Vieux Carré

The elevator opens, and you’re met with the bright ecstatic cacophony of the city. Everyone up here is dressed well, but not as well as you. You’re a little early. You move easily through the crowd as a seat opens before you at the long mahogany bar. She’ll be a few minutes yet, so you look from your watch to the bartender, vest and tie over a shirt so white it must be new:

“May I offer you a drink, sir?”

[vc] through the sun

That’s what the Vieux Carré is to me. It’s a tailored suit. It’s jazz and a good cigar. Muscular and elegant, beguiling and complex,  it’s one of those cocktails that you look good ordering and you feel good drinking, as if you yourself are more sophisticated for being in its company. And while that would be enough, it also just happens to be really, really damn good.

The Story:

As with so many grand Manhattan variations, the cocktail is named after the neighborhood in which it was invented: “Vieux Carré”means “old square,” what they call the French Quarter in New Orleans. It comes to us from 1937 — one of the rare few classic drinks to be invented post-Prohibition — conceived by head barman Walter Bergeron at the famous Hotel Monteleone, which stands now, as it has since 1886, a block off Bourbon Street on the French Quarter’s southern end.

Today, the Hotel Monteleone is most famous for its somewhat curious Carousel Bar, what the website proudly boasts as “the city’s only revolving bar,” in which the bar and everything on it literally circles bartender at the manageable but still bizarre rate of  1 revolution per 15 minutes. The thought of a cocktail this elegant invented in a room that gauche kind of ruins my day, and it’s comforting to know that it actually wasn’t — in his time it was called the Swan Bar,  and wouldn’t be converted to an orbital experience for another 11 years.

This is a thoroughly New Orleans drink. Them Crescent City folks are unusually proud of their heritage, and any time you’ve got French cognac and liqueur, rye floated down the Mississippi, and the city’s own Peychaud’s bitters in a single drink, there’s really only one place it could come from.

[vc] glamour shot

Vieux Carré
1oz Rye whiskey
1oz Cognac
1oz Sweet Vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir for 30 solid seconds (if using Kold Draft, 45 seconds). Strain into cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon peel.

Ingredient Notes:

Rye: should be big and spicy. I find Rittenhouse 100 proof does the trick perfectly. Many insist on Sazerac Rye just to hammer in the New Orleans connection (despite the fact that the Louisiana-owned Sazerac Rye has been made in Kentucky for its entire existence), which works great if you can find it. Steer clear of bottles that are too soft or low proof. 45% minimum.

Cognac: I prefer V.S.O.P or better. Too young and you’ll taste the brandy’s funkiness, which still makes a fine drink, but it’s not ideal. The cocktail is at its best when the cognac is giving rich, supple, woody notes to balance the spicy rye.

Vermouth: I prefer Carpano Antica, because not much else can stand up to the rest of the ingredients while maintaining the complexity we’re looking for.

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Variations:

There’s some reasonable dissent on the sweetness (some say more Bénédictine, which is crazy; many say less, which is not), and whether or not to use a lemon peel (personal choice, though I think it’s begging for it), but I think the most fertile disagreement is whether to make this drink on ice or up.

This particular cocktail needs a lot of dilution. That sweetness can cloy if it’s not suitably chilled and diluted, which is why almost everyone chooses to make it on ice. It was definitely conceived that way, and I would never say a Vieux Carré on ice is in any way incorrect.

But it’s not how I like it. I mitigate the sweetness instead by stirring longer than other drinks, about 30-45 seconds, depending on the ice, to get a little extra water before straining it up. This is because one of the principle pleasures of this drink is how the herbal interplay from the vermouth and Bénédictine evolves as it slowly warms.

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The cocktail is deliriously good in almost any form, but my favorite part is how the herbal complexity— a background note at first, lumped in with the perception of sweetness — begins to take center stage as time goes on. The warming changes it and the change is half the fun, providing an axis point on which to focus.

It’s like a Manhattan but more interesting. What’s more sophisticated than that?

Trivia!: the Hotel Monteleone apparently offers publications the “official” recipe, which should never be followed by anyone. I’ve found two very similar, equally gross sounding versions:

A la The Georgetowner:                              A la Saveur
0.5oz rye                                                                 0.5oz rye
0.25oz cognac                                                      0.5oz cognac
0.25oz sweet vermouth                                    0.5oz sweet vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine                                            0.5oz Bénédictine
3 drops Angostura bitters                               dash Angostura
3 drops Peychaud’s bitters                             dash Peychaud’s
Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.                 Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.
Served, ostensibly, in a thimble.                  Served alongside a shot of insulin.

Fort Point (Smoked)

I used to work for a newspaper in Boston. Every couple of months we had a seasonal insert — “Summer Fun” or “Ski and Snowboard” or whatever — that were all themed articles, pretty much just filler to sell extra advertising space. So when I pitched them Christmas cocktails for the Holiday insert, I got an enthusiastic “why the hell not?!”

What are some nice holiday drinks? I spend an hour or so googling candy-cane martinis before I realized I could use this opportunity to literally subsidize my drinking, and decided to recruit my friend Nick for some boozy reconnaissance. We went to go to five different bars, and ask each bartender for two drinks that evoke Christmas for him or her in any way.

Two nice things came out of that night. The article was published (here), and I was given what is probably the best drink I know how to make.

It happens all the time at the bar: “I don’t know what I want. What’s your favorite drink?” I used to try to explain to them that my favorite is irrelevant, that I love bitter whiskey things but that’s a taste I’ve acquired over several years, that like a favorite movie or book or meal, one’s favorite drink can be tasty but not for everyone………… but I don’t do that anymore. When someone asks me for my favorite drink, I just say ok and make them this:

Fort Point (Smoked)
2oz Rittenhouse Rye
0.5oz Punt e Mes
0.25oz Bénédictine
Rinse of smoky scotch (Lagavulin works wonderfully, but really any smoky/peaty scotch will do).
Stir over ice; strain into cocktail glass rinsed with smoky scotch. Garnish with flamed orange peel.

Aside from the flamed orange peel, this is a creation of Misty Kalkofan and a subtle variation of the Fort Point, the house cocktail of Drink in Boston. The Fort Point is the same without the smoky rinse or the orange peel, so this isn’t different enough to earn its own name (nor should I name it, as I’m not its father), but this version is definitely my favorite.

Punt e Mes is a sweet vermouth made by same people as Carpano Antica, a little sweeter with brighter fruit flavors and a lot more bitter on the back end, making aromatic bitters unnecessary. With a backbone of rye and just a hint of that warm herbal sweetness from the Bénédictine, this is a phenomenal drink. It’s at once simple and grandly complex, each sip offering a different accent as it warms.

But the scotch. The scotch is what makes it both transcendent and niche. Without, it’s excellent for pretty much everyone who likes whiskey. With, it’s perfect for me. Though just a rinse it’s a definite presence, picking up where the others drop off and taking you blissfully into the finish. There are some flavors, some floral or smoky or herbal ones, which seem somewhat undimmed by mixing as if they exist on a different plane.

Remembering that, if you don’t like that medicinal peaty flavor of scotch, skip the rinse. But if you do, don’t. It’s divine.

BONUS! How to rinse a glass:

1. Pour a very small (<0.25oz) amount of rinsing liquid in the glass.

2. Tilt the glass over a container so the liquid approaches the rim, then slowly twist the glass while steadily dripping the liquid out, thereby coating the inside of the glass with the flavor without leaving too much volume behind.

3. Drink the liquid out of the container.

I really do love rinsing with scotch.

Colleen Bawn

As I’ve already said, I think maybe more than once, it was in Boston that I learned how to drink. The bar that was singularly instrumental in teaching me was Green Street Grill in Cambridge.

It was the kind of bar people go out of their way for. Fortunately for me, I lived about 35 seconds from it, and it was there I had my first Old Fashioned, first taste of Fernet Branca, first flip, fizz, Collins, sour, etc., etc., etc. And it was there I had my first Colleen Bawn, then a fixture on their extended cocktail menu.

We ordered so many of them that winter that the bartenders used to groan when they saw Vikki’s bright red coat walk in the front door, because they knew they would be forced to make at least one egg drink. Eggs, you see, are a giant pain in the ass. You have to shake them once without ice and then once with, and with the ice you have to shake them forever, and you usually have to garnish ornately, artful dashes of bitters or hand-grated nutmeg or other such annoying flourishes that take up valuable doing-other-things time.

It’s worth noting, however, that we didn’t care about their groaning then, and I have even less sympathy for it now that I work with eggs myself. Never let a bartender make you feel bad about ordering a drink. If like Amaretto Sours, order an Amaretto Sour. I don’t care if you like Splenda Mojitos in January: you want what you want, and our job is to make it for you. Unless, of course, you order Ramos Gin Fizzes on a busy weekend night, in which case you can go fuck yourself.

Anyway.

The Colleen Bawn (meaning “fair girl,” from the Irish cailín bán) is the name of a play from 1860 by Dion Boucicault. It dramatizes the true story of Ellen Hainley, murdered at 15 by her wealthy husband and his servant. The murder of a beautiful young commoner and indictment among the aristocracy caused something of a stir, as you might imagine, and the story became about justice overcoming social class. Both men were hanged, and Hanley was interred under the inscription:

“Here lies the Colleen Bawn
Murdered on the Shannon
July 14th, 1819”

Once again, the connection between this cocktail and its name eludes me — my best guess is that it’s named after a “fair girl” because it’s so lovely, but who the hell knows? What we do know is that  it shows up in 1904 in Edward Spencer’s The Flowing Bowl, and it’s as good today as it was then:

Colleen Bawn
1oz Rittenhouse Rye
1oz Yellow Chartreuse
1oz Bénédictine
1 full egg
Shake without ice to whip the egg; add ice and shake with hearty vigor; strain into cocktail glass; garnish with grated nutmeg and/or cinnamon

Yes, I realize I’m advertising a cold weather drink with pictures of sunshine. I live in San Diego. Deal with it.

The egg combined with the saffron in the Chartreuse gives the drink the color of custard, which texture-wise is not so far off. It is creamy with egg, smooth and a little thick. The rye, big as it is, is more for infrastructure than flavor; the liqueurs, as with the wonderful Widow’s Kiss, mix perfectly together. Individually, Yellow Chartreuse and Bénédictine are both full, pungent, herbal French liqueurs, and it seems kind of silly to put them together save for the fact that it works.

This is a drink of strange opposites: it’s highly complex but not difficult, it’s a little sweet but also a bit bracing. While it’s good any time, the thickness of the egg and the sweetness of the liqueurs (also that one cocktail is the equivalent of 3.2oz of 80 proof liquor) make the Colleen Bawn perfect as the last drink on a cold night.

Hudson Whiskey

Recently, Gable Erenzo of Hudson Whiskey came to San Diego to offer tasting and education on his products. He was master distiller for a while, and as such was in a position to answer all of my minute and annoying questions, which was great. I got a bunch of nice photographs of this event, which I accidentally deleted because I’m stupid.

The Facts:

Distillery: Tuthilltown Distillery
Location: Gardiner, New York
Owned By: Privately owned
Major Products produced: Spirit of the Hudson Vodka; Hudson Whiskies — Manhattan Rye, Baby Bourbon, Four-Grain Bourbon, Single Malt, New York Corn
Origin: Since 2005

Prelude:

There are, as I see it, two big challenges facing anyone who wants to start making whiskey. And I’m not even talking about start-up capital or navigating permits or how to source malted barley, all of which I’m sure are very difficult. I’m talking fundamentals — the two obstacles that stop, say, me, from seriously thinking about starting a whiskey distillery at this point in my life are (1) time and (2) purpose:

  1. Time: any idiot can, and many idiots do, make vodka. Good vodka is another story, but vodka itself is not hard — it’s what happens when you distill something a bunch of times and then add water and bottle it. It’s what ramen noodles are to cooking. Whiskey, on the other hand, requires finesse, and more importantly, time. In a 53 gallon barrel (standard size), it takes a between 3 and 6 years to even start getting good. You can cheat with smaller barrels, but even in a tiny 3 gallon, you’re still looking at a few months before you can even consider starting to sell it as whiskey. But what if it’s not as tasty as you’d like?  Tweak the recipe, another few months. Maybe it needs a bigger barrel, another 2 years. It’ll drive you mad, or broke, or both.
  2. Purpose: aside from it being super cool, why make whiskey? Even if cost isn’t an issue, which it totally is, there is already a kaleidoscopic array of transcendentally good whiskeys sold for not very much money at pretty much every liquor store. So what do you have to add? What’s so screaming fucking special about your idea that so necessitates its existence?

They’re worthy considerations, and Tuthilltown Spritis and their whiskey label Hudson, since 2005, has tackled these two obstacles better than any new whiskey I can think of.

The Story:

In 2001, Ralph Erenzo bought some land and an 18th-century gristmill in the Hudson Valley, just outside Poughkeepsie some 80 miles north of Manhattan. He had run a successful rock-climbing business in the city for years, and had finally started actualizing a longtime dream, to create a rock climbing ranch/retreat up north. Fortunately for us, it was not to be: his neighbors, as it turns out, were a stodgy group of litigiously-inclined letter-writers who hated the idea of a commercial business in their little bucolic hinterland, and fought with everything they had. The fight nearly bankrupted him, and in the end he had was forced to admit that his rock-climbing ranch would never be built on that property.

One of the pillars on which the neighbor’s case was built was that the land wasn’t zoned commercially, but agriculturally. So he looked for new ideas, at first considering a brewery, but the gristmill’s history — combined with the prospect of being the first bourbon made in New York since prohibition — led him to a distillery.

He found a partner in the mechanically-inclined Brian Lee, and recruited his son Gable. Among them, they had as much experience with distillation as they did with space travel, but forged ahead anyway. After two years of permits, research, navigating archaic statutes and in some cases altering them, getting a still, sourcing grain, and learning what the hell they were doing, they founded Tuthilltown Spirits, released a vodka made from local apples in 2005, and their first effort, a “baby” bourbon in 2006.

The Spirits:

Five different whiskeys carry the Hudson name, and they are indeed different, with four distinct grain recipes. But there are a couple of commonalities that they all share, unusual (and in some cases unique) distillation principles that help Hudson answer those questions in the above obstacle #2.

  • Grains: They use largely heirloom varieties of of their grains, and are all locally grown. So the corn, for example, that goes into their corn whiskey is 40% normal “field” corn, and 60% heirloom, those maize-like multicolored varieties that are always bursting out of cornucopias around November.
  • Fermentation: They use two different types of yeast, one brewers and one distillers.
  • Distillation: There is, to all of their whiskeys, a curious and alluring cereal quality, a sensation of an actual dusty grain mill. Tasting them immediately evokes the actual grains — you can tell where these come from. I had always assumed that they distilled to a very low proof (à la Fortaleza) because you taste so much of the ingredients, but Gable told us that they distill as high as anyone else, that the graininess you taste is because they do a “whole mash” distillation: they keep the grain solids in the liquid all the way through the process. It’s a “fractioning” still (hybrid pot/column), and everything gets two runs, the first to about 40% and the second somewhere just shy of 80%.
  • Small Barrels: Hudson’s answer to the aforementioned obstacle#1: they use tiny little barrels. Between 3 and 14 gallon. Whiskey will get overaged (too woody = pretty gross, believe me) in a 3 gallon barrel by 6 months, and a 14 gallon by 2.5 years. So smaller barrels means that they can make, age, and sell whiskey at a pace untouched by the Kentucky giants.
  • Sonic Maturation: As Gable tells it, someone told them they should rotate their barrels once a month to hasten the aging process. Unthrilled at the idea of physically rolling every single barrel in their inventory, Lee showed up one morning with a trunk full of bass speakers, to agitate the barrels using sound waves. For a time, the whiskey would rattle away to dubstep and Tribe Called Quest, until one day a tour-goer volunteered his skills as a professional audio engineer. After a weekend of measurements and calculations, he returned with a CD, which cycles through different resonant frequencies to shake the different sized barrels. Which, I think you’ll agree, is pretty goddamn cool.

The Products:

NEW YORK CORN WHISKEY

This is their white whiskey, an unaged 100% corn spirit. Untempered by oak, the dry grain hits right away. Very agricultural. Deep, rich corn, like buttered popcorn. No sweetness from the oak means the dry graininess is extremely dry. The best white whiskey I’ve ever tasted, but that’s not saying much. Still, surprisingly drinkable. I’d recommend it for mixing, or just to satisfy curiosity.

BABY BOURBON

It used to be that bourbon could be a maximum of 80% corn, but that apparently ended in the 80s. Hudson’s Baby Bourbon is 100% corn, just an aged version of the New York Corn Whiskey. The oak adds sweetness but the size of the barrel also intensifies the bitterness. The corn is blunted by the wood, but still prominent. I found this hot, dry, and astringent, and was my least favorite of the five (though plenty of people around me disagreed).

SINGLE MALT

If bourbon and scotch had a child, it would be this. Like all the best scotch, it’s 100% malted barley. But scotch is usually aged slowly in once-used barrels, and as such takes on much less wood flavor. The Hudson Single Malt is aged in new, charred oak barrels. All of this combines to another unique offering: still very grainy and this time earthy, the barley picks up more on the sweetness from the oak along with some vanilla notes, with a nice acidity and a finish like caramel and honey. Delicious.

MANHATTAN RYE

One of my two favorites. 100% rye. This, to me, tastes like how rye is supposed to taste. The rye cereal graininess is out front and prominent, balanced with a perfect level of sweetness and spice. Interesting to drink on it’s own, but this makes one of the cooler Old Fashioneds I could imagine.

FOUR GRAIN BOURBON

My other favorite offering of theirs. I don’t know a single other four-grain bourbon on the market right now (“four grain” referring to (1) corn and (2) barley, and then both, where there’s usually only one, of the “flavoring grains,” (3) wheat and (4) rye). I was not expecting this one to be good and it really surprised me. Very complex. Cereal grain, exactly the right amount of sweetness, perfectly balanced. Wonderful.

Overall:

We tasted with about 20 other bartenders, and in a chatty little reception afterward, everyone discussed tastes and favorites. What was bizarre is that everyone had a different favorite. I found the Baby Bourbon too immature, but my friend Travis thought it was the best. Vikki liked the Single Malt best. This is to say that they are all very different, and all made well.

They all retail around $40 but only come in 375ml bottles (1/2 size), so each is really like an $80 bottle of whiskey. Which is a lot. On the other hand, it’s a flavor you can’t get anywhere else.

One last note about this idea of uniqueness, because it’s important: small barrels means that the spirit doesn’t just age quicker, but also ages in a different way. There’s more color and woodiness but it’s still relatively immature. There is no cheating time in the aging game. A 53 gallon barrel is like a crock-pot, and a 3 gallon barrel is like a frying pan: both achieve the same overall principle, but you simply can’t get the same product out of a small barrel. And this is one of the ways in which Hudson excels, and where they rise above most of the other new “craft” whiskeys being made today.

If you’re trying to make the same bourbon everyone else is making but trying to do it cheaper, then you’re going to get a cheaper version of the same bourbon everyone else is making. You can’t make Buffalo Trace better than Buffalo Trace does. Whether by instinct or education, the people at Hudson know this, so they make whiskey completely differently.

It’s formulated for those smaller barrels. Yes, the spirit is left a bit immature from the shorter time in smaller barrels, but there’s also the two types of yeast, and there’s also the heirloom grains, and there’s also the whole mash distillation, and when added together it’s not a cheaper or faster version of something that already exists. All of their products have struck their own unique balance, all the uncommon and/or bizarre decisions rest on each other and meet at a common point. That’s what’s so great about it. It is something completely new.

Old Fashioned

INTRODUCTION to the OLD FASHIONED WHISKEY COCKTAIL (PART I)

I remember the exact moment when I learned how to drink.

I was a Jack & Coke kid all through college. Tequila shots, Jameson rocks, Vodka Redbull. I’d get the cheapest single malt on the menu for special occasions. I learned to drink straight whiskey, but mostly because I wanted to be the type of guy who could drink straight whiskey. I once spent an entire night drinking Jäger bombs (never again), and was elated when I discovered that the dueling piano bar sold Long Island Ice Teas by the bucket. I looked down on Miller Light in favor of Bud Light. I believed in the idea of “ultra-premium vodka.” In short, I knew nothing.

It wasn’t until I left Los Angeles for Boston that I had a conversion experience. Winter hit quickly for those of us who’d just spent four years in southern California, and it was already brisk in early October when my sister took me out to the neighborhood bar, Green Street Grille, for a drink. Our bartender was Misty Kalkofan – Misty, half-sleeve tattoo, bellowing infectious laugh, with a M.A. from Harvard Divinity School and one of the best bartenders in the city.

I ask for a Jack and coke, but Misty tells me they don’t have Jack. I ask her what she has. She asks me what I like.

“Whiskey.”
“Spirit forward or more drinkable?” she asks. I revert to my college mentality, one of cool and uncool, and order straight whiskey as if the syllables themselves are laced with pheromones.
“Jameson,” I say, “Neat.”

Bartenders deal with this chest-puffing horseshit all day long, and in hindsight, Misty treated me with a truly profound kindness.

“Have you ever had an Old Fashioned?”

This was pre-Mad Men, though I had heard of it but never tried one, and acquiesced. A couple dashes of those weird bitters things, a sugar cube, orange peel and rye whiskey, and that was it for me. I was sold on cocktails forever. I had never tasted anything like it.

I don’t remember the drink I had before that Old Fashioned, but whatever it was, it was the last time I’d take a drink without thinking about it. Without weighing it’s taste, complexity, and balance. I plainly didn’t realize drinks could be that good.

It’s been more than four years since then. It’s what turned drinks from object to subject, and what changed bartending from a job to a career. It is the drink I have the most respect for, one of the pantheon of cocktails on which, when ordered on the 4-deep, cash waving insanity of a busy Saturday night, I will never cut corners. It is what I order to test knowledge or skill of a new bar or bartender. The Old Fashioned – short for Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail – was, and remains, the best drink I’ve ever had.

WHAT IS IT, and WHY IS IT SO DAMN GOOD? (PART II)

When Humphery Bogart died and went to Whiskey Heaven, the bartender greeted him warmly, and slipped an Old Fashioned into his hand.

It is not a classic cocktail, it is the classic cocktail. To explain:

While the term “cocktail” might today refer as equally to a Sazerac as an Appletini, in the beginning, everything had an exact definition. There were Slings (spirit, sugar, and cold water), Toddies (spirit, sugar, and warm water), various citrus Punches and such, but no cocktail. It wouldn’t be until 1806 that the “cock-tail” was defined in print*. Then, it was “spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” Those four ingredients made a cocktail. Anything else, tasty as it may be, wasn’t a cocktail.

But over the next 75 years, people kept tweaking the cocktail, hanging ornaments on it. There was the “fancy cocktail,” with curacao. Then the “improved cocktail,” with maraschino liqueur and absinthe. Then “what if we throw some Chartreuse in there?” and “here’s a float of red wine,” and people started using pineapple sticks and raspberry syrup and muddling in fruit slices – what would be referred to, later, as “the garbage.” It’s an enormously malleable template, and can be mangled as many different ways as there are bottles on the back bar… and while it was likely all delicious, it was not a cocktail as it was originally defined.

So when a reference to “old-fashioned cocktails” appears in print in The Chicago Tribune in 1880, it’s not that someone invented a drink that felt quaint and homey, and named it an Old Fashioned. It was a curmudgeon with a healthy dose of grump and thirst to go with it, who wanted a cocktail, the kind he used to get. The Old Fashioned kind. The only change he’d accept from the original 1806 cocktail was ice. All else was heresy.

(It’s worth noting that any claim to have “invented” the Old Fashioned is absurd, seeing as it was being made for at least 75 years, as a “cocktail” before it earned its latter name. But extra bullshit points go to the Pendennis Club of Louisville, who maintain their paternity claim even though they opened their doors in 1881, a full year after it first appeared in print.)

As it was, so it is.

The Old Fashioned (Whiskey Cocktail)
2oz. rye whiskey (or bourbon)
2 dashes angostaura bitters,
1 small sugar cube, muddled or ~1/4oz simple syrup (a hair less for the inherently sweeter bourbon)
Add ice and stir briskly for 30 seconds or so. Express oils from a long strip of orange peel, drop peel in drink. Garnish with a maraschino cherry. Drink. Melt.

It should look like this: (and I’m sorry for the image quality of these pictures… I took them before this blog existed.)

*Nerd stuff: I have recently seen trustworthy evidence put forth by cocktail historian Jared Brown that “cock-tail” appears in print in 1798, a full eight years earlier than we originally thought. It is, alas, not defined, so the 1806 date remains, at least, not wrong.

OLD FASHIONED in SAN DIEGO (PART III)

There is literally nothing old fashioned about Southern California. In Los Angeles, they throw stones at anything older than 35, and San Diego roughly the same. Things don’t last here. Even Old Town feels new.

So it is with the Old Fashioned. With this drink, there are two rival camps, between whom there can be no peace. To garnish with the fruit, or to muddle it. One of them prefers the nuance and subtlety; orange oils accenting the whiskey, a little sweetness to wake it up, and a little bitterness to add spice and complexity, with minute variations in the choice or quantity of ingredients shifting the focus and balance for myriad incarnations. The other one prefers a swamp of pulpy fruit carcasses that add blunting sweetness, fibrous bits to get caught in your teeth, and a mess of trash in the glass. I won’t say which I am.

The good folks at Craft and Commerce know how to do it. Most of their bartenders, when asked for their favorite version, will use the drier, spicier, slightly more challenging rye whiskey, but the house Old Fashioned is with Bourbon. Buffalo Trace, a little bit of cane sugar syrup, angostaura bitters, stirred with both an orange and lemon peel.

At URBN, where I work, we do the same… it was with a single barrel Elmer T. Lee, until we went through about 100 bottles of it and all but ran out. So we, too use Buffalo Trace. Even though we took it off the menu, we still sell dozens of these things a week, and to all kinds of people. It’s something that gives me faith.

Sadly, some of the even very nice bars are muddling fruit. Kitchen 1540, in Del Mar, is one of the nicest restaurants in the area. They serve “craft cocktails” and yet an order for an Old Fashioned returns a very nice bourbon (he used the Van Winkle 12 year, definitely not their standard) and angostura orange bitters (not my taste, but a respectable choice), but sullied with a mashed cherry and dulled with a two-inch-tall hat of soda water.

And I don’t know where this morbid little voice came from, but drinking Haufbrau lager at the splendidly tacky Keiserhoff, in Ocean Beach, a place without computers where they make everyone dress like beer wenches from the German hinterland, something whispered to me that our 60 year old bartender, a consummate professional with more years of experience than I have years of life, that he might, just might, make a mean old fashioned.

I was wrong.

You have to go to a devoted craft cocktail bar to get it the right way. C’est la vie. Always a good excuse to go, I suppose.

Barrel-Aged Vieux Carré (a.k.a. Ancien Carré)

Barrel-aging entire batches of cocktails is a relatively recent phenomenon. The idea, they say, is that the cocktail softens and sweetens in the used whiskey-barrel, picking up picking up flavors and tannins and adding a really cool complexity. The New York Times Magazine did a nice little piece on it about 18 months ago, and has since been written about extensively, including by Jeffrey Morganthaler, who more or less invented the process.

To cities a little more serious about cocktails – Portland, Seattle, New York, etc. – Barrel Aging has come, peaked, and all but left. In the rest of the country, as will happen with trends, barrel   aging   is   fucking  everywhere. But apparently, everywhere still doesn’t include San Diego, so here we are. There’s a bit at Small Bar in North Park and a bit at Vin de Syrah and The US Grant Hotel Downtown, but for the most part the trend has avoided our fair city.

This is problematic for those of us who want to put them in our mouths. So we have to do it ourselves. Enter barrel:

I’ve wanted to try to barrel age cocktails ever since I heard about it. I started the hobo way, with oak chips I picked up from the local homebrew store and a bottle of Buffalo Trace White Dog, and it went…. okay.

You’re supposed to use about 2oz of oak chips per 5 gallons of liquid. I used 0.75 oz for about 12 oz of liquid, exceeding the recommended dose by about 2000%. “I’ll super-age it,” I thought, because I’m an idiot. It tasted like a puréed oak tree. I am not a patient man.

I had fully intended to try again, but my friends Dan and Sam bought me a 3L barrel from these wonderful people for my birthday. The first thing I could think of was a Vieux Carré. It’s one of my favorite cocktails, with a delicacy and sweetness that evokes barrel aging anyway, and I’m terribly curious to see what happens to it.

The only (possible) problem is that barrel aging yields the most dramatic changes to things that haven’t already been barrel aged. So gin over whiskey, white rum over aged rum, etc. But Jeffrey Morganthaler’s first experiment was with Manhattans which he says changed considerably over two months, so fuck it. I’m having daydreams about selling this for $15 each at the bar and making my money back, but odds are good that this will be just for my friends and I.

Ancien Carré
25oz Hine V.S.O.P cognac
25oz Rittenhouse 100 rye
25oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
6oz Bénédictine
25 dashes angostaura bitters
25 dashes Peychauds bitters

First, prep the barrel with water and let sit. Casks are made without glue, so we need the oak to soak up the water and swell, sealing the barrel. The water will leak out at first, so we do it in the sink.

Empty water. Then, we mix all the ingredients together. Then pour. Carefully.

Then, demonstrate monkish patience and try not to see the little guy poking out at you from the bottom of your barware shelves.

It went into the barrel Tuesday, February 7th. I anticipate about two months, but will start tasting it in a week or so to see how its coming along. I’ll keep you posted.