Questionable Tastes TM_QT_APRICOT_FI_001

For years, apricot brandy occupied a dusty corner of the liquor store that I avoided. It confounded me. Most of what was there wasn’t even brandy, and most of it was awful: cloying and full of artificial flavoring and coloring.

For me, the brandy brought bad associations; it seemed to be the sort of thing people down on their luck bought in pints and drank out of little paper bags. As a young person, I remember classmates buying pints of Jacquin’s Apricot Flavored Brandy for illegal parties in the woods. Later, I had a friend who ordered apricot sours, and I was always vaguely embarrassed when she did that, particularly in dive bars. MORE

Questionable Tastes TM_QT_HCHOC_FI_001

Take Your Child To Work Day gets a little dicey when one’s work involves writing about spirits. I can’t exactly take my two boys — 11 and 9 — out to a professional tasting or to interview the hipster mixologist at the latest, greatest cocktail bar. (“Daddy, why does that man with the weird mustache keep talking so much about mezcal and his homemade bitters?”) Besides, it’s a little boring for them to watch the writing part: Boys, go sit over there and play a game on your phone while your old man bangs out his column. I’ve not even let my children read my book, Boozehound, not that they’d have the slightest interest in it anyway.

Still, over the years I’ve found a few age-appropriate ways for them to join in. I’ve written, for instance, about their love of mocktails, using fresh fruits and juices. That mocktail column actually received a ridiculous amount of negative comments, which probably made me even more gun-shy to involve them in anything remotely drinks-related.

But a couple winters ago, I traveled with Wes and Sander to Brussels, where we spent three days gorging on frites, mussels, and of course chocolate. During that cold trip, all of us had a sort of hot chocolate epiphany. We’ve been trying ever since to create our own perfect version at home. What could be more innocent than that?
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Questionable Tastes TM_BZ_CACAO_FI_002

It must get a little desperate in the marketing departments of booze companies after Christmas and New Year’s Eve. How else to explain the mix of half-baked party ideas and strange events that fills up my inbox every winter?

I know it must be January, for instance, when I receive invitations to three Robert Burns Night suppers as part of the Scotch distillers’ annual marketing campaign. Here’s what I can say about Burns Night (it was January 25, by the way): It settles once and for all the burning question “Does haggis really pair with Scotch?” Yes, but only if you’re a whisky or two in the bag, wearing a kilt and reciting a poem, in Scottish, entitled “Address to a Haggis.”
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Kitchen Hacks TM_KH_BOOZE_FI_001

I’m coming up on a milestone birthday (it rhymes with shmenty-five) and I’ve been doing some deep thinking and metaphor-exploring about this decade in a person’s life.

If the college years were a plastic bottle of Vladimir—painful but functional—then I’d say the mid-twenties have improved a little to Absolut. Specifically, though, they’re the last ounce left of a bottle of marshmallow-flavored Absolut in my old freezer. My roommate and I have no idea where it came from, or to what particular gathering it was towed, by whom. Nor do we quite like the flavor. But hey, it’s free, I guess. MORE

Questionable Tastes TM_BZ_SPANBRAN_FI_001

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. MORE

Questionable Tastes

Pimm’s & Proper

Variations on summer's classiest daytime cocktail

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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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Booze TM_CTAIL_FI_002

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

Booze

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

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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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Questionable Tastes TM_BZ_GINGE_FI_001

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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First Person TM_FP_RAKJIA_FI_001_1

I tried not to grimace as I took a second swig of rakija from the tall plastic water bottle. I winced slightly, but then smiled and was met with chuckles and applause. I don’t usually drink straight booze at lunch, but I couldn’t refuse, not just out of politeness, but also out of curiosity. As the warmth of the homemade moonshine spread through my body, I looked toward my boyfriend’s grandfather for approval. The snow-haired man who I was told “only puts his teeth in for pictures,” flashed me a toothless grin that told me I’d crossed some sort of threshold of acceptance. He was entertained by how obliging I’d been; taking a swig every time he nudged me playfully with the bottle. We did not speak each other’s language, but I didn’t need a translator to understand that his cajoling was a sincere attempt to make me feel welcome. Despite being an American, if I could handle the drink, that meant there must be some Croat in me somewhere. MORE

Booze TM_BZ_VERMO_FI_001

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.
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Madame Fromage TM_MF_DIGEST_FI_001

Few things are lovelier than ending a meal with a spot of cheese. The French have done it for years without any trauma to their collective girth, which suggests that indulging in a morsel or two of cheese after supper, instead of a brownie sundae, just might be better for all of us. In fact, eating cheese at the end of a meal is supposed to be good for your teeth. Thank you, food scientist Harold McGee, for that important dental insight.

For after-dinner inspiration, try ordering a cheese course for dessert next time you go out. The Fountain Restaurant in Philadelphia is famous for its cheese cart, which is wheeled to each table like an elaborate pram; the Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan offers an impeccable assortment which sits, veiled, on a slate in its tavern dining room, so that’s it’s impossible not to steal furtive glances. Cheese after a meal should be so exquisite; it should arouse desire. MORE

Booze TM_BZ_MADMEN_FI_001

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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Booze TM_DR_NONEW_FI_002

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

Questionable Tastes TM_BZ_SPARKL_FI_002

Though I absolutely love champagne and prosecco and cava, the idea of sparkling-wine cocktails always has vexed me. I mean, if we’re really being honest, how many champagne-based cocktails truly are better than a lovely glass of champagne all by itself?

Just look at the classic namesake, the Champagne Cocktail, found in most bartenders’ guides: Into a champagne flute goes a sugar cube. Douse it with a few drops of Angostura bitters, then fill the glass with champagne. Maybe toss in a lemon peel. MORE