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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Four Roses & A Funeral

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon lends some fairly honestly earned folklore to American bourbon, as anything involving Kentucky, decline and dormancy, and a savior Japanese corporation might. The uneven but still engaging history of the brand, redeemed by money and experts, has been presented well elsewhere. The bottom line is that there are a few of us, and admittedly dwindling numbers, who remember the brand from "the bad days of bourbon." And thus we remember it as something different than it has been since 2004: a high-rye special blend slouching towards mellowness without the usual fuss for aging.

drunken soldier in my limes, good with 'em too
The requisite bourbon lore regarding Four Roses is that it was named for a cluster of roses that led to a betrothal. That delights not me. But I had some after a funeral, in fact, and only then was compelled to keep a bottle on the shelf at least as long as I can think of something else that needs to occupy the space. In my own spirits lore compendium, callously unmoved by marketing, I associate bourbons more with the harvest time anyway. Indeed we may also benefit recalling (if we ever knew at all) that when Finnegan finally wakes at his own wake in Finnegans Wake he cries for whiskey. If you want to associate bourbons with weddings, however, go ahead, I'll wait for you to catch up with me.

The throwback shape of the bottle, something deliberately archaic, which hogs both space on your shelf and store shelf space too, originally displeased my wife, who is not fussy for red roses either. I will tell you gentlemen as an aside, and as a newly-trained rose garden docent at The Huntington, that in general it is men who like red roses, or at least who imagine they do, and women who like all roses but red ones. But she has cottoned to it as both sufficiently flavorful and sufficiently mellow and she likes the way it blends with limes this time of year to fashion one of her favorite drinks, the tangy Commodore.

You too have your own taste, so again I'll not bother you too much with mine. I will say, however, in an attempt to persuade, that there is some oddball conventional wisdom afoot that mixing drinks with thirty dollar bourbons is a too dear practice and a bad idea. I think cocktails made with thirty dollar bourbons at their base are a good idea. Four Roses Small Batch is a fine classic cocktail bourbon; I've tried it in everything and it responds well to both citrus and bitters. My own palate finds it a touch too sweet (though it is not very sweet) for a manhattan, but yours may not if you are from the south or a pastry chef. Or if the idea is to find a hint of sweetness somewhere, such as in a barbecue sauce (I know he's using the single barrel but let's not ourselves get carried away), here you have it, then. Also, as a former banker I should advise you that if you are in some jackety straits in which thirty dollars seems too dear a price for bourbon to mix it with lime juice, sweet vermouth, Campari, &c., you very likely should be consuming less bourbon anyway.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Russell, Thrilling

There is a character in the Alexandria Quartet to whom people give exotic copies of the Koran. People sometimes give me exotic bottles of bourbon because they know it has, with gin, become my favorite spirit, and because, unlike gin, I am more likely to like a bottle than not like one.

But nobody gave me this. I bought two bottles over three days. No promotion, no gifting, no nothing. Just a guy and a purveyor and mystique.

Firewood, urbanite, Garden Shed & Whiskey Bar
I first bought one for Robert, a good friend who likes bourbon. I was wondering: what would he like? I had a conversation about what he might like with the adroit spiritarian Kevin at Topline. We settled on a bottle of Russell Reserve and I took it to Robert on Halloween.

And when I got home – alas, Robert didn't open it, probably knowing a good thing – I was wondering: why did I buy that for him and not for me?

So I went to Cap 'n' Cork and picked up another bottle, this one for The Garden Shed & Whiskey Bar (left).

This bourbon simply thrilled me. I expect a little heat in a 90 proof bourbon and there is some; not a lot, but some. But there is also enough flavor to wet any proverbial whistle. You are getting it all – vanilla, barrel, orange, and a little caramel, in that order, to my buds – but yet not at weapons' grade levels as in a warhorse nor fulminating cleanliness like Wathen's.

NTTIAWWW. But this one works in a way the Bourbon-County-via-San-Jose derby entry only hints at. My wife prefers Wathen's, maybe because she likes the bottle (are you listening, anyone? she would never on earth by a bottle of Four Roses because of the bottle, and that's important to know too).  But Russell's Reserve really took me by the scruff and shook me up. I look forward to the relationship. It's no mean thing, to be thrilled like that at this dramatic stage.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Spick and span

Wathen's on the Birch
I took to drinking Wathen's earlier this year. The proof – 94 – is up around the zone at which you may begin to lose some complexities that seem to please some people. In fact, at this proof, you are beginning to lose enough of the temptation to render bourbon as a kind of alcohol-based syrup that you will please other people: like me. Wathen's is not built to overemphasize complexity anyway; at least I don't think it is. The point seems rather to allow the drink to come at you as cleanly as possible, emphasizing its surprise smoothness at the wattage.

Other tasters talk of vanilla and hot peppers; if so, that is vurrry clean vanilla and those are not overly hot peppers. And still other tasters are down on it for its compact palate, something that I like about it. We don't need to drink brown sugar oaken casked cherry bombs all the time; some of us, in fact, grew up not knowing how to do this at all.

There is some justification in my mind to those who say you don't know what you're getting. But only some. I'm inclined to de-emphasize provenance and folklore, and I automatically dismiss anything printed on a folded card tied to the string around the neck of a bottle. But I will say with Wathen's that whatever you are getting, you are definitely getting across the barrels something calibrated to a specific taste. Those who guess that the barrels may be markedly different are not guessing correctly to my mind; I've had three bottles (so I must like something about it – and of course I do) from three different barrels, and the bottles have all been dependably similar to each other, enough so that I could taste and say, "Oh, that's the Wathen's taste."

When do you want a clean-tasting weapon's grade bourbon? That's the broader question, I think. I don't like one for breakfast, for instance. But I do like one in all those times when bourbon ordinarily doesn't fit the circumstances; say, on a hot afternoon, in the shade. And though most don't mix bourbons above $30, this works well in a Boulevardier, a drink that's got other crazy flavors going for it and needs a little alcohol lift for you to be satisfied with just the one, thank you. But ultimately what in the end I do like about Wathen's is this: it's 94 proof and yet you could say it's refreshing. That's my ticket, and that's why I've had a good amount of the stuff.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Whiskey Sour

It is shockingly bad form to drink whisky at any time at all before noon.
–Alma Whitaker, Bacchus Behave! The Lost Art of Polite Drinking, p. 27

But never mind that. This is October, a poem of an afternoon, and the stretch from waking to nightfall will hopefully be mercifully short anyway.

We are always reticent to tell others what they should drink. But Joy at The Drawing Room recommends a parting Whiskey Sour, and we are quite pleased with it. Whiskeyish and citrusy, it suits the moment perfectly. The sun shone through the door gently as the day’s final rays do, and there it was: a perfect Whiskey Sour, backlit.

It may have been years since you’ve had a Whiskey Sour. You may even have never had one before. Let us refresh your memory:
Whiskey Sour
Shake in iced cocktail shaker & strain
1 oz fresh lemon juice (3 cl, 1/4 gills)
1/2 tsp sugar (2 dashes)
1 1/2 oz rye or Bourbon whiskey (4.5 cl, 3/8 gills)
1/2 orange juice (optional) (1 1/2 oz, 4.5 cl, 3/8 gills)
Add lemon wedge, cherry
Serve in a sour glass (4.0 oz)
nihil obstat: The Cocktail Database (cocktaildb.com)
Citrus, whiskey….what’s not to love? It will work well with your sleek Bach/Busoni partita on the Bose and the autumn Santa Ana rolling across the sunshine. It is a fitting drink with which to honor the season—the American whiskey makes it so—and yet tangy enough for fall. The sour glass—think half an hourglass—is the essential stemware. And its shape is a good reminder: you should sip your Whiskey Sour over a minimum of half an hour.

Use a good whiskey. And this is a particularly nasty week to drive anywhere, so lose your keys.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Commodore

Whenever Indian summer comes (we’ve had a nonstop one in LA this year), you might be thinking of shifting gears a bit, prepping for the richer late-autumn drinks but not quite there. When it’s 79 and clear as the country, a manhattan may feel a little too heavy, even though the calendar says it’s fall.

The limes of late summer are turning yellow, but don’t toss them into the compost pile. They’re perfect now for a Commodore.

Never had a Commodore?

Over at Doc’s Cocktail db, the preferred recipe is:
4/5 rye whisky (2 1/2 oz, 7 cl, 5/8 gills)
1/5 fresh lime juice (1/2 oz, 2 cl, 1/8 gills)
2 dashes orange bitters per cocktail
sugar to taste
Bourbon is OK too. Basically 4 parts whiskey to one part lime, orange bitters and sugar to taste. Tangy!

Here’s a recipe for a more esoteric Commodore, not quite a parasol drink but a little fruitier: the Commodore No. 1.
1 1/2 oz blended whiskey
1/2 oz strawberry liqueur
1/2 oz lime juice
2 oz orange juice
dash orange bitters
No instructions; we figure if you’re at this site you already know how to mix these.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Famiglia Negroni

I shall presume if you have arrived here in search of meaning or ideas or because you found the New York Times too facile that you already know how to mix a Negroni, the fabled gin with Campari with sweet vermouth drink. You likely stir it (mandatory) and serve it on rocks (usual) in a tumbler or old fashioned glass (prudent).

Drago Centro in DTLA has a Novac Negroni, the first word a portmanteau (No Vacancy) name of a fictitious town in the game Fallout New Vegas. $13 (the drink, not the game). The Negroni variant includes Aperol and a dash of Grand Poppy; it may seem counterintuitive to add Aperol to a Campari drink, but the end result indeed works. The gin they use is the fervently boquetcious St. George Terroir, so this is California, all right; the vermouth is the silky Carpano Antica. They serve it over and around one of those extra large ice cubes. If you haven't had a drink mixed Camparo Antica, you may not know what's possible in sweet vermouth.

Up the boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, The Black Cat in Silver Lake serves a Boulevardier, the Negroni family drink that swaps bourbon, in this case High West Double Rye, for gin, also with the lush Carpano Antica. $13. I've written of The Black Cat in another context; a gay rights riot involving the place preceded Stonewall by over two years. The place acknowledges the legacy without making it an insistent cultural tourist selling point; it remains comfortable, clubby, local.

I also spotted a large bottle of Carpano Antica, which comes in a smaller bottle and also a one liter size, in a refrigerated unit behind the bar at Hyperion Public, a halfway-to-sports bar within walking distance of me on Hyperion in Silver Lake that at first confused me as to whether or not it was a neighborhood bar but I have since determined it is. The space has good simpatico with The Black Cat as it used to be a gay piano bar, LA's oldest at the time of the conversion. I didn't ask what they used the Carpano for, and no drinks on the drink card call it out, but I did ask why they refrigerated it; the alert bartender told me that because it's sweet vermouth; in her opinion, if you don't use it quickly it may turn taste after a time. "At home, you can use the smaller bottle and cork it with a rubber stopper and pump it if you like," she said. And I buy that; as soon as I got home, I took the cork off of my home bar bottle and put on a rubber stopper top and pumped out as much of the air as I could.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Umbrella season

Summer. Time for the best and worst part of it; the blazing days of August. An article from 1999 notes that the cocktail umbrella actually has a function: to shade a drink from the sun.
"What better way to prevent the ice cubes in a poolside mai tai from melting? What better way to keep that blended chi chi refreshingly slushy? Just as a good Panama hat, which is nothing but intelligently woven straw, can make the hottest tropical day seem pleasant, the cocktail umbrella, a little bit of split bamboo and pretty Japanese-print paper, can fight off solar radiation for a time, ensuring that the icy integrity of a good mixologist's creation remains intact. And look: it actually opens and closes like a real umbrella!--a transcendental feat which places the cocktail umbrella beyond the realm of mere appropriate technology (however brilliant) and into the realm of art alongside Frank Lloyd Wright's louvered window panels."
Which may be why they've seemed so kitsch when presented indoors.

By the way, that particular mai tai in the photo is at Kimo's in Maui. If you want to call it the best mai tai in the world, you'd be in good company, as many others have. But I don't lavish lavish praise so lavishly. Nonetheless, I'm going to admit – that's a boat drink and a half.