Wednesday, December 21, 2011

DC Gets Its Holiday Cocktail On

Reporting for the Museum of the American Cocktail, an all-star ensemble of DC's bartenders (the likes of Gina Chersevani of PS7s, JP Caceres of Bourbon Steak, Jon Harris of the Gibson, Katie Nelson of the Columbia Room and Dan Searing of Room 11) convened at PS7s for a holiday cocktail seminar. Let me tell you, we've got some creative minds and palates in this city! A "Sweet Potato-Ginger Sparkler" with a roasted oolong marshmallow, "Fall in a Cup" with butter-infused elderflower liqueur. A tequila, sherry and clementine punch and a Tom and Jerry. I think we've got the beginnings of a new holiday carol.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

DC Celebrates Repeal Day in Style

December 3 marked the 4th Repeal Day party hosted by the DC Craft Bartender's Guild. I was there on behalf of the Museum of the American Cocktail to report on the grand affair. If there was any reason to go, it was for Chantel Tseng's "Darmoney Sucker Punch" in a claw-foot tub.

On Hiatus

Dear Readers,

I apologize for my long absence from District Cocktail. My wife and I were busy all summer preparing for the arrival of our son who was born on October 15. We are having a glorious time caring for him and welcoming him to the world. I promise to be back on the writing-block soon. You can still follow my drinking adventures in 140-character segments on my Twitter feed @DCcocktails. In the meantime, I will also be reporting for the Museum of the American Cocktail.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"The Punch Bowl" by Dan Searing

My review of "The Punch Bowl" by Dan Searing for the Museum of the American Cocktail.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Happy Rickey Month!

With DC's official Rickey month beginning today I thought I would begin my coverage by paying homage to the original Rickey and take a look back at a unique twist on the District's original cocktail. The Rickey originated in the 1880s, being first made at Shoomaker's bar on Pennsylvania Ave. after a request by Col. Joe Rickey, a lobbyist at the time who wanted a change from his daily bourbon.

A Rickey is about as simple as it gets to make. Derek Brown of The Passenger and Columbia Room is DC's resident scholar on the Rickey. He is the author of the Wikipedia entry on the cocktail, coining it as "an air conditioner in a glass," perfect for the hot and humid dog-day DC summers.

I was recently at the Passenger and had their standard bourbon Rickey. Served in a red wine glass, it consisted of Virginia Gentleman, a bourbon made in Virginia (yes, bourbons made outside of Kentucky can be called bourbons), giving the Rickey a more local touch. A half lime was squeezed and dropped into the glass and topped off with soda water. As opposed to gin Rickeys, a more popular version, the sweet and spicy caramel/oak flavor of the bourbon adds a more interesting depth to the Rickey. The soda water and lime gives it a very light texture, acting as a mild palate cleanser allowing for a clean AC-like finish. I enjoy a gin Rickey with the lime accentuating the spirit's botanical structure, but for that authentic feel and and more stimulating flavor, the bourbon Rickey is the way to go. (Pictured: The bourbon Rickey at The Passenger)

In honor of the 2010 Rickey month, Bourbon Steak created their own twist on the Rickey with their "Celerickey" made with Hendrick's gin, fresh lime juice, house-made ginger syrup, and celery juice.

The Celerickey had a distinct vegetal undercurrent with the cucumber notes of the Hendrick's combined with the grassy and sweet celery juice, giving it an almost Bloody Mary-esque quality. The lime juice provided some bright acidity with the ginger syrup adding a not-to-sweet touch. It was light, airy and refreshing. I really liked the dramatic celery garnish. I think I know what I'll drink the next time I order from their brunch menu. (Pictured: The "Celerickey" at Boubon Steak)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Skipped out by the Hop Skip, Old Raj Comes to the Rescue

With the 2011 RAMMY Awards already at a close, I had intended on trying all of the finalists for the Mixology/Beverage Program. However, I ran into a little snag with the "Hop Skip" cocktail at Estadio. Eager to get my drink on, I stopped by a little over a week ago at the Spanish-themed restaurant and met with head bartender Adam Bernbach. He informed me that the RAMMY organizers made a mistake in listing the nominations and that the Hop Skip was actually at his other bar Proof. To add to my disappointment he also said that he had run out of its key ingredient, namely salt-cured limes, which he uses for the vodka-based cocktail. Alas, the Hop Skip did not join my reviews of Is He Sharpe?, Alewife, Perennial Tea and Citros Gengibre (the winning cocktail) before the June 26 awards. Bernbach did say that the salt-cured limes are on their way and the cocktail should be available at Proof in July.

However, Bernbach made up for the misunderstanding by personally preparing for me his Old Raj & House-made Orange Thyme Tonic, which is part of Estadio's menu. Old Raj is a 110 proof gin from Scotland infused with saffron giving it a pale yellow color and a spicy structure joined by strong juniper and citrus flavors. To that Bernbach adds his own tonic which he prepares by boiling water and steeping orange, thyme and dried bay leaf for one hour. He then adds a less processed red quinine (ground bark from the Cinchona tree) giving the tonic an amber hue. (Pictured: Ground red quinine)

On the nose the The Old Raj G&T smells of juniper with the tonic's orange aroma boosting the gin's citrus tones. It has a healthy dose of the gin (exactly how I prefer my G&Ts). The gin's botanicals and spice are matched well by the equally forward flavors of the herbal-orange-flavored tonic which also adds a nice bitter bite followed by a sweet, glossy flow and tart finish. (Pictured: The Old Raj Gin & Tonic)

Friday, June 24, 2011

DC's "No. 1" Cocktail: The Pimm's Cup Around Town

With summer officially beginning this week, it won't be long until the dog-days will be breathing down our neck. As DC's official Rickey month soon approaches (July) I'm exploring refreshing elixirs that will cool your body, mind and soul. With Wimbledon also having begun this week the classic Pimm's Cup couldn't be a more appropriate cocktail to feature. An old export from our British friends, the Pimm's Cup is slowly making a comeback on cocktail menus nationwide and in DC. The Washington Post's Jason Wilson recently wrote about his favorite version (notably preferring his being made with 7-Up) while Fritz Hahn raved about PS7's twist on the Cup.

The Pimm's Cup is a cocktail that can take on a number of forms but its basic version consists of Pimm's No. 1, lemonade/lemon-lime soda (lemon-lime soda is called "lemonade" by the Brits) or ginger ale. It can be embellished with lemon and orange slices and a sprig of mint, but a cucumber garnish is mandatory. In a 2006 piece on NPR, Michelle Norris interviewed Martin Joyce, director of catering for Wimbledon, who described how the All England Club prepares the "No. 1 Cup." Served in a highball glass half filled with ice, one measure of Pimm's is topped off with lemonade (or lemon-lime soda such as 7-Up), and garnished with half a strawberry, a sprig of mint and some cucumber skin.

Pimm's was first developed in England by James Pimm in the 1820s as a digestive, originally served as a tonic in a tankard, hence the name "cup." The ingredients have been kept a guarded secret to this day. It is gin-based with a touch of quinine along with a medley of herbs, botanicals and fruit. Straight up, it has a developed herbal flavor, almost like a refined Jaeger Meister, with a sweet and delicate bitter finish. The version sold in stores today has a lower alcohol content than the original (down from 40% to just 25% proof). Pimm's No. 1 is considered not a spirit but rather a bottled cocktail. It is therefore recommended not to use more than 2-3 parts lemonade to one part Pimm's, so as not to overly dilute the flavor.

The typical Pimm's Cup has an ice tea-esque quality with earthy/herbal tones brightened with sweet lemonade or lemon-lime soda. It's a light drink (both in structure and alcohol content) which is why it's perfect as a summer quencher - a straight forward and simple alternative to the many sugary, summery drinks we have come to know.

In America you can find the Pimm's Cup traditionally being served at polo matches. What, you don't have season passes to the Capitol Polo Club? Hard to believe, but there are plenty of locations that serve up the "No. 1 Cup" in DC. In exploring what our city has to offer, I visited a few local watering holes.

Bar Pilar served a Pimm's Cup with mint, orange slice, cucumber, house-made ginger syrup and soda water. It had a well-rounded flavor with the ginger coming through both on the nose and palate. The orange accentuated the Pimm's herbal base. The Pimm's-to-ginger soda ratio may have been a bit off, leaving the Pimm's a tad diluted, but it had a smooth and fresh texture. It started off sweet but mellowed as the ice melted. It had a clean, light finish.

The Passenger serves up quite a unique Pimm's Cup that goes beyond the traditional recipe. Though a true Brit would never add a second spirit, they add Seagram's gin, along with lemon juice, house ginger ale as well as Blenheim (red cap) ginger ale, garnished with cucumber. It has a great depth of flavor and definitely gets an alcohol boost from the gin which also heightens the botanical bouquet. The Bleheim red cap ginger ale (their spiciest) adds a noticeable peppery, ginger bite. Blenheim describes their red cap ginger ale as going "down as smoothly as a firecracker exploding in your throat" so the regular house ginger ale supplied a good counter-balance. The Pimm's No. 1 herbal flavor came through well laced with fresh cucumber, which makes me believe they also muddled cucumber into the mix. Overall the Passenger's Cup was slightly sweeter than most Pimm's Cups I have had, but its spicy edge left me wanting more of this dynamic variation. (Pictured: The Pimm's Cup at The Passenger)

At the Tabard Inn they mix Pimm's No.1, fresh citrus, cucumber, ginger and soda. Somewhat similar to Bar Pilar's version, the ginger shines with a noticeable spicy bite and worked splendid as an agent to accentuate the other ingredients. It strikes a smooth balance between sweetness and the herbaceous character of the Pimm's. This is a real body cooler. (Left: The Pimm's Cup at Tabard Inn)

While meeting a friend for lunch at the Peacock Cafe in Georgetown I had to try their version which they call the "Pimps Cup." It consists of Pimm's No. 1, fresh-squeezed lemonade and diced cucumber. As I lifted it to my mouth the aromatics of the broken-down cucumber burst forward. The lemonade gave the Cup an Arnold-Palmer-esque appeal and had a sweet linger. As the diced cucumber got swept into my mouth, it acted as a natural sweetener and helped raise the profile of the Pimm's.

I had what was arguably the worst Pimm's Cup in DC at Old Ebbitt Grill. When the bartender placed the Cup in front of me I thought its presentation was well executed with a paper-thin slice of cucumber jetting straight up from the rim. When I raised it to my nose it smelled of almost nothing but the aromatic garnish. Upon first sip I realized a key ingredient was missing, namely any type of lemon, lime or ginger component. What was served to me was Pimm's No. 1 with soda...period. When I asked the bartender if this was their standard way of preparing the cocktail she said "this is how I learned it" and then informed me that some people request it with lemon-lime soda or ginger ale, as if having it that way required a special order. As I pondered what to replace my botched drink with, not knowing if I needed to spell out in writing what it should contain, the Old Ebbitt "Pimm's spritzer" did give me some added insight into how important a role a sweet and tangy counterpart plays in completing the Pimm's Cup, like how salt brings out so much flavor in cooking. I was sorry to see one of DC's most revered historical establishments validate Tom Sietsema's recent demotion to a half-star rating in the Washington Post. (Pictured: Old Ebbitt's "Pimm's Spritzer?")

On a much more positive note, I had the pleasure of attending a private function tended by Jon Harris of The Gibson. One of the featured cocktails was the Pimm's Cup. Along with the Pimm's No. 1 he used Fentiman's Victorian Lemonade, garnished with cucumber, orange, lemon and mint. It was like a garden in my mouth. The ingredients, though simple, were tightly built. The drink had a balance of sweet and bitter with a touch of sour. The lemony Fentiman's brought a not-too-sweet brightness and its fermented structure added some tang. As I sipped it my nose was filled with the aroma of mint and cucumber, providing a sensory experience of sweetness without actually sweetening the drink. This Cup had a solid structure. (Pictured: The Jon Harris Pimm's Cup)

The Pimm's Cup is an excellent drink to have around if you are entertaining at home during the summer. It's incredibly simple to make and inexpensive (locally, Pimm's No. 1 runs just over $20 a bottle). Though 7-Up or other ready-made lemon-lime sodas will produce a great Cup, I was most impressed with those that incorporated ginger and fresh lemon juice, giving it some extra zing - all working in harmony with the Pimm's.

Here is a straight-forward version I like to make which uses homemade ginger syrup.

2 oz. Pimm's No. 1
1/2 oz. Ginger Syrup*
Juice of half a lemon
Slice of Cucumber
Sprig of Mint

Fill a glass with ice (preferably large-cubed), add the Pimm's, ginger syrup, squeeze in the lemon through a fine sieve and stir to incorporate. Top off with soda (I like to make my own with a water carbonator) and lightly stir once more. Garnish with cucumber and mint.

*The ginger syrup couldn't be easier to make. Take two thumb-sized pieces of ginger, peel and finely grate (a microplane works best) into a one-quart sauce pan. Add one cup of sugar (I like to use evaporated cane sugar which adds a slight caramel flavor and color) and one cup of water. Stir and bring mixture to a boil. As soon as it boils turn the heat off, cover and allow it to steep for 15-20 minutes. Using a fine sieve to filter out the pulp, pour syrup into a container, allow it to come to room temperature and then refrigerate.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Citros Gengibre at Founding Farmers

The 2011 RAMMY Awards nominations for cocktails are out so I thought I would check out the finalists for the Mixology/Beverage Program. In no particular order I have set out to give them all a try. My first stop was at Bourbon Steak where I reviewed "Is He Sharpe?". The DC cocktail tide then swept me to ChurchKey to put "Alewife" to the test. I then stopped over at Tabard Inn to try their "Perennial Tea." This week I stopped at Founding Farmers to try Citros Gengibre.

This was my first visit to Founding Farmers which is on Pennsylvania Ave., connected to the IMF headquarters and a block away from the World Bank. Its location in downtown DC/Foggy Bottom brings in a mixture of guests which was clearly defined by the first question the bartender asked me when I sat down at the bar: "Where you from?" I did a 360 and got the impression that this was more of an out-of-towner locale. Tourists, World Bank and IMF people and parents of GW students seemed to make up the majority of patrons. This didn't really detract from my experience but it had been a while since I felt like a foreigner in a local restaurant (except that one time I got a beer at the tourist-packed Hard Rock Cafe while waiting for a film to open at E Street Cinema - talk about going through a wormhole!).

With floor-to-high-ceiling windows, Founding Farmers is a brightly lit establishment that has a modern-rustic appeal with a design consisting of a mixture of reclaimed wood, cement, clean lines and modern furniture. Its menu is a mixture of sophisticated takes on American classics along with their own twists on rustic, Old World dishes highlighting the restaurant's use of local and sustainable ingredients.

The Citros Gengibre consists of Tres Generaciones Tequila, house-made ginger beer, simple syrup, grapefruit bitters, fresh grapefruit and lemon juices, Aperol and a splash of cherry brandy, garnished with mint. It has a bright orange-pink hue, giving it a summery appeal. On the nose it smells of citrus, blossom and herb garden. The juices, the Aperol (which one could compare to Campari in taste) and the grapefruit bitters give it a bitter-sour flavor structure balanced with the simple syrup. It has a distinct grapefruit undertone which mingles with the Aperol's notes of bitter orange. The tequila helps level the drink and gives it a clean texture, but is difficult to pick up. Tres Generaciones is about as good as you can get when it comes to tequila but I found its light and delicate flavors to be rubbed out by the other stronger ingredients. To me it's more of a sipping tequila. I didn't pick up any notes from the cherry brandy. The ginger beer acted as a mild sweetener but there were no solid ginger notes, which was a disappointment given that Gengibre means ginger in Portuguese.

I have to say I wasn't overwhelmed by this cocktail. There was no star of the show, no spirit or element that really defined the drink. The Aperol was probably the most distinct among the flavors but the other, more interesting elements fell flat. Cocktails should be well balanced but the other components should still reach out to greet your taste buds. This might sound odd, but it may have been too balanced with the ingredients almost canceling each other out, morphing into a homogenous flavor. It did have a bright, smooth taste with a clean finish, but the Citros Gengibre did not have any great depth to it - nothing that really awakened my palate. It was refreshing, one-note drink.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Perennial Tea at Tabard Inn

The 2011 RAMMY Awards nominations for cocktails are out so I thought I would check out the finalists. In no particular order I have set out to give them all a try. My first stop was at Bourbon Steak where I reviewed "Is He Sharpe?". The DC cocktail tide then swept me to ChurchKey to put "Alewife" to the test. Next on the list was the "Perennial Tea" at Tabard Inn.

For those who are new to the District (or have been living under a rock), the Tabard Inn is quintessential DC. Since 1922 it has been serving guests and today it is both a 40-room boutique hotel and popular restaurant that offers one of the best DC experiences in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. As you walk in you revisit a forgotten time surrounded by dark wood, Victorian furniture and the nostalgia of classic Washington. Its secluded outdoor patio is a wonderful escape from the city buzz. During the winter it's a warm refuge from the cold with its crackling fireplaces and cozy corners.

Shortly after the Tabard Inn opened it became popular for tea parties by various women’s organizations, so the Perennial Tea is a cocktail that comes full circle. It consists of dandelion tea, Plymouth gin, French and Italian vermouths, Gran Classico Bitter, orange peel, a lemon wheel, and a sprig of rosemary. Amber-colored and served in a teacup it had a dainty appeal, definitely not the sexiest of cocktails but I liked the creativity.

The first thing I noticed was its intense aroma of forest with the piney rosemary and woody Gran Classico accompanied by the citrus, bringing me to memories of European Christmas markets. At first sip the intense Grand Classico Bitter asserted itself as the dominant flavor, tempered only slightly by the milder vermouths and lemon. Initially, I found the Perennial Tea to be a swath of complex flavors that had trouble fitting together. It was reminiscent of a Negroni with the addition of floral and citrus notes, but was off as the bitter Gran Classico accompanied by bitter dandelion tea finished with dry vermouth brought the flavors to a screeching halt on the palate.

As the ice melted and the cocktail "aged" the more nuanced flavors began to emerge. The sweet gin finally bobbed up from a bitter deep-sea dive accompanied by certain subtle, earthy notes of caramel. When the condensed flavors broke down it had a very warming appeal but still lacked a brightness to balance out the bitterness. Overall, it sought to challenge one's palate but may have gone too far in that the bitter components greatly overshadowed the other more delicate ingredients.

This cocktail seemed more appropriate as a seasonal drink rather than a “perennial” menu item - something to put on hold for when the Tabard Inn has its fireplaces aflame and St. Nick is making his list.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Alewife" at ChurchKey

The 2011 RAMMY Awards nominations for cocktails are out so I thought I would check out the finalists for the Mixology/Beverage Program. In no particular order I have set out to give them all a try. My first stop was at Bourbon Steak where I reviewed "Is He Sharpe?". The DC cocktail tide has now swept me to ChurchKey to put "Alewife" to the test.

I arrived mid-afternoon on a Saturday hoping the bar wouldn't be too crowded so I could chat with a bartender a bit. When I stepped in the entire room was thick with a bustling crowd and then it dawned on me that I had shown up during the weekend of SAVOR, DC's annual craft beer festival. ChurchKey is also well known for its vast collection of brews from across the nation and from afar. It's an impressive offering. For a bright Saturday, ChurchKey is dark, very dark. Its floor space is narrow and quite long and the only natural light comes in through a couple of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over 14th Street. It's therefore not best suited for daytime ambiance but if you are looking for some good drinking, sports-watching and chatting, the time of day doesn't matter. The decor has an industrial feel with a simplicity that focuses on the bar and its offerings.

Though the bar was really crowded with eager beer drinkers, ChurchKey is one of the few bars in town I have been to that had enough staff to handle the heavy load. Rather than playing the cat-and-mouse game of getting the bartender's attention, as soon as I stepped up to the bar that was a few customers deep, my order was taken and while I waited a few more staff came by to see if I had been helped.

When the Alewife arrived the first thing I noticed was its lemon-yellow color topped with a frothy white head, a result of their use of egg whites, giving it the visual appeal of a beer befitting an establishment with an immense beer collection. According to Daniel Swartz of REVAMP the Alewife consists of a "blend of Gin, Becherovka Liqueur, lemon juice, rich honey syrup, and egg white, topped with sparkling wine and a tincture of coriander, black pepper, and citrus peel." The anise-heavy character of the Becherovka Liqueur, an herbal bitters from the Czech Republic, hit me first both in aroma and flavor. Its licorice/menthol bite had a dominating herbal tone, which was parted by a fresh undercurrent of lemon juice and sparkling wine allowing for a bright finish. The egg white gave it a luxurious texture. The anise flavor really overwhelmed the drink, but gave it a nice, bitter angle. The gin itself was entirely lost (others I asked for a second opinion agreed) and in my view wasn't even necessary. Alewife was like a Pastis on steroids wearing some bling. The honey played a necessary role in subduing the Becherovka and tied it to the other ingredients but may have added a bit too much sweetness, leaving a sticky residue in my mouth. Overall Alewife was a bold cocktail that thought outside of the box. Its ingredients danced in great sync with the leading role of the Becherovka, for which I have to give ChurchKey some major props. It's not your typical crowd-pleasing spirit. It's definitely for people open to exploring new avenues of cocktail medleys. Alewife did what a lot of cocktails don't - left a great memory.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Bourbon Steak's "Is He Sharpe"

The 2011 RAMMY Awards nominations for cocktails are out so I thought I would check out the finalists for the Mixology/Beverage Program. In no particular order I have set out to give them all a try. My first stop was Bourbon Steak to try "Is He Sharpe?".

Immediately when I arrived I was greeted by bartender JP Caceres who was excited to make me their signature cocktail. I have to say it was one of the most interesting and unique preparations I had ever seen. I get really excited when savory ingredients are incorporated into cocktails so my eyes widened when he took about a dozen pink peppercorns, threw them in a glass, pulled out a torch (like the kind used on Crème brûlée) and began toasting the peppercorns. He said this is done to enhance their aroma, flavor and release essential oils. He then took a muddler and lightly crushed the peppercorns, added black tea, lime juice and house-made vanilla syrup. Then came the Cruzan 9 Rum. Head bartender Duane Sylvestre was nice enough to come by the bar and explained that he chose this particular rum as the nine spices used in its production (vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, allspice, pepper, and juniper) play well with the other ingredients. JP slid over a straight tasting of the rum and it was extraordinarily smooth with the vanilla and ginger flow filling my taste buds combined with a playful, peppery zing. JP combined the ingredients with ice, gave it a good shake and strained it into a rocks glass with fresh ice and garnished it with a twist of lime.

"Is He Sharpe?" had an incredibly light and refreshing texture with a clean finish - a perfect summer drink. Its color was similar to an amber ice tea. I didn't pick up any of the freshly-toasted peppercorn in the aroma but definitely got a burst of vanilla and spice from the syrup and rum when I lifted it to my nose. As I took my first sip the peppercorns came through acting like a mild element of cinnamon - not as robust as I had expected, but it enhanced the vanilla and ginger flavors of the rum. The tea leveled the drink giving it a lightness, adding an earthy dynamic but may have watered it down a tad. The lime was a perfect use of citrus bringing a tropical touch and some acidic balance. Overall "Is he Sharpe?" was a well-rounded cocktail with soothing flavors that would brighten any mood. Beyond its preparation, it really didn't press the envelope with challenging flavors but still left you wanting more. It went down quick - maybe a bit too quick. In no time it was empty.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Give up alcohol forever?

Sitting around with some friends over drinks a hypothetical question came up of whether I would give up alcohol (meaning any and all alcoholic beverages) for the rest of my life for $1 million. I didn't take me long to answer no. Many were surprised. Don't get me wrong, $1 million is a lot of money. If I used that to pay off the mortgage, student loans, etc. that would leave great deal of disposable income that could go a long way to increasing my standard of living.

However, the thought of doing so put feelings of emptiness and disconnect in my head (no, I'm not an alcoholic - just read on).

I guess it depends on the person, but the act of drinking to me is not just about the consumption of alcohol and getting a good buzz or even the occasional spins. It's more about the collective experience drinking plays within our culture. Other than the occasional after-work beer or martini that I make at home, when I'm drinking I'm with friends and/or family, as well as have opportunities to get to know some fascinating strangers. It would be giving up an aspect of one's culture that allows you to interact with people on so many levels. Sharing a bottle of wine with people isn't just about the physical effect the wine has on you, it's deeper than that. It's about sharing that moment, combining it with food and conversation experiencing something together and growing friendships.

Yes, yes to all the people who are thinking "life would be just fine without alcohol and you can still go to bars and other occasions without drinking." But to me, being the odd-ball-out who is drinking cranberry juice with friends at the bar or at a friend's BBQ would just make me feel awkward like the vegan at Thanksgiving sitting there on the periphery of the experience with their quinoa.

It's not a question about whether I could live without alcohol. Of course I could. It's a question about whether you would give up something that connects you to the people around you - giving up a part of your culture - something that on certain occasions unites you with others. Maybe I'm over-thinking this. Call me crazy. The money could go a long way but would you give up something that is a significant part of your culture, your family, your social life, your life-adventures...for $1 million? Would you give up dancing or listening to music for that amount of money?

Remember, the question was for $1 million. And if you're like me, I guess the next question is: "What's your price?"

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Caipirinha at Mate

I recently joined some friends at Mate in Georgetown on the corner of K and 31st. It had been a few years since I had been inside with its ueber-sophisticated, loungey atmosphere and rows of primped fashionistas. Mate comes to you from the same people who run Chi Cha Lounge, Gua-Rapo, and Nena. It offers a sushi menu to satisfy your hunger. There happy hour runs Monday-Friday from 5-7pm and offers selected $6 cocktails, $7 martinis, $4 beers and $6 wines. Our server was terrific, coming back at the right time to check in but not annoyingly hovering or MIA. It's list of signature cocktails is a fun but cautious medley of Latin flavors catering more to the palate that doesn't want to go too far of the beaten track.

Having reviewed the Caipirinha at Chi-Cha Lounge and Perry's I thought I'd see how Mate would compare. As you may have seen from my Chi-Cha Lounge review, their Caipirinha was something to be desired. Mate had their act together. Unlike a lot of versions around town that play to less mature palates, the cachaça was the pillar of the drink with its distinct fruity and woody notes. It was balanced lovely by a perfect ratio of acidic lime juice and just the right amount of sugar giving it a pleasant smoothness to the mouth. It wasn't trying to be anything else. It started off bold and finished clean.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Masa 14 Mojito Tradicional

Though this city offers an amazing variety of some of the most dynamic cocktails, I'm also on the lookout for the great common classics - the house wines of the cocktail world. Like the restaurant owner who tests a new chef with with something as simple as an omelette, you can tell a lot about a bar based on how they handle the standards. As the temperatures rise one of those classics that simply quenches your thirst and brightens your mood is the Mojito. It's a straight forward drink with rum, lime, mint and sugar (liquid or granulated), and a quick splash of soda water.

On my way home from U Street I dropped by Masa 14 and got their Mojito Tradicional made with Bacardi Castillo silver rum. The atmosphere there is sophisticated with its clean lines, exposed brick and open ceilings. Masa 14 attracts DC's busy, young professionals who are looking for an interesting variety of food and it delivers with its incredibly stocked menu of Asian-fusion tapas mixing traditional Spanish with the Orient. The staff was friendly, quick and and always willing to make recommendations.

I ordered and in what seemed just seconds the mojito appeared on my table. From my other posts you will know that I'm not the biggest fan of candy-sweet drinks. Nothing kills a cocktail more than by sweetening it to the taste of a sorority girl on spring break at Daytona Beach. Well folks, for the first time I will report that that Masa's Mojito was not sweet enough. It had the refreshing lime tartness and acidity that I love from a good mojito and the Castillo rum came through as the team captain, supported by the fresh mint, but was left flat by a lack of sugar which gives a mojito a balance of sweet and sour. This may have been a simple oversight that happens to all of us (or perhaps it was batch-made) but this can be a common affliction of many of the larger, more corporate-style establishments in the city. When it gets busy their bars tend to turn into assembly lines focused on speedy service, which can be a good thing. But slowing it down a notch and letting your customers know that their wait will be rewarded is what I think makes a great restaurant.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Jack Rose at The Source

My wife and I went by The Source, the posh Wolfgang Puck restaurant connected to the the Newseum. My day job has given me the opportunity to eat lunch there a few times and the food is phenomenal. My wife is preggers and has been craving really flavorful foods and so I thought it would nice to do something special and get a few appetizers at the bar. The barkeeper was nice enough to throw together a non-alcoholic fruit medley for my wife that was nice and refreshing. Before the food came, I decided to go with the classic Jack Rose named after the 1920s New York gangster. It's a fun cocktail made with Laird's Applejack, an apple whiskey much like Calvados, lime juice and grenadine. I was reminded that it can look a bit girly, with the grenadine giving is a pinkish/rosy color, but what should one expect with Rose in the name? However, in a nice contrast to the color is a mature flavor with notes of earthy whiskey, sweet apple and tart lime.

The barkeeper got excited when I ordered the Jack Rose saying it was formerly on the the restaurant's signature cocktail menu which gave me the peace of mind that they knew how to make a proper one. When it arrived it had its signature color, served in a cocktail glass with rounded sides. Going against the classic ingredients it looks like they added a bit of raw egg white which gave it a frothy head adding an appealing sophisticated look. I was however a bit disappointed in the flavor. The Applejack, which should be the showstopper, was hidden far behind the rest of the ingredients. I don't know if The Source is trying to appeal to sweeter, more mainstream palates, but the (Apple)Jack was definitely overwhelmed by the Rose. As if the proportions were reversed, what I got was lime and grenadine, which should be used sparingly (for color only). It was fruit punch with mild hints of Applejack.

We ate the stir-fried Colorado lamb in lettuce cups. They were out of this world.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Spring Cocktail

I met a friend last night at the Passenger (yes, I go there a lot) and we wanted to see what they would recommend as a springtime cocktail. What they gave us was called "The Spring Cocktail." It contained Hendrick's gin, soda water, Cocchi Americano and a cucumber garnish. According to Serious Eats "Cocchi Americano is is an Italian aperitif wine that debuted in 1891. Based on a foundation of Moscato di Asti, the wine is fortified and then flavored with cinchona bark, along with citrus peel, spices and other botanicals. Cinchona bark is the original source of quinine, and this substance gives Cocchi a bitter bite." Serious Eats and Tony Cecchini of the New York Times say that it is very similar and could be used in place of Kina Lillet. Cocchi Americano is relatively new to the US market so I was thrilled to give it a try.

The Passenger said it originally created the "Spring Cocktail" as a twist on the Gin and Tonic given Cocchi Americano's use of Cinchona bark containing quinine (a key ingredient in tonic water). The cocktail had a very mild flavor. Hendricks gin is light and sweet to begin with and the Cocchi Americano added a little bitterness and leveled out the drink (almost vermouth-esque). The cucumber garnish added some fresh aroma and brought out the cucumber that Hendrick's gin uses in its distillation. Overall the cocktail had a grassy/flowery flavor, keeping well to its name but may have contained a bit too much soda water which in my opinion diluted its complexity. I would recommend it as more of a refreshing drink that you might have coming out of the heat. It wasn't too sweet and had a clean finish.

Egg-based cocktails

Imbibe Magazine just released some great egg-based cocktail recipes just in time for Easter. They call for the use of egg whites which add a smooth texture and frothy foam on top. The use of raw egg whites is not as dangerous as conventionally thought. They are widely used in many European and Asian cuisines. You may have unknowingly consumed them already if you've been to a nice restaurant that makes a classic Cesar salad (tradition calls for a raw egg yolk in the dressing) or if a restaurant makes their own mayonnaise as well as the royal icing on that special cake. If you are still not convinced you can find pasteurized egg whites at certain stores. I have used raw egg whites many times but I go the extra mile in finding organic, locally and sustainably raised eggs rather than the mass-produced processed eggs found at major grocery store chains. Freshness is key and it will add a whole new dimension to your cocktail making.