Left Coast Libations Cocktail of the Day: 606

After the typical, eye-roll-causing procrastination between the last post and now, we finally resume with a couple more of the cocktail featured on the menu at the Varnish during the Left Coast Libations book release party … two months ago. (Well, good things come to those who wait, I hope.)

This one comes from bartender Neyah White, who’s been behind the stick for many years and made a particular impact on the San Francisco cocktail scene before he decided to take a gig traveling the world, teaching folks about the wonders of Japanese whisky. I finally met Neyah a few months back at a local bartenders’ gathering, where we all knocked back some fine whisky and astonishing Japanese whisky-based cocktails (oh my, that Yamazaki 18 year Old Fashioned … oh my). He’s a great guy, and I hope we get to knock back a few more.

This is one of Neyah’s drinks featured in the book, which was on the menu at the party. It’s closely related to Ada “Coley” Coleman’s classic Hanky Panky cocktail from her stint as head of the bar at the Savoy Hotel in the early 1900s; her original recipe is half gin, half sweet vermouth with 2 dashes of Fernet Branca. A more recent version by Ted Haigh upped the gin, lowered the vermouth and brought the Fernet up to 1/4 ounce. This is an entirely different drink though, even if you think of genever as “Dutch gin” (which I think is really a misnomer). To me genever is more like whisky than gin, with that wonderful maltiness bringing a body and flavor that’s miles removed from actual gins like a London dry.

This is also a hefty dose of Fernet Branca in a cocktail, and that’s one difficult ingredient to work with. It doesn’t like to play with others, and has a tendency to completely take over unless it’s used in very small quantities. We’ve got a whole tablespoon of the stuff here, but it’s properly tempered — the thick maltiness of the genever reins it in, the vermouth smooths it out and they both provide a strong enough counterpoint (especially if you use a powerful vermouth like Carpano Antica). Make sure you don’t use a jonge style genever, which is light and has a minimum amount of maltwine in its base (5% or less). You’ll want an oude style genever, and our favorite these days (and the easiest to find) is Bols Genever. I can’t wait to try this with an oude with a bit of age on it, or with a corenwijn

This drink is a whoop upside the head, but in the nicest possible way.

(by Neyah White)

1-1/2 ounces genever (our favorite is Bols Genever).
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth.
1/2 ounce Fernet Branca.

Stir with cracked ice for at least 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with an orange peel.

The flaming of the orange peel is an optional step; Neyah doesn’t specify this in the book but Chris was making them this way at The Varnish. I do enjoy the flavor of caramelized orange oil, and of course I love the light show. Enjoy it either way.


The physical toll of shaking cocktails

We’ve made so many strides and so much progress in mixology and bartending in the last 10 years, and especially in Los Angeles — previously a cocktail wasteland — in the last three or four.  More and more often we’re seeing properly long, vigorous shakes of egg and citrus cocktails, not that wimpy two-second rock-back-and-forth that was always the bane of the imbiber — as Dr. Philip Boyce once said to Capt. Christopher Pike aboard the starship Enterprise, “Who wants a warm Martini?”

We’re also seeing nice, big ice that chills the drink without overly diluting it — Kold-Draft machines are becoming more common, and some bars produce their own ice.  Apparently there has been a price to pay for this, though.


The New York Times recently published an article featuring several of our local bartenders about the mounting problem of repetetive stress injuries.

Bartender Marcos Tello, shaking the bejesus out of a drink

“When we first started Varnish, we began sustaining a bunch of injuries,” Marcos Tello said. “I had a huge, constant knot in my forearm. Chris Ojeda developed tennis elbow. Matty Eggleston popped a tendon in his hand. We were all sidelined with all these injuries.”

Varnish is not a football team. It is a stylish, speakeasy-style cocktail bar that opened early last year in downtown Los Angeles. And the men Mr. Tello mentions are fellow bartenders, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-30s. But in these heady days of behind-the-bar showmanship, when theatrical agitations of shakers filled with heavy-duty ice are becoming the norm, the mixologist’s physical lot is not so terribly far removed from an athlete’s.

I’d been hearing about this from several of our bartender friends in town, and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem.  I’m glad it’s being addressed — I don’t want everyone to have to retire by the time they’re 40!  Later in the article Marcos mentions consulting and even hiring physical therapists as consultants, which is a great idea.  If you’re a bartender, how do you cope?  How will we have to adapt our shaking techniques to still knock out great drinks without compromising health?  Do we need to invent a shaking machine?  Or is that just too wimpy?

Let’s be careful out there!


I’ll have me a po-boy

Of course, today is the day to talk about food, especially when the average plate of Thanksgiving feasting that you’ll be holding in your hands today will weigh in at 3,500 calories … and that’s not counting dessert.

I’m home in New Orleans for Thanksgiving (and a Saints game), and for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. (Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad!) I’m hoping that on the spare day I have before I fly back I’ll be able to get me a po-boy. I haven’t had a proper one in months, and I’m jonesin’.

A week ago Sunday was the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival, a madhouse of over 40,000 people crammed onto Oak Street to celebrate one of the national dishes of our beloved city-state. Some locals groused about the crowds, preferring to get their po-boys at actual po-boy shops during the other 364 days of the year, but it looked like quite a party.

“CBS Sunday Morning” did a terrific report on the festival, and on our love for the Emperor of All Sandwiches.

The winners of the festival all looked terrific, and none of them was one of the classic po-boy joints like Parkway, Domilise’s, Johnny’s or even the more recent upstarts like Mahony’s. I’d love to track all these sandwiches down (the lobster po-boy will be on the menu at GW Fins soon) although unfortunately I won’t be able to during the one extra day I’ll have at home, sigh. I’m trying not to drool just reading this list — it’s great to see the art of the po-boy being elevated with all this creativity. That said, you just can’t beat a hot sausage po-boy.

Best of Show Po-boy: GW Fins’ Fried Lobster tossed in Crystal Hot Sauce Butter
Best Pork Po-boy: Grand Isle Restaurant — Boucherie Po-Boy
Best Specialty Seafood Po-Boy: Grand Isle Restaurant — Smoked Fish Po-Boy
Best Roast Beef Po-Boy: Sammy’s Deli on Elysian Fields — Garlic Stuffed Roast Beef Po-Boy
Best Specialty Non-Seafood Po-Boy: Sammy’s Deli on Elysian Fields -– Fried Chicken, Chisesi Ham and Swiss Cheese Po-Boy
Best Shrimp Po-Boy: Redfish Grill — Grilled Shrimp with Blackened Avocado Po-boy
People’s Choice Award: Coquette Restaurant — Homemade Hot Sausage Po-Boy


Left Coast Libations (and the Saffron Sandalwood Sour)

There was a hugely fun book launch party at The Varnish bar in downtown Los Angeles back on October 17. No, I’m not exactly Johnny-On-The-Spot as this event occurred five weeks ago (remember, there’s that whole God Emperor of Procrastination thing) but in case you weren’t aware, there’s a new book out of great interest to those of us who appreciate fine cocktails, and especially those of us on the Left Coast.

Left Coast Libations

Those of you who were at Tales of the Cocktail a few years ago may remember being handed a small, spiral-bound booklet by one of two (or perhaps, if you were lucky, both!) delightfully quirky brothers from Seattle, the Munat Brothers (a.k.a. Charles and Ted), whose liver-straining toil produced a hand-made compendium of cocktail recipes with enlightening and amusing commentary. Since then the idea behind the book evolved into a gorgeous hardback entitled, oddly enough, Left Coast Libations: The Art of West Coast Bartending. One hundred, count ’em, one hundred original cocktails by craft bartenders from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. This time Ted’s the principal author, along with Michael Lazar and with lovely photos by Jenn Farrington.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of the West Coast coctkail scene … well, circa 2009, given how lead times work in the publishing industry. If you know Ted at all or read his I-wish-he’d-post-to-it-more-often-but-jeez-who-am-I-to-call-that-kettle-black weblog Le Mixeur you may have encountered his sense of humor, which is in full force in LCL. Ted’s biographies of the bartenders are highly entertaining, although not necessarily … um, well, true. Oh sure, there are bits of truthiness in there, but I wouldn’t swear on any of it in court. Take the bartender character sketches with a grain of salt — well, actually, head down to Avery Island, Louisiana and get the whole mine. That’s Ted, though, and it’s always clear that he adores and admires his bartenders (as do we all, right?). Also, given the book’s lead time, beware going to any particualr bar that’s mentioned to find a particular bartender — you know how it is, I have enough trouble keeping up with where my bartender friends are currently working on a weekly basis.

These are not all cocktails that you’ll find easy to make at home — these are specialty drinks from craft bars, and a number of them call for housemade ingredients that might be easy for a bar to batch and keep on hand in large quantity, but perhaps a bit more challenging for the home bartender.

Some are easy — cardamom and cinnamon tinctures are a cinch, as are simple infused spirits — others not so much. Costus root bitters, various foams, and … smoked cider air? Most you can make in small quantities, and in some cases you’ll find it worth the effort (as for the more complicated ones … you might end up just going to get one from the bartender himself or herself).

Although some of the drinks are quite complicated many are not, and all are more than noteworthy. A couple have been covered here before, including John Coltharp’s excellent Historic Core Cocktail, always worth a revisit.

The party was a blast, starting off with an early event featuring Marcos Tello and Varnish proprietor Eric Alperin behind the bar with a range of cocktails of their creation that were featured in the book. Then the main party took off, with The Varnish’s own Devon Tarby and Rob Royt owner-bartender Anu Apte in from Seattle to mix up yet another selection of drinks. (We were well-preserved by evening’s end.)

Chris Bostick, bartender and general manager at The Varnish, knocks out three at once at the Left Coast Libations L.A. launch event.

I’m going to feature a handful of cocktails from Left Coast Libations over the next few days, starting with this one of Anu’s that I first had at Rob Roy last year. It’s a wonderful take on a gin sour that incorporates comforting flavors of her childhood into a unique signature drink. It requires a bit of advance prep, but don’t be daunted. Saffron is an expensive spice but is available in small quantities, and you’ll get your best price at an Indian grocery store. (Penzey’s Spices is also a good place to start, as is Spice Station in Silver Lake in Los Angeles and The Spice House.) Indian groceries are your best bet for sandalwood sticks, too. Make sure you get food grade, and don’t grate up sandalwood incense.

Saffron Sandalwood Sour

1-1/2 ounces Plymouth gin.
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice.
1/2 ounce lime juice.
1/2 ounce saffron sharbat.
1 barspoon Angostura bitters.
1 egg white.
Sandalwood, for garnish.

Dry shake all ingredients except the garnish, for 20 seconds at least. Add the ice and shake again until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with sandalwood — if you have sandalwood sticks, grate over the drink using a microplane grater. (Anu points out that sandalwood sticks are very hard, so if you’re fresh grating it might be better to use chips, grind them in a spice grinder and strain out the larger pieces. Pre-powdered sandalwood has very little fragrance.)

Saffron Sharbat

1-1/4 cups water.
2 cups sugar.
1/4 cup rosewater.
Generous 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads.
1 tablespoon boiling water.

Make a saffron extract by placing the boiling water into a small bowl, crushing the saffron threads with your fingers and adding to the water. Let steep for 15 minutes.

Mix the water and sugar in a saucepan and make a simple syrup by heating gently until the sugar is dissolved.

In another bowl, add the rosewater to the saffron extract. Then add this mixture to the simple syrup. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool, and store in the refrigerator.

This makes enough for 16 cocktails, and will keep in the fridge. You can leave the saffron threads in, or strain them out if you like. Anu says the syrup also makes an excellent soda when mixed with lime juice and soda water.


Fats & Dave, together again

Yeah, I know, two posts in one day. Try not to faint.

I couldn’t help it, though. When I saw this report from WWL-TV in New Orleans I had to share it. New Orleans R&B legends Antoine “Fats” Domino and Dave Bartholomew, who together (and along with producer Cosimo Matassa) were responsible for so much great New Orleans music (and the building blocks of rock ‘n roll), hadn’t seen each other or spoken for years. Then WWL reporter Eric Paulsen brought Mr. Dave over to Fats’ house in the Lower Ninth Ward.

“And when these two living legends got together, it was magic… Fats is 82. Dave turns 90 next month. But they felt like teenagers when they saw each other.”

What I’d give to be able to see these two perform together. I last saw Dave years ago at Tipitina’s, heading up a big band and tearing it up for a guy who was in his 70s at the time. It’s been longer for Fats, a Jazzfest performance in 1997. He’s cripplingly shy these days and almost never performs, and was supposed to play Fest again in 2006, but that didn’t happen (sigh).

The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame is honoring Fats and Dave, and the special event will feature Lloyd Price, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, The ReBirth Brass Band, Theresa Andersson, The Dixie Cups, Toots & the Maytals, James Andrews, Jon Cleary & more. As our friend Diana said, “Just your average night in New Orleans …” I surely hope they release a DVD of this event.