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The first time I visited a sake brewery (or kura, as its called in Japanese) I worried I wouldn’t be able to drive home afterwards. The owner wouldn’t let my glass drain. Every time I thought I could get away with sneaking into the next part of the tour without a refill, he would appear, smiling, generously pouring more liquid into my sample cup.

Later, I discovered he wasn’t just trying to get me drunk, but was following the Japanese tradition called oshaku, where it’s impolite to fill your own glass, and equally as rude for your host to let your glass sit empty. Sake is a social drink, so oshaku is seen as a way of making new friends.

In America, this social custom hasn’t caught fire when it comes to sake consumption (and for future reference, the polite way to refuse additional servings during traditional Japanese social engagements is to leave a tiny bit of sake in your glass, to not encourage refills). In fact, sake has long been considered a cheap, boozy beverage only suitable for sake bombs and cheap sushi dinners — an image many sake enthusiasts and certified specialists are working to change.


There are many garish bottles on liquor store shelves, but none do more peacocking than Spanish brandies.

You’ve surely noticed the bottles I’m talking about — even if, like most Americans, you’ve never bought one. Most Spanish brandies wear crimson or canary yellow or glittery gold upon their labels. One dons a pretty ribbon, while a rival sports an intricate faux-gilded pattern. Some are affixed with regal wax seals, while others announce their presence in fancy Renaissance faire-style fonts. Then there are the courtly names themselves: Carlos I; Cardenal Mendoza; Gran Duque d’Alba.

Since I, perhaps sadly, am not a courtier of Philip IV in a ruffled collar, for years I pretty much ignored the advances of these brandy grandees.


Pimm’s & Proper

Variations on summer's classiest daytime cocktail


Pimm's, cucumber, and a Sorta Fussy Pimm's CupHot-weather drinks are always a mixed bag. Simplicity is both their virtue and their curse. Although these types of cocktails will never be considered “sophisticated,” they can, at the very least, approach the more aspirational “classy.”

It all boils down to choices. A rum and Coke can be, literally, bottom-shelf rum and Diet Coke poured into a Solo cup. Or it can aspire to be a true Cuba Libre, with a squeeze of lime, a dash of bitters, maybe a little gin and perhaps even Mexican-recipe Coca-Cola (with cane sugar instead of corn syrup). A gin and tonic can be Crystal Palace from a plastic jug and Canada Dry, or a Spanish-style G&T with higher-end (or homemade) tonic and muddled fruit. A mint julep can be a gross, pre-mixed disaster, redolent of mouthwash. Or it can be lovingly crafted to order, with gently bruised mint leaves and a good bourbon.

Perhaps no drink illustrates this dichotomy better than the Pimm’s Cup. On one hand, it’s the snooty summer tipple of Wimbledon, garnished with borage leaves, cucumber, strawberries or mint. On the other hand, it’s one of the staples of New Orleans’ French Quarter, made with lemonade and 7-Up. Over a long weekend in the Big Easy, some friends and I once tried to collectively drink 100 of the latter. As I said: classy.

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One day I hope to sit down with Heywood Gould — the novelist and screenwriter who wrote Cocktail, the movie — and have a drink with him. Maybe even a Cognac or Polish Martini. That’s what Heywood used to drink as a bartender in Manhattan during the 1970s. Definitely a few shots of Old Overholt Rye Whiskey. That’s what he drinks now.

The reason is simple. Despite having become a successful writer, Gould still speaks like a bartender, the type of bartender I’ve always enjoyed sitting across from: a raconteur, keen observer of humanity, and someone who understands that the reasons people enter a bar are varied, but rarely do they really have to do with flaming orange peels or flipping bottles. MORE


Cocktails for a Crowd

Don't get stuck behind the bar at your next party – here's how to craft perfect, hands-off, scaled-up drinks


Every mixologist worth his or her shaker is trained to craft a delightful cocktail for one. But is it possible to duplicate that delight on a larger scale?

If you’ve ever been to one of the growing ranks of cocktail conferences, such as Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans or the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in New York, you’ll know the answer is a resounding yes! Every year, scores of talented bartenders flock to these conferences, where they go through the choreography of churning out great drinks for hundreds of cocktail enthusiasts at a go.

Behind the scenes, it’s like watching a buzzing beehive: all those frenetic bartenders pouring out bottles from both hands into enormous buckets, stirring with giant spoons that resemble canoe oars, and dipping straws into the buckets to (hygienically) get a taste, and a taste, and yet another taste as they go. When the drink is deemed ready, it’s decanted into dainty one-person servings that are garnished in a flash and delivered to the thirsty masses on serving trays. Despite the scale, each drink is held to the same standard as if it had been made individually.

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Why do people always order ginger ale when they fly? I almost always do, and many of my fellow travelers seem to do the same. It’s not a conscious thing for me, but rather reflexive. I don’t know what it is about being strapped into a cramped coach seat, browsing SkyMall, that makes me think: Canada Dry. When I’m on the ground, I rarely find myself saying, “Gee, you know what’d be great right now? Ginger ale.”

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Oh, poor vermouth. It’s been the brunt of an ongoing joke in the United States for some time. It was once an essential cocktail component but, following the lead of writers and statesmen from the mid-20th century, it was either swirled and dumped or left out all together, until finally, vermouth was relegated to a sad, crusty old bottle, abandoned on the shelf. Then, with the second coming of cocktail culture in the mid-2000s, it returned in spades. Bottles of Carpano Antica Formula, Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry and reformulated European varieties began populating the shelves. But, until recently, American vermouth had yet to stake its claim.


More than creatures of habit, we are creatures of fatuous trends. Nowhere is this more plainly obvious than in drinking. Periodically, we see seismic shifts in the drinking fashions when a new movie or television show features a classic cocktail and the throngs of followers now have their golden fleece to pursue – whether it’s James Bond’s “shaken not stirred” martini or Don Draper’s old-fashioned. Of course, the trend is replete with era-specific costumes, and thus even more sad, because I’d like to think social mores march to progress over time, rather than falling back on era-specific rationales about when “men were men” and other such obsolete banalities.


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Film director Jean-Luc Godard once quipped that all he needs to make a movie is a girl and gun. Of course, my question is: What about the bar? The often unheralded character of the silver screen is the old mahogany. Some of the most iconic movies include pivotal scenes in a bar where the protagonist faces some manner of catharsis, whether through ruin or rumination.

Imagine “Fast Eddie” (Paul Newman) in The Hustler shooting pool in a recreation center or Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansen) in Lost in Translation meeting by chance in a Tokyo library. It’s just not possible. There’s a certain quality that a barroom exudes, where danger, intrigue, ritual and remorse all coalesce into a section of human experience only found when people drink together in a public place. These scenes could only have happened in a bar. MORE

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Among the worst instincts known to man is that of creation. Though creativity as utility or inspiration may well be a virtue, it is the incessant need of man to create infinite variations that steers away from the better practice of purposeful or thoughtful endeavor and heads straight over a jagged little cliff scattered with the wreckage of shallow, knee-jerk reactions coupled with unfulfilling, poor simulacra. And very, very bad cocktails.

But this should come as a surprise to no one, that the world is filled with bad art. Most of it we can tolerate or ignore but the problem is really not one of kind but one of volume, how steady a stream and how persistent an urge it becomes once something reaches the level of genuine fashion or trend. With cocktails in 2012, it became a waterfall. MORE

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I acquired my taste for aquavit over numerous visits to Copenhagen, sipping it ice cold in small frozen shot glasses, accompanied by smorrebrod, the traditional open-faced, rye-bread sandwiches piled high with smoked salmon, pickled herring or smoked eel. When I returned home, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for aquavit with others. But I’ve been met with a response that frankly irritates me: “Isn’t that stuff rocket fuel?” people ask.

What is it about strong foreign spirits, served in tiny glasses, that scares so many Americans? It feels a little xenophobic to me, and I get impatient with those who dismiss the world’s great aqua vitae (“water of life”) with the rocket-fuel label. Aquavit is a lovely, complex spirit, and I have made it my mission as a spirits writer to spread its gospel. MORE


I simply love grapefruit. For me, the complexity of its bitter-sweet-tart flavors puts it head and shoulders above any of its citrus cousins. Oranges, lemons, and limes: Admit it, you all wish you were grapefruit. Clementines and blood oranges? You have your moments, but they are fleeting. I know star mixologists have fallen in love with the Meyer lemon, the kumquat, the yuzu. But those are just novelty acts.

When it comes to booze, it’s hard to beat the grapefruit for sheer mixability. Gin and aquavit, brandy and bourbon, amari and herbal liqueurs: You name the spirit and there’s a fabulous drink calling for grapefruit juice.

What stands up to smoky mezcal? Grapefruit. In Jalisco, Mexico, where tequila is produced, the favorite local cocktail isn’t a margarita with lime juice. It’s a Paloma, which can be made with grapefruit juice or, via the quickie method, with grapefruit soda.

What was in Ernest Hemingway’s signature drink, the daiquiri variation called the Papa Doble? Well, that would be rhum agricole, maraschino liqueur, lime juice and then a little something else to bring it all together: Grapefruit juice. MORE

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Do you ever feel like no one’s listening?

For years, I have been apple brandy’s biggest advocate. Every fall, it seems, I write another piece extolling the virtues of Calvados or our own domestic versions. When people ask me what my favorite spirit is, I almost always say: “Apple brandy.” When they inevitably give me a raised eyebrow, I say, “Apple brandy is amazing! You must try apple brandy!” I am always serving Calvados to guests and I am always ordering apple brandy cocktails when out among friends.

Yet after all my apple brandy evangelism, I sadly don’t think I’m having much of an effect. People still seem totally perplexed by apple brandy. MORE

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“You’re not going to pour me one of those bitter Italian things again, are you?”

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that. You see, for years I’ve been an amaro advocate, talking up those strange, bitter, herbal liqueurs to anyone willing to listen.

I’m a big fan of cocktail lists that call for an amaro in some form of Manhattan or Negroni variation. At home, I’m forever pouring some newbie a little Fernet Branca or Averna or Montenegro or Cynar or whatever other new digestivo I have in my cabinet. “Even though amaro means ‘bitter,’ there’s always a sweet element, too!” I explain. MORE

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Spiked Soda

An E-Z guide to lazy bartending.


Sure, the whole mixology thing is super, and craft bartending has ushered in a renaissance of drinking over the past decade. But some days I feel like we’ve entered a baroque period of cocktail making. Though I write about cocktails for a living, even I weary of housemade bitters and tinctures, eight-ingredient drinks, the often-nonsensical “layering” of overproof rums, precious techniques like the “hard shake,” menus where 43 percent of the offerings contain mezcal, and a 17-minute wait for my second cocktail.

Sometimes, I just want something simpler. Also: I am often impatient. Further: I am usually lazy.

Given these facts, I am never more satisfied than when I can find what I call a “One Plus One” cocktail. These would be drinks that require the mixological technique of opening a bottle of spirit and then a bottle of something bubbly, and then pouring both into highball glass filed with ice cubes. A gin and tonic would be a “One Plus One” cocktail. So would the lazy man’s best friend, the rum and Coke.

Now, a semantics argument occasionally arises over this type of beverage. Some insist that a soda plus spirit is technically considered a “mixed drink” rather than a cocktail. My advice is to avoid people who split such hairs. But if you cannot, please remind them most One Plus One cocktails also involve a garnish, a dash of bitters, or a salted rim. This means most contain three ingredients–four if you count the ice–and therefore, they can safely call them “cocktails.”

Here, I have included a half-dozen of my favorite E-Z drinks. Serve them as refreshments while the summer heat remains with us. They all prove that just because you a lazy bartender, you can still be a gracious host.