Further dispatches from the world of rum. By Wayne Curtis,
author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Party's moved down the block!

It has been pointed out to me, not inaccurately, that I have not updated my rum blog in well over a year now. (Thank you, Martin, for your vigilance.) Yet, I have not given up drinking, nor writing. After a bit of a breather, I've resumed cocktail chatter — keeping an eye now on the broader world of spirits — over at www.slowcocktails.com.

Stop by, pull up a barstool, have a drink, say hello.

- Wayne Curtis

Link

Thursday, May 29, 2008

When in Rome (or Parma) …

Last month I was on a trip to Italy, and happened upon a bar called Rum Central while walking through the city of Parma. I was headed elsewhere at a goodly clip, but was abruptly sucked through the door by some inexplicable form of liquid magnetism, whereby the dozens of rum bottles on display pulled me inward, a phenomenon I believe related to my uncommonly iron-rich blood.

I felt immediately at home here, despite my lack of ability to communicate with the bartender other than through primitive sign language (point to bottle; insert tip of thumb into mouth; tilt head back sharply). They had a fine selection of rums not commonly found in American bars, including a half-dozen Jamaican sugar cane rums I wasn’t familiar with.

Rum Central also had a cocktail menu, with a full page dedicated to mojitos. My feelings about mojitos generally parallels my feeling about martinis: there is one, and only one, and anyone who asks “what’s your favorite kind of mojito?” needs a corrective lecture. (Although I have been known to make an exception for the ginger mojito, topped with ginger ale rather than soda water.) Rum Central offered a goodly list of mojitos, including a Mojito del Ché, topped off with beer. I do not know of any documentation linking such a drink with Ché, nor could I think of any reason to try one.

But I was tempted by the Mojito al Spritz, a variation topped off with a mix of prosecco and soda water. When in Rome, and all that. This is a variation that I’ve seen in a few restaurants in the United States, and assumed that the front-of-the-tongue mint and back-of-the-throat astringency of the prosecco would not play nice.

But in Parma, I was willing to be proven wrong. And sitting at a table under a colonnaded walkway along a narrow street on sunny spring afternoon with college students bicycling past and yelling unintelligibly at one another, I found this drink uncommonly agreeable.

And in no time I forgot where I was supposed to be headed. Which, of course, is the essential first step in all successful vacations.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Beachbum Berry does New Orleans

Last night Jeff “Beachbum” Berry — the great tiki drink authority and noted layabout — served as bar chef and tour host of the Tales of the Tiki Cocktail, held at the Pelican Club in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The event, organized by the Tales of the Cocktail folks, was sold out — about 100 people turned out and filled to capacity the restaurant’s two large dining rooms.

The theme was New Orleans tiki, with each of the six drinks presented by Berry having a link to the Crescent City. Everyone was greeted with a delightful Bali Bali welcome cocktail, made with rum, cognac, gin, falernum and passionfruit, and derived from a lost recipe of the late, lamented Bali Hai restaurant. (This was one of New Orleans's Big Night Out Polynesian restaurants, located up on the tropical shores of Lake Ponchatrain.)

Other drinks were either once served at defunct local bars (like the St. Charles Hotel’s Outrigger Bar), or created by Don the Beachcomber, who was born in New Orleans as Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt. These drinks included: the Mystery Gardenia, the Nui Nui, Missionary’s Downfall, the Mai Tai, and the Bo-Lo.

A few comments: the most remarkable feat to me was that a small staff got these drinks out to the huge crowd in perfect shape — the crushed ice not yet watery, the gardenia not wilted, the flavors still pert and lively. The only glitch was with the Mystery Gardenia, which calls for a mix of honey and butter, which needs straining. That took longer than expected and left our table with a brief but manageable drought, but generally the drinks kept flowing, and stayed coordinated with their intended food pairings. (Of which, the ginger-sesame scallop and coconut crawfish cake with a spicy slaw and cilantro-jalapeño-lime dressing was the clear winner in my book. Chef Richard Hughes did an equally outstanding a job getting meals out hot and fresh.)

The Nui Nui was my favorite drink of the night — although someone at our table thought the allspice and cinnamon made it taste too much like a Christmas cookie, after which each sip brought visions of sugarplum fairies dancing in my head. The Missionary’s Downfall, blended with fresh mint, rum, lime, peach brandy, and pineapple, was very green and very minty. The classic 1944 Trader Vic Mai Tai was made with Rhum Clement VSOP, which was a bit woody for my taste on the initial sip, but I found method in this madness when I tasted the pork ribeye with five-spice mango barbecue sauce. The two paired up like a deconstructed grilled meal, with the smoky taste of the drink complementing the full, sweet flavor of the pork.

The final drink of the night was a beauty, the Don the Beachcomber Bo-Lo, served in cored pineapples with the tops reattached with toothpicks. Even though we all had been sufficiently numbed by the five drinks leading up to this, the trays of pineapples making their way through the room was like the grand finale of a tiki fireworks display. And the drink — made with molasses and sugar cane rums, lime, pineapple juices, passionfruit and honey mix — served as a great nightcap masquerading as a dessert.

Add this to the fine evening: I got to sit with rum collector Stephen Remsberg and talk about rum for several hours. And nobody noticed or thought it weird.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rum and chutney



It's a safe bet you could drive from New York to California on two-lane roads and listen to songs about whiskey for a week and never hear the same song twice – Whiskey Before Breakfast, Whiskey in a Jar, Evil Whiskey Woman, Drinkin' Rye Whiskey, and on and on. Sad songs, cheerful songs, country songs, hard rock songs, and a surplus of tunes about loose women and skanky bars.

A trip with a mix tape of American songs about rum and rum drinks won't even get you from your home to the nearest Wal-Mart. If you don't count the 1979 Pina Colada Song -- and you shouldn't, because the lyrics are beyond appalling ("If you like Pina Coladas, And getting caught in the rain. If you're not into yoga, If you have half-a-brain....") – the number of memorable songs about rum comes to precisely one: Rum and Coca-Cola the Andrews Sisters hit that shot to the top of the charts in 1944.

I devote the a chapter of And a Bottle of Rum to the cultural, economic, and political forces that cleared the path for this song’s rise to stardom. The gist of the history is this: the song was an adaptation of a Trinidadian ballad, swiped by an American comedian visiting an island Army base during WWII, then sent into the stratosphere by American singers.

But scratch the surface in Trinidad today, and you’ll find a whole slew of rum songs, many recent variations of a popular hybrid Subcontinent-goes-Soca style called “chutney.” (About forty percent of the population of Trinidad is of Indian descent.) An article on the subject recently ran in the Trinidad and Tobago Express under the headline “Rum and chutney the latest Carnival drink.” (Having made cocktails using rum and raspberry preserves recently, my first thought was, “Well, this sounds interesting!” Then I clicked and remembered. oh, yeah, chutney, the music.)

The trend kicked off about five years ago, but songs celebrating rum — or “celebrating” rum — continue to crop up on the island, with a couple of new songs released for the current carnival season. Here are some of the lyrics, which I don’t think will be licensed anytime soon by major spirits corporations for use in advertising campaigns:
Hey ... listen mister Shankar,
you sayin' I is a drunkard,
you doh want me to marry yuh daughter.
But yuh doin' me a favour,
cause I ain't want yuh daughter
she too damn ugly anyway.
More rum for me,
more rum for me,
more rum for me,
more rum for me.
And this:
Rum kill mih mother,
rum kill mih father,
rum kill mih whole family.
Rum kill mih brother,
rum kill mih sister,
now it want to come and kill me.
But I doh really care what people say...
oh, ah drinking today and ah drinking forever...
And more:
Yuh could bring it in a bottle,
yuh could bring it in a flask.
You could send it in a cup,
you could bring it in a glass.
Ah want mih rum in de morning.
Ah want mih rum in de evening.
Trinidad is clearly a culture that appreciates rum.

A confession: I know I gave short shrift to rap in my inventory of American music above. Rappers appear to like rum, although not as much as Hennessy. But, seriously, some rapper somewhere surely must be able to improve upon rhyming “Bacardi” and “party”:

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Whoa, Nellie

An excellent crop of cocktail books came available during the holiday season this year, offering great possibilities for elaborate experiments. After Thanksgiving I was dipping into one of the books — the wonderfully written and illustrated In the Land of Cocktails, by Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan — when I came across an odd sounding drink with a good pedigree.

The authors are the proprietors of the incomparable Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, and for this book they pulled together a great collection of drinks, including many local favorites like the Vieux Carré and the brandy milk punch, plus classics like the Papa Doble and French 75 (two variations).

I was intrigued by the Whoa, Nellie — not only for the name but the ingredient list and its provenance.

According to their write-up, it was concocted recently by Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh on a visit to town, when he basically rifled through the fridge to see what he could find. He threw some things together, took a sip, and said “Whoa, Nellie!”

It’s an odd mix of ingredients, but it comes together with perfect balance and none of the seams showing. It’s got a distinctly pre-Prohibition taste profile — heavier on the bitters than the sweet — I’ve been making it for friends the past few weeks, none of whom have refused seconds.

Here’s the recipe. It deserves a broader audience.
Whoa, Nellie
1-1/4 oz Sazerac rye or other rye
3/4 oz dark rum, such as Myer’s
3/4 oz Cointreau
4 dashes Angostura bitters
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
1/2 oz simple syrup.

Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Faux flip

Last night in New Orleans the “Tales of the Toddy” was held at the Hotel Monteleone. It’s sort of pre-holiday, one-night riff on winter drinks from the same folks who put on Tales of the Cocktail. A couple dozen bartenders and restaurateurs came up with drinks both hot and cold and served them to a crowd of several hundred.

One writer also served a drink. That would be me.

My aim was to ladle up a colonial drink as a counterpart to more modern offerings, like the Absolut Mandarin orange creamsicle. A colonial flip seemed like a winning idea — fresh and unknown, yet historic — and I’d made it before in front of a fireplace in Maine. Problem is, it requires an open fire and iron poker heated to the color of a cherry, which is then thrust in a tankard. I devote the better part of a chapter in the rum book to flip, which fueled a colonial craze from about 1700 up to the American Revolution.

Sadly, I was laboring under the jackboot of unreasonable restrictions from event organizers: “Please insure that all cooking equipment is powered by sterno, electricity or butane as allowed by the New Orleans Fire Department.” This seemed to rule out building an open fire and brandishing of a glowing piece of iron.

So a few weeks beforehand I started messing around with adaptations of flip, which has as its base ingredients beer, rum and molasses. I monkeyed around with vats of beer syrup made with molasses. The result was more like something one might consume as a science project rather than for enjoyment. (Although beer syrup made with 50/50 sugar and molasses and served 50/50 with vodka makes for a wonderful sort of beery liqueur. There. I’ve said something favorable about vodka. )

I concluded that there’s something that occurs chemically during the scalding by red-hot iron, a process that creates a whole new beverage, something that can’t be replicated with a hot plate or butane stove. (Flip tastes like none of its components, and has a not-unpleasant burned flavor, like Starbucks coffee.)

So I sadly abandoned my dalliance with molasses, and took up with something else that would have been available in colonial times: maple syrup. And I found that mixed with ginger syrup and rum and beer and lemon, the result was a colonial-style drink that was at once tart and complex and tasted not of beer or rum but something else altogether.

Flippin’ Flip

1-1/2 oz Old New Orleans Crystal Rum
2 oz Abita Amber Beer
3/4 oz maple syrup
3/4 oz ginger syrup*
1/2 oz juice of Meyer lemon**
fresh nutmeg

Combine all ingredients except nutmeg in saucepan and heat until steaming but not boiling. Pour in mug and grate fresh nutmeg over surface.

* Ginger syrup: combine one cup sugar with one cup water, bring to boil and take off heat. Add approximately four ounces of chopped fresh ginger (unpeeled is fine), and let sit until cooled. Strain into bottle. (Will keep refrigerated for a couple of weeks.)

**Note on the Meyer lemon. OK, it’s not really colonial. The Meyer lemon is an Asian fruit that was “discovered” and brought to the US around 1908 by a U.S Dept. of Agriculture staffer named Frank Meyer. It looks like an unripe and soft-skinned lemon, and is sour like a lemon, but has a distinct Mandarin orange tang to it. It’s available at the farmers markets in New Orleans and some stores hereabouts; I’m not sure about availability outside the region. I understand Alice Waters is a fan. If you can’t find them, use regular lemon juice, and a dash of orange bitters.

Tales of the Toddy was a terrifically fun event, and my thanks to Chris Hannah of Arnaud's for saving for me one of the 53 Pouuse Cafes he made (with Gran Duque de Alba Brandy, Chartruese, and St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur), and Marvin Allen of the Carousel Bar for sending over a much-needed Mrs. Claus Tea, made with Rhum Clement's Creole Shrub, Earl Grey tea, Fee Bros. spiced cordial and a dab of spiced butter. And, as always, it was great to catch up with the other authors selling books, including Philip Collier (Mixing New Orleans), Ti Martin and Lally Brennan of Commander's Palace (In the Land of Cocktails), and the always inimitable Lorin Gaudin, photo above (86 Recipes: New Orleans).

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Zombie comes back to life

Today’s New York Times has a great article by Steve Kurutz about Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his tiki-drink related investigative work. The article gives Jeff all the credit he deserves for taking something that’s camp and making it, well, if not classy, at least respected and worthy of discussion.

“Mr. Berry’s single-minded scholarship has gained him respect in the cocktail world.” Kurutz wrote. He noted Jeff’s uncovering of the three supposedly original Zombie recipes, one after another, and the process he used to identify the original original. This involved, in part, a year-long effort to crack the secret code of a recipe he turned up in a 1937 little black book owned by a former Don the Beachcomber bartender. (The recipe is here.)

But he only scratches the surface about what Jeff’s research actually entails. Cocktail history tends to be more participatory than, say, the study of deep-ocean mollusks or ancient Roman architecture. Inquiring minds want to know: what did the original Zombie taste like, using the rums that were available back at the inception?

The Times didn’t tell the story of a tasting this past summer, which I was lucky enough to join in.

One night during Tales of the Cocktail in July, Jeff, Martin Cate (of Forbidden Island in Alameda) and I headed over to Stephen Remsberg’s. Our goal: make the original Zombie. Stephen, as those who’ve read the book might recall, is the rum collector with 700-plus bottles in his stockpiles, many of them vintage, rare and unopened.

We were interested in recreating the proto-Zombie, then called the Zombie Punch, one of the drinks that made Don the Beachcomber famous soon after he opened his bar in Los Angeles in 1934. Stephen had painstaking accumulated the prescribed rums, including a pre-1935 Puerto Rican rum, an equally early Demerara rum, and a no-longer made early Lowndes Jamaican rum. For the latter, Stephen could locate only an unopened mini, which sadly provided just enough rum to make a single original original Zombie. But this is scholarship and sacrifices must be made. We shared one drink.

(In the interest of scholarship, I should also note that we cheated a little: Stephen broke out a bottle of vintage absinthe for the anis flavor — and that would have still been illegal in the United States in 1934. Some other anis substitute would have gone in the original original Zombie.)

I’m happy to report that the Zombie — flash blended with crushed ice, as Don would have prescribed — was a thing of utter and complete beauty. The biggest surprise to me was how woody it was — this wasn’t all about sweet or juices or ooh-la-la, but about complexity. It had touch of natural pucker to it thanks to the wood, which was eased by the anis and falernum. This Zombie came at you from many directions, all at once, all demanding attention. It was all you could do but to sit down and marvel.

You can have King Tut’s tomb. Unearthing the taste of the original Zombie is my kind of archeology. I’m quoted in today’s Times article as calling Jeff the “Indiana Jones of tiki drinks” — and I’m here to tell you I’d follow Jeff into any cave, snake pits be damned.

UPDATE: I missed this on the first go-around: On the Times web site Jeff narrates a slide show featuring up an excellent capsule history of tiki.

(Photos: NYT portrait of Jeff, above. Tasting photos, by Martin Cate: left to right, Stephen, Jeff, Wayne. And, below, the original original ingredients.)

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Cocktail ranger: Trader Vic's Scottsdale

The original Trader Vic’s in Scottsdale, Arizona, opened in 1962 on West Fifth Avenue, just six years after the luxe midcentury modern Valley Ho Hotel up the street. It was axis of swank. Then it became the forgotten zone. The Trader Vic's closed. The Valley Ho closed and there was talk of demolition.

Time passed. Now the Valley Ho has been made over top to bottom respecting its midcentury roots, and a new Trader Vic’s opened adjacent to the hotel a year ago. I was in Arizona last week, and made a detour to check it out, spending a night at the hotel and being drawn by a curious gravitational pull to Trader Vic’s.

The redone hotel is impressive — I’ve always thought that to capture the midcentury sensibility you had to not just recreate the past, but to recreate the future, a far trickier proposition. Fifty years ago, stepping into a sharply angled, plate glass building was to glimpse an open, airy, bright sense of tomorrow. Of course to replicate that “wow” factor today, you need more than just plate glass and boomerang fabrics.

And Valley Ho pulls it off with a great melding of past and future. it’s got the FLW-inspired balcony railings, the mod fabrics, the white brick walls, and the almost perfect two-story scale of a “classy motel.” But it’s not slavishly retro — my bathroom was tucked behind Lever-House like slabs of blue translucent glass that glowed beautifully; the carpet was a lovely black and white textured houndstooth, and the stationery (which of course, I swiped), was dotted with faded olive-on-a-toothpick abstractions. It all worked wonderfully.

And the Trader Vic’s? The lounge/restaurant is similarly a mod adaptation of the old Trader Vic’s. It stands across a parking lot, which somehow made it seemed small and removed. Longtime tiki fans will be horrified by the amount of light allowed to enter — it’s got more in common with a Googie coffee shop than a dusky faux-Polynesian haunt of yore. I have to admit, it’s strikingly beautiful. But the more intimate scale, the cars passing by outside, the TV in the bar…. it seems to have more in common with Applebee’s than one of the old Trader Vic’s. The place doesn’t transport you so much as give you a poke in the ribs and a wink.

The drink menu beats that at Applebee’s, of course — you can get a fine Suffering Bastard — but even here I was pained by some missteps. A “rhum cosmo” made with Barbados rum? A “vodka mai tai”? That'll snap you out of a reverie.

Overall, the hotel is well worth a trip — it’s a great adaptation of the sort of place you’d expect to run into Frank Sinatra at the bar. (You might want to pack some hipster repellent, though.) And the Scottsdale Trader Vic’s is worth stopping by if you’re already there. But I wouldn't suggest a lengthy detour to check it out.

Link: Hotel Valley Ho

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