Showing posts with label vodka. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vodka. Show all posts

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gala Parfait: Tiki Party

Tiki has become something special to me over the years.
It is not just a kitschy party theme, type of cloyingly sweet drank, or dive bar category. Bizarrely enough it's filed alongside heavyweights like Christmas and New Year's as an important family tradition. Yes, my parents, sister and I do Tiki. And if I do say so myself, we do it damn well.

Initially, the end of summer Tiki Party at my parents' home in Tucson was a heavily-anticipated annual celebration. A break from large family gatherings brimming with kids ("we love your keikis, but this one is for adults"), and the rare party to really have a focus on drinking. Since I was college-aged when the Tiki Party debuted, I was not only surprised by this, but fully on board! Each year seemed to one-up the prior, adding a pit-roasted whole pig, ukelele orchestra, and even tradition hula dancers in full garb. It was a fantastic tradition.

Then one year the invite never went out. Then another year. The masses were restless, when would there be another Tiki Party? I tried to sate myself in California with regular visits to Tiki Ti, Tonga Room, Trader Sam's and with a big fat Tiki episode on my podcast The Table Set, but it wasn't enough. Once I found out my sister Megan missed it as much as me we conspired to convince my parents by any means necessary to bring it back.

Then this year... we finally succeeded.

It's always a whirlwind driving home to Arizona and jumping in to the preparations. It's also always startling opening the fridge in the garage to see Laura Palmer as a pig, awaiting the sacrificial pyre.

Day of, first thing's first - Get that pig going. It takes all afternoon to get a proper tender slow-cooked Kalua-style pig.

The photo opp murals Megan painted are always a hit.

And while the tables are set, I have my hands full with another task.

Shocking, I know - I manage the bar. With the addition of the bamboo tiki hut-style bar this year, things got serious.

Selecting a menu is hardly an easy task. Each year we debate, recounting drink popularity from the previous parties. The true Mai Tai is our collective favorite, but seems to be too boozy for our guests, as we always have the most leftover of it. The Blue Hawaiian is garish, but always a winner. We pre-mix everything in large batches as well, so the recipe has to work in that format - and some ingredients, such as bitters, intensify over time. This year I decided to select all new drinks; Classics that cover very different flavor profiles as well as liquor variety. No need to be rum snobs - It's just not for everybody.

In lieu of the signature Mai Tai I went out on a limb with South Pacific Punch, a potent blend of dark and light rums, fresh orange and lime juices, Falernum and passion fruit syrup. Not for the faint of heart, I think the profile of the spicy Falernum is what set this drink apart.

To satisfy the sweet drink lovers, instead of a neon blue concoction (I just can't get down with Blue Curaçao) I opted for the popular Chi Chi, a vodka-based riff on the Piña Colada with coconut cream, pineapple juice and a dust of nutmeg. Sometimes simplicity is best.

For the first time we introduced a bourbon-based tiki drink, which turned out to be the crowd favorite, the ominous-sounding Polynesian Paralysis. Akin to a Hawaiian-style Mai Tai, this one blends pineapple and citrus juices with orgeat, which marry nicely with the bourbon for a dangerously smooth sipper.

We always try to think of creative ways to keep designated drivers and non-drinkers in on the fun, and this year hibiscus lemonade and tropical iced tea just wasn't going to cut it, so I whipped up a non-alcoholic tiki classic Rainbow Punch. Here pineapple, orange, and lime juices are blended with grenadine, soda, and bitters for a well-disguised virgin.

It was an exhausting night of shaking drinks, so I was happy to have some relief long enough to get in on the Kalua pig and Polynesian potluck before it was all gone.

Perlana, one of the "best dressed" winners enjoys a Chi Chi.

Yes, no matter how much math and careful planning goes into our batch drink making, we always over-do it and have SO much leftover. Not a huge complaint, but it suffices to say that Tiki Party turns into Tucson Tiki WEEK. Aw well, maybe we'll get it right next year... Oh yes, there will be a next year.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Buvare: Distillery Row

Portland is pretty sly.
Disguised as a sleepy town, the artisans there are often, sneakily, a few steps ahead. Especially in the booze department.
Let's not forget the liquid treasure produced by the vineyard-filled Oregon valleys surrounding Portland that shook up the American wine world, or where the craft beer movement established a formidable foundation.
Several years back, I visited Clear Creek Distillery in industrial NW Portland, at the time a refreshingly anomalous producer of eaux de vie, grappa and wine brandy. Nowadays, Portland has so many craft distilleries that they have their own district deemed Distillery Row and a passport to guide you through it. Clearly this is not something I would pass by. Listen up.

Aware that intoxication was a fair prediction for the afternoon, I opted for the distilleries within walking distance of each other. Unfortunately, due to tasting hours as well, that ruled out Stone Barn Brandyworks in SE's Brooklyn neighborhood. (Alas, something to look forward to for next time.)
And so we started out at Integrity Spirits, ready for the first stamp in our adorable passport (which cost $20, and waives tasting fees at all distilleries on the self-guided tour).

I was familiar with Integrity's Lovejoy Vodka, a beautifully designed bottle housing a lightly viscous vodka with hints of chamomile. Yummy.

The 12 Bridges Gin was my favorite, with a bright blend of herbs and spices reminiscent of Hendrick's (light juniper and that hint of cucumber).

The Hazelnut Vodka was a nutty punch to the palate, super tasty and roasty. Almost Nutella-like with cocoa character.

Next we sampled two batches of infused vodkas under the Sub Rosa label. The Tarragon was fresh and vegetal with licorice and pepper notes (a fun booze for cooking). The bright yellow Saffron was complex with lemony coriander, cumin, and pepper notes.

Integrity is famous for their Trillium Absinthe Supèrieure, Oregon’s first absinthe and one of the first in the US after it became legal. The 120 proof absinthe is intended to be diluted and sweetened per traditional ritual, which we prepared during the tasting. The result was one of the smoothest, most palatable absinthes I've enjoyed.

Next up was New Deal Distillery down the street. Known for their vodka, I was most impressed with the range of product New Deal presented. All exceptionally well-executed.

I was startled by the drinkability of New Deal Vodka. Smooth "sipping vodka" with clean botanicals and an easy finish. Even the 88, a traditional vodka distilled in copper stills, bottled at 88 proof. A piece of cake! A delicious piece of cake.

I got really excited when we moved to the handsome Gin No. 1 and Gin No. 3. A study for purists, these are two very different gins using juniper as the sole botanical. The first is a less-refined early-Dutch-style gin, cloudy, lightly yellow, and viscous. This is not a mixing gin, it is meant to be sipped neat and enjoyed. The latter, Gin No. 3 is bright and complex, shocking such a melange of flavors (pine, mint, citrus) could come purely from juniper berries. Absolutely delectable. This was a gin I needed to own (and do).

We tasted a lovely coffee liqueur and new ginger liqueur, but both were eclipsed by the Mud Puddle. Unlike most cloying chocolate-flavored liqueurs, here cacao is added to this spirit prior to distillation for a dry and subtle, rich after-dinner treat.
The brave of us finished off the tasting with a fiery shot of Hot Monkey, a piquant blend of five Southwestern chili peppers, lending just enough heat to keep you wanting more. Forget the bloody mary, this stuff is great on its own or with a splash of tropical fruit juice.

Overall I was most excited for our visit to House Spirits, which was the perfect place to finish off the increasingly galvanizing day.

Known for their Aviation Gin, the owners at House Spirits were more like hosts, and us their guests. They offered Aviation and Fever Tree tonics as we perused the shop before diving into the tasting. Their famous full-bodied, Dutch-style recipe blends juniper, cardamom, coriander, lavender, anise seed, sarsaparilla and dried sweet orange peel. This stuff is major.

A growing star among the ranks at House Spirits is their Krogstad Aquavit, an invigorating take on the traditional Scandinavian spirit lightly spiced with star anise and caraway seed. A chilled glass will warm even your winteriest nights!

We quickly moved to the big guns, the Limited Release Line. These small-batch specialty stunners range in production from a few cases to a few pallets, each apothecary bottle numbered.

We got to check out Gammal Krogstad, a barrel-aged version of the previous Aquavit, rested for 10 month in 3 barrels (a 53 gallon House Spirits whiskey barrel and two 30 gallon used House Spirits rum barrels). The blend of the three produced a honeyed grandfather to the crisp Aquavit, with deep amber resonant notes.

Then we tried the White Dog.
House Spirits White Dog un-aged whiskey (50% abv) is made from 100% malted barley and Oregon Bull Run water. Unlike moonshine, White Dog starts big and rich, with a malty nose, chewy mouthfeel, and insanely disparate flavors from white pepper to lemon peel, flower petal to Halloween candy. I shouted "WHOA" when I took my first taste, and "more?" after my second. This was my trophy bottle of the day, and if you can find it, recommend you buy it at once. You won't be sorry.

So yeah, we were pretty tanked by the end of the day. But all the better for wandering into random rose garden picnics.
I love you, Portland. Thank you for being so good to me. Until next time...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Buvare: The Roger Room

No, it's not the cartoon penguin-run club where Jessica Rabbit performs, but as the freshly opened Roger Room does not allow photography of any kind, I was forced to get creative.

Following the cocktail-centric Golden Era speakeasy trend, Jared Meisler and Sean MacPherson (Bar Lubitsch, Jones) hit the vibe nail on the head with The Roger Room. Neon fortune teller signs outside on the street hide a dark and cozy interior lit with dim table lamps, walls adorned with painted circus panels. The charm win is immediate.
We scored the last open booth and dove immediately into the colorful polka-dotted cocktail menu. A server approached, which is sadly when the scale already began to tip (note: I really don't like to pick on service in reviews.. unless it largely changes my relationship with the establishment, which at The Roger Room it did). Interrupting my friend Cara's order, he asked firmly for her ID (which we had just checked at the door as well). Confused but compliant, we did another round of ID checks, then she ordered. He then interrupted my other friend RC's order to state that he would require a credit card to hold, not to charge, just to hold. Un-phased, I handed him my card and we continued ordering. He repeated back our drink names several times, trying to remember them. A minute later he returned to clarify our drink orders again...
Immediately a round of water tumblers were brought, an unexpected nice touch for a serious cocktail bar. Another moment and our three attractive concoctions were delivered. RC's drink, the Japanese Maple (Yamazaki Scotch, pure maple syrup, lemon juice, egg white, crushed ice) was smokey and smooth, served up in a crystal-cut coupe. My Spiced Mule (Saylor Jerry Spiced Rum, ginger juice, lime juice, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, club soda, rocks) was gingerrifically spicy and tart. Cara's pick The Four Aces was the winner of round one, Monopolowa vodka, fresh basil, green grapes, lime juice & Canton Ginger Liqueur on the rocks. Brisk and refreshing, the perfect cap for a warm sunny Los Angeles Saturday.
The pleasantly sparse room began to fill. The Hollywood types absent earlier began to filter through the heavy entry curtain in layering wafts of cologne. The giddy tinkering of tunes and upbeat conversation turned garishly loud and almost grating. Every other person to squeeze past our small booth bumped my drink-holding arm. At this juncture we debated drink #2... But decided to take advantage of our prime booth and stay for it.
This time I opted for the Scarlet Aperol Fizz (The Scarlet Ibis Rum, Aperol, lemon juice, egg white, crushed ice), which was sharp and fuzzy, interesting but overpowered by the bitterness of the Aperol. Cara's Spring Street (Effen Vodka, mint, orange juice, Galliano and crushed ice) was a crisp twist on a mojito. RC's simple Death In the Afternoon (Le Tourment Vert Absinthe & champagne) was the favorite this time, the round mousse of the sparkling wine a remarkable foil to the cloying anise of absinthe. Take note, Virgin America!
After some time, we could no longer hear each other across the table, so called for our check. A credit card slip came with the entire tab run on my card. I stopped the server on his way back around, reasonably asking him why he ran my card when he specifically said he was not going to. He responded quite snottily that I could just rip it up and pay however I wanted to then, and walked away. Note to servers.. running a card usually puts a hold for that amount on someone's card for several days.. it is not immediately canceled by "ripping up the receipt." The flippant way our server handled this was incredibly unnerving to me, and really just the cherry on his snooty demeanor all evening. At $13-14 per drink in such a lovely setting I expect better treatment (a la the Varnish). But I can not condemn a captain for one of his crew...
These small but pesky service issues aside, I very much enjoyed the ambiance of the space and the meticulously mixed menu. I do look forward to returning, the secret obviously to arrive early. One lovely service the bar offers is the ability to put your number down for a seat when at capacity, then once one becomes available, the bar will ring you.
Drinks from the list I look forward to trying in the future include the Old Sport (Cap Rock Gin, black tea-infused Soho lychee liqueur, cucumber juice, lime juice, up), the Thug (Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Baronjager Honey Liqueur, lemon juice and spicy habanero bitters on the rocks), and Flim Flam (gin, Cynar artichoke liqueur, Luxardo Maraschino, Sambuca Molinari).
Like any great Los Angeles secret, check it out now. You never can know what the future holds...

The Roger Room
370 North La Cienega Blvd at Oakwood Ave. West Hollywood; 310.854.1300

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Voyager Bien: Drinking.. like a Ruskie

Vodka. Yes, that is the first thing to come to mind generally.
But I quickly learned that beer is actually consumed more in Russia than Smirnoff. And oddly my first proper drink in St. Petersburg was a pint in a basement Irish pub called Mollies, "The most popular Irish pub in town" (Rubinshteina str. #36. M: Vladimirskaya), skimming through guidebooks to the sounds of 80's Guns N Roses hits.. In the morning, no less! But perhaps that's what makes it all the more Russian of me.
You see, one of the first cultural anomalies I didn't expect in St. Petersburg was the 24-7 open container law. Everywhere on the street you see people walking with open beers, from morning deep into the night. Suited businessmen, students on break from class, senior citizens.. Everyone was picking up bottles from the handy kiosks outposted around the city, generally near subway entrances (where a beer costs about a buck or less). Markets have bottle openers out on the counters. The most popular brand is easily St. Petersburg-based Baltika (and second largest brewery in Europe, after Heineken). Being a foreigner, I could immediately appreciate Baltika for it's calssification system - Each bottle is named simply with a number 0 through 10; 0 being non-alchoholic and 10 a 5.2% alcohol dark beer. Baltika 3 is the "Klassicheskoe" (Classic) pale beer that is about as commercially saturated in Russia as Budweiser here in America. It is a decent refreshing lager, but when I had the choice, I opted for the other common beer on tap, Carlsberg's Tuborg Green.
But nights galavanting along the Venetian-like canals and afternoon strolls with brewskies in the park aside, I too was more interested in the vodka. The options are limitless and available at even the smallest of markets. Design alone made it tough to choose, from gorgeous constructivist labels to fun kitschy bottles (Vodka Matryoshka). Flavored vodkas are not just a stateside bastardization I learned, popular flavors in Russia are cranberry, birch, and honey-pepper. I bought a few bottles to bring home, but was more intrigued by the cultural ritual of vodka-drinking. Vodka is more than a mere beverage option at bar - and it is a ritual, with strict rules and taboos associated with it. It is only taken straight, usually for one of three reasons: To celebrate, relax, or medicate. One book I read suggested that to blend in when dining in St. Petersburg restaurants, buy a bottle of vodka. Yes, an entire bottle. Russians commonly consume large amounts of vodka with meals (actually always with food - lots of it). This is actually to prevent one from becoming wasted at the dinner table (bear in mind also that a Russian meal may often last several hours). The vodka is chilled and often decanted, served with shooting glasses. Russians don't sip vodka, nor do they mix it. The most common accompaniment (or "chaser") are assorted pickled vegetables - What sangrita is to tequila. I can't stress enough how much superior these pickles are though - crisp cucumbers, peppers, cabbage and tomatoes with delicate seasoning, not as sour or vinegary as American pickles. Just perfect! Traditionally in large groups, a drawn-out toast is expected before each shot.. followed by a resounding "Naz dyroovnia", or "Zah vsyo kharohshoyeh" ("May everything be good in your life"). Take a deep breath and shoot the vodka, breathe hard out of your mouth followed by a bite of food. Eat more, enjoy company, and repeat! I have to say, adhering strictly to these rules produced the most enjoyable meal and evening of the trip! Also, never set an empty vodka bottle on the table - It is bad luck! Place your empties on the floor..
Russians often take snacks with their beer as well.. the most common is comprised of rye bread croutes covered in garlic, oil and cheese and baked until warm and tasty!
I only made it out to the weekend bar circuit one night in St. Petersburg's Historic heart, and walking down the crowded street beer-in-hand found our first English-speaking comrades. An Israeli man and son out looking for a good place to drink stopped us on a corner hearing our English banter (and shocked to learn we could drink in public). We were en route to Fidel (9 Dumskaya Ulitsa. M: Nevsky Prospekt), a 'cozy' indie-disco bar launched by Anton Belyankin (the bassist of local ska band Dva Samaliota) which shares a crowded block with Datscha (next door, which Belyankin also once co-ran) and several other rowdy dives. We had trouble even fitting inside the door at Fidel, which was packed so tight, the dancefloor at the far end -barely visible through the cigarette smoke- was moving about as much as the kids trying to make their way up to the bar for a drink. As I wedged my way forward to order a round for us and our Israeli friends, a couple of locals caught ear of my English and turned their glazed sights on me. A friendly tall dude with a moustache, long hair and a leather jacket stumbled through a few lines of English asking where I was from. "USA, LA..." I said realizing I should have said "Vancouver". His (obviously more inebriated) friend then turned and started howling something about "George W" and "Condoleezza Rice" with a firm pat on the shoulder. I rolled my eyes in exaggerated agreement, fending off his political remarks for several minutes before giving a thumbs up and saying "Putin" with a grin, and disappearing back into the crowd with our drinks.
I preferred the quiet watering holes we happened upon, Like Ay-y!, a contempo woodsy lodge serving traditional Russian cuisine and Tuborg Green on tap. Ksenya and I had a lovely happy hour brew and shared a small clay pot of dumplings there one afternoon after antiquing. Looking around the piney room I couldn't help but think of my alma mater Doug Fir in Portland...
Saint Petersburg's metro is the second largest underground railway system in Russia and arguably the cheapest and most effective way to get around the city. The trains are fast and run frequently (during rush hours, intervals go as low as 30 seconds between trains). The metro costs about 70 cents per entry. Everything is in Cyrillic however, so sometimes "counting the stops" to your destination is required. After the last subway run each night at midnight (boo), the 24 hour markets are where the action was. We'd generally grab a couple more beers, a snack, some more cranberry candies, some Дюшес (Dushes - a lemony pear flavored soda), and ogle at the weird products on the shelf like tallboys of Gordon's Gin & Tonic and "Sparkling Strawberry Martinis".
My favorite new discovery is квас (kvass), a mildly alchoholic drink made from fermented rye bread, yeast or berries. Kvass is also a main ingredient in окрощка (Okroshka), a traditional cold cucumber soup. As a beverage, it is generally served room temperature in a mug, and made in-house at many traditional Russian restaurants. The kvass I had at Detinets Restaurant (Kremlin, Pokrovskaya Tower, Novgorod Tel: 816-227-4624) was mildly sweet, earthy and tart.. Like warm ginger beer spiked with malt liquor. Detinets is also known for their Медовуха (Medovukha = mead), a honey alcoholic drink also brewed in the restaurant.
On our last night, we stopped into an English-style pub down the street from Katya's apartment called James Cook (45 Kamenoostrovsky prospect Tel: 812-347-6581 M: Petrogradskaya), and sat in the back room where a handsome jazz band was setting up. We ordered tall pints of amber ale and a bowl of rye beer snacks, and what impressed me most was that our waitress was able to understand my butchered Russian, over the music, and with a smile. By the time we finished our dinner, we realized it was past midnight.. But something gave me the impression the night was not yet over. I wondered if Katya had another bottle of red wine waiting on the table back home, ready for our most common drinking ritual of all.. a few nightly glasses around the table.

Next: Departing... Withdrawl and cultural discovery on home turf.