got to meet at Tales last year. Justin took great care of us on a busier-than-usual Sunday night, as he and his crew accommodated not only the usual locals but the entire cast of the touring production of “Miss Saigon,” who are performing in Houston at the moment and who descended on the bar en masse.
The first drink on the new seasonal menu that caught my eye was the one with the most unusual mix of ingredients — Batavia Arrack, Strega, Falernum and lime. Wow, now that’s a combination I hadn’t thought of, and I immediately ordered one. My sister said, “The only one of those ingredients I’ve ever heard of is lime!” whereupon Justin very kindly poured a little sip of each ingredient into a glass for her to taste, “a deconstructed version.”
If you’re not familiar with these ingredients either … Batavia Arrack is a sugar cane-based spirit also made with fermented Indonesian red rice, and is a basic component of Swedish Punsch. Strega is an Italian herbal liqueur with over 70 herbs and spices (the yellow color coming from saffron), and falernum is a sweetining and flavoring syrup originating in Barbados with flavors of almond, ginger, clove and lime. It’s frequently non-alcoholic, but this particular incarnation, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, is 11% abv. Melissa tasted each one … “Ooh, that’s funky,” to the arrack; “Wow, that’s really complex,” to the Strega; “Um, I’m draining this – you don’t get any” to the falernum. Hmm, guess I’ll have to buy her a bottle.
Justin explained that they had been doing inventory at the end of the year and there was an excess of arrack, Strega and falernum, and they wondered what they’d do with it as none of the drinks on the Anvil 100 call for them, and the current seasonal menu didn’t either. Justin started mixing, using the Last Word as a template, and lo and behold … they worked together beautifully.
Or specifically, “Burns Nicht” if you’re going to be holding the traditional celebration for the Bard of Scotland tonight, in honor of his 214th birthday.
(Quite a handsome bloke, wasn’t he?)
If you were hoping for that most traditional of Scottish dishes, always served on Burns Night by those celebrating the poet’s life, prepare to unleash a joyous shout of “Gie her a Haggis!” The USDA is going to relax its ban on the importation of the real MacCoy, made of the heart, lungs and liver of a sheep, mixed with beef suet, onions, oats, black pepper and stuffed into the stomach of the animal. (Mmm.)
This is great news! See, thing is, though … haggis is good. I’ve had it, in Edinburgh, Scotland, no less. If you’re a Louisianian or a lover of Louisiana food who’s eaten and enjoyed boudin, then you’re pretty much there — it’s a very small leap from boudin to haggis. Think sheep instead of pork, oats instead of rice, stomach instead of intestinal casing (and the stomach is just that, a casing — you don’t eat that bit). It’s a big fat sausage, basically, no big deal, and as a waiter in a Scottish restaurant in New York said, “If you can eat a New York hot dog and not ask what’s in it, you can eat haggis.” It’s particularly good when served with the traditional accompaniments of “neeps and tatties” (mashed turnips and potatoes), some strong Scots ale, a wee dram (or four) of whisky … and, um, in my case in Scotland, a few dashes of Tabasco that I snuck out of my bag and applied when no one was looking. Untraditional but yummy nonetheless.
Of course, you’ll be needing plenty of guid Scots whisky tonight, whether you’re having haggis or not. There’s a huge world of it that I’m still only just beginning to explore, but these days I’m enjoying the maritime flavors of Islay whiskys — the wonderfully smoky Laphroaig 10-year (“like drinking bacon”), the intense “Band-Aids, sweat, leather and iodine bouquet” of Lagavulin 16-year (seen below) or the delightfully earthy, smoky, spicy, almost chocolatey Ardbeg Supernova, if you can still find it. Find a good blend too — don’t discount blended whisky, as there are many superb blends. Compass Box Asyla is a favorite, Famous Grouse is our regular mixing Scotch, and I loved the complex, nutty, spicy, fruit-and-toffee flavors of the Chivas Regal 18-year I tried recently.
If you’re a cocktailian, though, how about something (presumably) named after the Bard himself?
looka, <lʊ´-kə> dialect, v.
1. The imperative form of the verb "look," in the spoken vernacular of New Orleans. It is usually employed when the speaker wishes to call one's attention to something, or to what one is about to say.
2. --n. Chuck Taggart's weblog¹, est. 1999, with contributions by Wesly Moore, updated (almost) daily (except when it's not), focusing on cocktails and spirits, food and other drink, music, New Orleans and Louisiana culture ... and occasionally movies, books, sf, public radio, media and culture, travel, Macs, humor and amusements, reviews, news of the reality-based community, wry observations, complaints, the authors' lives and opinions, witty and/or smart-arsed comments and whatever else tickles the authors' fancy.
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