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What we’re drinking


#WhatWereDrinking has been a hashtag we’ve been using for the Bar Keeper Instagram feed (y’all know I work at Bar Keeper now, yes?), and I thought it seemed time to start a similar series in the newly revitalized Looka!

Just messing around tonight, but can’t take any particular credit for this as it’s just one or more variations on one or more themes. Arguably this is kind of a Black Manhattan/Negroni/Old Pal hybrid or some such. Equal amounts Congenial Spirits Twelve Five Rye, Aperol, and Amaro CioCiaro, with Bitter Truth grapefruit bitters and an orange twist. Delightfully smooth and mellow, but still aperitif-y.

New York City, Clover Club & the New York Sour

New York, just like I pictured it! Skyscrapers, and … everything.

Last December Wesly and I finally, FINALLY went to New York, as we had been wanting and threatening to do for years. I wish I had collected a dollar for every time a friend of ours said, “WHAT?! YOU guys have never been to New York?!” It might have paid for the hotel bill. Well, some of it more likely.

How did we like New York? Well, let me put it this way — we’ve already picked out where we’d like to live. That’d be Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, which is a gorgeous neighborhood, full of places to go and things to do, plus it’s walking distance to one of the best bars I’ve ever been to. (Of course, if money were no object I certainly wouldn’t mind living in the East Village either.) Our first craft cocktail bar experience in New York, in fact, high on my want list — Clover Club, owned by bartender extraordinaire and New York cocktail maven Julie Reiner. An auspicious beginning to our New York drinking, I should think.

We met up with friends who lived in the neighborhood and settled in — neighborhoody, very friendly, less than a dozen seats at the front bar but comfy booths and plenty of tables. I was somewhat agog at the menu, which was voluminous and made me want to try pretty much everything. I ordered something off the menu but then one of our drinking companions ordered something I wasn’t familiar with; “I get this every single time I come here,” he said.

I was a little embarrassed that I did not remember this drink; it was pointed out that the drink appears in the excellent, indispensible tome Imbibe!. (Clearly I need to re-read the book and make some highlights.) It does not appear as a separate, stand-alone recipe but as part of a general entry on sours under the heading “Brandy, Gin, Santa Cruz or Whiskey Sour,” where the general sour of the mid-1800s — “spirits, sugar, water, lemon, ice” — receives a “notable innovation” of a float of red wine,

“to give it what one Chicago bartender called ‘the claret “snap”‘ (in the language of the saloon, red wine was always called ‘claret,’ no matter how distant its origins from the sunlit banks of the Gironde).”

That generic British term for red Bordeaux ended up being used to describe just about any dry red wine, and just about any dry red wine you have on hand will do as long as it’s got some nice fruit to it. I might not use something big and tannic like a Cabernet Sauvignon, but surely a Cabernet blend, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, or I might even go off the wall sometime and try a jammy Zinfandel.

One sip revealed this to be a stupendous drink, with the wine creating myriad secondary flavors in the sour; I even thought I tasted a hint of absinthe although there was none in the drink, but was perhaps due to hints of licorice among the flavor components of the wine. So simple yet so complex; I’m a big fan of wine in cocktails and haven’t had nearly enough of them.

Do try this drink as soon as you can. I think you’ll fall in love with it as much as I did. Upon my return to Los Angeles and to Bar | Kitchen, one of our favorite haunts, I had the pleasure of being served more of these by former New York bartender Joseph Swifka, who of course made perfect ones, and with one sip brought me right back to Brooklyn.

New York Sour


2 ounces rye whiskey
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce rich (2:1) simple syrup (or to taste; use more if your syrup is 1:1)
1 dash orange Curaçao
1/2 ounce dry red wine

Combine the whiskey, lemon juice, Curaçao and syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for 10-12 seconds. Strain into a sour glass, then carefully float the wine on top by pouring over the back of a spoon — you want a distinct layer floating on top of the drink, so be careful not to mix the layers. Sip and enjoy.

This was, of course, not the only drink we had at Clover Club — I really wanted to explore that menu, and explore I did. There were a few other concoctions imbibed that afternoon/evening:

Daisy de Santiago

Daisy de Santiago

The Daisy de Santiago, as collected by Charles H. Baker Jr. and tweaked to perfection by Clover Club — aged rum, lime juice, yellow Chartreuse, dash simple syrup.

Volstead Cocktail

Volstead Cocktail

The pre-Prohibition era Volstead Cocktails — rye, Swedish punsch, orange juice, grenadine, absinthe.

Clover Club

Clover Club

The eponymous Clover Club cocktail, because how could I not? Gin, dry vermouth, lemon, raspberry syrup, egg white.

Mr. Brown

Mr. Brown

I had a bit of Wesly’s Mr. Brown, which seemed an Old Fashionedy version of a Revolver Cocktail — Bourbon, coffee liqueur, vanilla syrup, orange and Angostura bitters, and not nearly as sweet as it sounds. He also had one called Zombies in Stereo — Apple brandy, Calvados, Pommeau, Bonal, yellow Chartreuse, lemon, maple syrup (holy hell).

And because it was on the menu, which it almost never is, I finished with a magnificent Widow’s Kiss

The Widow's Kiss

The Widow's Kiss

Dried rose petals did indeed fall from between the pages.

Only I lied, I didn’t finish with that. At that point, I was … well, happy. And as is my wont when I’m happy in a bar, I decided to buy shots for the bartenders and server (and Wesly and me, of course).

Later on Wesly said, “Amazingly enough, you were mostly okay when we left the bar.” We did indeed finally leave the bar, heading back to the subway and to Manhattan, where we were meeting other friends for dinner at a Midtown gastropub. I don’t recall which beer I ordered, but I do recall that it was about 7.8% ABV, that it came in an absurdly large vessel, and then I recall …


By the pricking of my thumbs, something bitter this way comes …

It’s fun coming up with cocktail names. Then comes the hard part … coming up with the cocktail.

Most of the time the process is reversed, at least with most bartenders I know. The spirits and flavors form the initial idea, and the name comes afterward. Sometimes, though, you just come up with such a great drink name that you use that as your creative inspriation.

There was one such night several months back, drinking at The Varnish in Downtown L.A. My friend Aaron was with us and was on a roll, tossing out great drink names one after the other. Most of them I don’t remember, given that my memory tends to be a bit hazy with trivial details during periods of cocktail quaffing. I do, however, remember one very clearly.

My friend Zane Harris from Seattle was guest bartending that evening (that was the night he made me the Yellow With Envy cocktail), and one of the concoctions he served up was based on Averna amaro, with a touch of Fernet. It was fabulous, and I loved the idea of using two amari in the same cocktail. Hell, why not try a drink combining bitter elements the way tiki drinks combine rums? Certainly this has been done before, but I hadn’t done it before. Aaron immediately tossed off a perfect drink name — “Something Bitter This Way Comes.” Had he been reading my mind, coming across my lifelong love of the writing of Ray Bradbury, and the fact that Something Wicked This Way Comes has been one of my favorite novels since I was 13? Whether he was mindmelding or not, he nailed this one, and kindly gave me the name to use as I saw fit. (Fortunately I forgot all the other ones, at least one of which I challenged him to actually create.)

I wanted a rye base for this for spice and backbone, and definitely Fernet although not so much that it would dominate. For the primary amaro I chose Amaro CioCiaro — bracingly bitter and herbal but bright and citrusy enough to be refreshing, and sweeter than you might imagine once you’ve had a few sips. What would I use to bind these together, though?

I tried almost everything, or so it seemed; I went through many many incarnations of this one before I was satisfied. Previous versions included maraschino (too sweet) and Aperol (getting there, but no). Cocchi Aperitivo Americano seemed just the thing to ameliorate the sweetness inherent in the amari while adding a bitter element of its own. I tried overproof ryes to attempt to stand up to the amaro combinations but it wasn’t necessary — a 90ish proof rye (Bulleit or Redemption or Sazerac 6) seems to work the best.

And then … I put it aside for a while. Procrastinated. Time passed. Wesly made the amazing Golden Dahlia. The following weekend I thought it might finally be time to run this post, so I’d make the drink again and take some pics … and then I had another thought.

We had just gotten our first bottle of another Cocchi product, the Vermouth di Torino, a fantastic red vermouth from Turin, Italy that’s brand-new to the States. I love it. I decided to give the drink one more incarnation, to let the cocoa and bitter notes of this vermouth work with the other amari and see what happens.

What happened was that the bell rang. This one was it.

That cocoa aspect of the Cocchi di Torino hooked in perfectly with the orangey notes of the CioCiaro, while contributing a bit of citrus of its own along with a great breadth of complexity (in fact, you should be drinking Cocchi Vermouth di Torino by itself as much as possible, and don’t ever let it go bad in your fridge).

The final touch (learned from friends and mentors Kirk Estopinal and Maks Pazuniak after several rounds of drinking at Cure in New Orleans) was a tiny pinch of kosher salt. This helped rein in the bitterness to make it more pleasant and less of an attack on the palate, and helped cut down a bit on the sweetness too. Remember, amari are liqueurs and contain a fair amount of sugar.

Funny thing is … it’s actually not all that bitter, and comes in squarely in the Manhattan variation category. That may not have been what I was initially going for, but it’s what evolved. Who am I to question it? Also, I’m tired of working on it. It’s a mighty tasty drink, but does it live up to the name? That may well be up to you.


1-1/2 ounces rye whiskey.
1 ounce Amaro CioCiaro.
1/2 ounce Cocchi Vermouth di Torino.
1/4 ounce Fernet-Branca.
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters.
Tiny pinch of kosher salt.

Combine ingredients with cracked ice in a mixing glass. Stir for at least 30 seconds until thoroughly chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel after expressing the orange oil onto the drink.

If you can’t find the Vermouth di Torino near you, Cocchi Aperitivo Americano still works well. Barring either of those, I’d say go for Punt E Mes.

Gaah, I might work on it again. Campari or Luxardo Bitter instead of Cocchi Vermouth? *tear hair out*


Bulleit Rye Whiskey: A first look

Bulleit Rye whiskey“Hi Chuck, hope you’re doing well. I am working on the launch of the new Bulleit Rye, and we’d like to send you a sample.”

Well … sure! Okay then! Twist my arm, why dontcha?

I love getting emails like this.

It’s exciting news that Bulleit are putting out a rye. I’m a huge fan of their Bourbon, its own high rye content being one of the reasons (about 28% of the mashbill, in fact). Such a high rye content gives wonderful spice notes and produces a drier product that one that’s mostly corn. (Remember, by law Bourbon whiskey must be at least 51% corn, and rye whiskey must be at least 51% rye.) The new rye won’t contain any corn — the mashbill will be 95% rye with 5% malted barley for natural grain-based enzymatic action for converting the rye grain’s starches to sugars in fermentation. Their rye grains have been obtained from Germany, Sweden, Canada as well as the U.S., and they use a proprietary yeast strain for fermenting the mash. The age is described as being “between 4 and 7 years.” It’s a hefty dram too, with the finished product coming in at 90 proof (45% abv).

I had read that Tom Bulleit and his distillers had been working on this product for about 7 years, talking to whiskey lovers as well as bartenders for ideas and inspiration. That’s plenty of time to give it some age and fine-tune. I could hardly wait to taste it.

Whiskey has quite a history in this family –- the Bourbon made from a 175-year-old recipe by Augustus Bulleit, Tom Bulleit’s great-great-grandfather. The production process for the Bourbon also uses a proprietary yeast culture (I wonder if it’s the same one as the rye) and a Kentucky limestone-filtered water source originating from the Salt River, both of which help impart a unique character.

There’s a lot of fascinating history to their Bourbon. I’m not one to parrot liquor company press releases, but when it involves a good story, mysterious disappearances and the city of New Orleans, I take an interest. Here’s the story, courtesy of Bulleit:

“[In the 1820s the young Augustus] emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine, France. Augustus arrived in the city [of New Orleans, Louisiana] during a time of great growth and prosperity. The United States had recently obtained the territory from Napoleon Bonaparte in the Louisiana Purchase, and New Orleans had successfully defended itself from a British invasion during the War of 1812. The population of the city doubled in the 1830s, and by 1840, New Orleans had become the wealthiest and third- most populous city in the nation.

“The strategic location of New Orleans, at the base of the Mississippi River, made it one of the primary gateways to the West for many early pioneers. To service this ever-growing community of frontiersman, a sizable industry selling needed products for the journey West was forming along the banks of the Mississippi. It’s easy to imagine a young Augustus Bulleit observing the growing American population, the swelling movement west, and noting the ease of transport from the North as a result of the river.

“Around 1840, Augustus Bulleit took his newfound entrepreneurial ambitions and moved from New Orleans to just outside Louisville, KY. Augustus established himself as a tavern keeper, where he began producing small batches of bourbon. Relentless in his pursuit of perfection, he experimented with countless recipes, finally finding one that consistently met his expectations. And thus, Bulleit Bourbon was born.

“Augustus’ bourbon was sold throughout Kentucky, Indiana and New Orleans where it quickly gained the reputation as the bourbon of choice for America’s most haled and hardy adventurers—the frontiersmen.

“In 1860, America was rapidly expanding further west, and Augustus’ adopted hometown of New Orleans had become a major distribution point for his whiskey. That year, while transporting barrels of whiskey from Kentucky to New Orleans, Augustus Bulleit mysteriously disappeared just outside of New Orleans.

“Walter Q. Gresham, a farm boy from Augustus’ neighborhood, who later became Secretary of State under President Grover Cleveland, formed a search party to travel from Indiana to New Orleans in search of Augustus. The searchers came back empty handed, with no knowledge of what happened to Augustus. However, they did discover that his whiskey and flatboat had been sold. His body was never found.

“Shortly after Augustus’ disappearance, the Civil War began and his case was lost in the chaos of the time. While presumed dead, his death has never been certified.

“After Augustus’ disappearance, it seemed the making of his legendary bourbon would disappear with him. However, as decades passed, the Bulleit family never lost its passion for telling the story of Augustus Bulleit, nor the desire to resurrect his signature creation. After more than a century, the family returned at last to bourbon making. In 1987, Tom Bulleit fulfilled a lifelong dream by reviving his family’s ancestral distilling enterprise, using the original recipe of his great-great-grandfather.”

That’s a hell of a story!

About a week after I enthusiastically responded to the email, the Liquor Fairy — dressed in brown with brown shorts as usual — deposited a package at my door containing this:

I must confess I was looking forward to seeing that big pretty bottle with the new green label, but I love getting little medicine bottle samples. Given the limited quantity though, we were going to have to taste and mix carefully.

Into the Riedel Bourbon glasses it went, one ounce each.

First impressions on the nose: fruity! A bit of dark berry but the thing I noticed first was bananas. No, not quite. More like banana esters, like the ethylene gas from when you keep bananas in a paper bag to help ripen them. (This is a good thing.) Tropical, almost floral. Dry spice, a touch of toffee, unburned tobacco (an aroma I love; why must people ruin that aroma by setting it on fire?). Very round and inviting.

On the palate: Lean, robust, medium dry, very crisp. It’s spicy but not overwhelmingly so, and not necessarily the brown “Christmas” spices; it’s almost lightly peppery. Great rye flavor. The brown sugar and nutty toffee notes from the nose come in here too but it’s not the kind of sweetness you get from a high corn Bourbon. The finish is dry and nutty with that little touch of sweetness and a really nice rush of spices. It’s big and complex and spicy and absolutely delicious. Wow.

We couldn’t wait to mix this. We had just enough left to make one Manhattan. I had barely an ounce and a half left — to that I added 3/4 ounce of Carpano Antica vermouth and a dash of Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters. Lemon twist.

Superb. This rye is not only great for sipping but for mixing as well — that was a terrific Manhattan.

I wish I had more of it to do a more studied tasting, but you can bet that as soon as I see this on the shelves I’ll be picking up a couple bottles. Release date was a week ago on March 1, but I have yet to see it pop up at my usual spirits emporia. Keep an eye out. You’re going to want this one.

Well done, Bulleits!


American Trilogy

This morning I watched an amazing cocktail video, produced by Shlomo M. Godder at the bar Dutch Kills in New York City. It’s absolutely gorgeous — beautifully directed and photographed, entirely visual (no dialogue at all), nicely integrated graphics and lush music. It begins with a fascinating look at the unnamed bartender’s custom ice prep before shift, moving onto a cocktail that I had been making for quite a while and didn’t even know it.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the Old Fashioned might just be my favorite cocktail ever. It’s certainly at the top of my “comfort cocktails” list, being the first one I ever learned to make — Dad taught me when I was a kid, and sometimes I’d get to make him one after he got home from work. That basic recipe, truly the first “cock-tail” ever, adheres to a very simple recipe — “spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” One of my favorite variations has been to make Old Fashioneds with half rye whiskey for spice, and half bonded applejack for the wonderful fruit flavors, along with a variety of different bitters. Turns out that for the last four years or so, head bartender Michael McIlroy of New York’s Milk & Honey has been making essentially the same drink for over three years now. I’m glad to know that my cocktailian brain is wired properly, at the very least!

His cocktail is called the American Trilogy, combining those two very American spirits with orange bitters. Whether he named his drink after Mickey Newbury’s song, an arrangement of 19th Century traditional songs that was a hit for Elvis Presley, I don’t know. It’s a decent guess, at least.

Make sure you use Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy for this drink (and for all drinks containing apple brandy if you’re not using Calvados), a 100% brandy product not to be confused with Laird’s other product, called Laird’s Applejack. “Applejack” is the proper name for American apple brandy, but Laird’s Applejack brand is not all apple brandy; it’s 60% grain neutral spirits (i.e., vodka), with only 40% actual apple brandy by volume. It’s an inferior product to be avoided if the bonded product is available, so don’t be fooled by the prettier bottle. Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy is an outstanding product, and an indispensable part of your bar. I really wish they’d ditch that blend and concentrate on the bonded product, which is one of the finest spirits produced in the country.

In the video the bartender is shown muddling a sugar cube with a splash of water. I’m down on the use of sugar cubes in cocktails unless you can be certain that every granule of sugar is dissolved; I don’t like grit in my cocktails, and it takes time to do it this way. I much prefer a 2:1 simple syrup — either brown or demerara sugar in this case.

Thanks to Garret Richard for sending me the video — he’s becoming our semi-official Looka! New York correspondent!

(adapted from Michael McIlroy, Milk & Honey, NYC, 2007)

1 ounce rye whiskey (we like Rittenhouse bonded rye).
1 ounce Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy.
1 barspoon rich Demerara syrup.
2 dashes orange bitters.
Orange peel.

Combine with ice and stir for 20-30 seconds, strain over a large ice cube into a large Old Fashioned glass. Express the oil from the orange peel onto the drink and around the rim of the glass, and garnish with the peel.