Beyond portable grills and parking-lot touch football, tailgating season often means coolers filled with one or two six-packs of good beer along with a slew of fairly tasteless cheap stuff. After drinking through the craft-brewed IPAs and seasonal porters, don’t despair. Tasteless beer can be rescued. While in college, yours truly survived by always having a bottle of Rose’s lime juice on hand—a couple of drops will make any canned swill potable. Here, expert bartenders share their bad beer upgrades >>
I drink a lot of bourbon. I don’t say it as a boast. Every dirtbag with $25 to his name can do the same, and many do. But over the years, I’ve gained brainpower corresponding to my liver damage, and become something of a bourbon geek. Or at least I’ve communed with enough bourbon geeks to pick up a few facts about the greatest of all American spirits. Some are random, some are esoteric, but some you just can’t be without. Here, five things you need to know.
Always pushing beer boundaries with styles like the Raison d’Etre made with beet sugar and raisins and the grape must-infused Sixty-One, Dogfish Head is making a garlic beer. Made in collaboration with Eataly’s Bierreria Brothers (in which Dogfish Head has been a partner since its inception), the Garlic Breadth is a porter-style beer brewed with chopped cloves of funky, fermented black garlic from Obis One farms in Pennsville, New Jersey. Read More >>
Salt-cured pork = delicious bacon. Salt-cured salmon = beloved lox. Salt-cured fruit? It’s a genius new cocktail ingredient featured at DC’s recently opened Doi Moi. Inspired by chanh muoi (Vietnamese soda made with salted lemons), bartender Adam Bernbach preserves fruits like Key limes and apples to use in interesting sodas and alcoholic drinks. The method extends the life of the produce, and the salt enhances the flavors of cocktails in the same way that it’s essential to cooking. Salt curing also provides what Bernbach refers to as an “underlying funkiness,” in a good way.
Doi Moi features a salt-cured Key lime soda with gin year-round that takes about three months to make—but the process is easy. Bernbach quarters limes, packs them in kosher salt, vacuum packs them in plastic bags (though any Tupperware or sealed jar will work) and leaves them in a cool spot. Months later, he cuts open the bags to reveal limes with skins that have turned a dark green. He then brushes off the excess salt, steeps the citrus pieces in hot water for an hour, adds sugar and star anise and lets that sit for another three hours. After it’s strained and chilled, the Key lime syrup is ready to be brightened with fresh lime juice, diluted with water and carbonated in an iSi siphon.
For the cocktail, Bernbach simply pours the soda and Fords gin over ice. “It has a similarity to the classic gin rickey that’s popular in Washington, DC,” he says. He describes the soda’s flavor as seashore-y. At-home bartenders can re-create the drink without the syrup step by muddling salt-cured limes with sugar before adding ice, sparkling water and gin.
Salting isn’t just for citrus fruits, and the more porous the fruit, the less time it will take to preserve. Bernbach is currently working on apples for fall. “I’ve not found a fruit that salting fails on yet,” he says.
Oh, those clever folks at Amstel Bulgaria, always pushing the boundaries. Recently, there was news that they’d installed a beer vending machine on a street in Sofia that—and this is the genius part—would give you a free beer for doing nothing.
That meant really doing nothing, i.e. standing there for three minutes in front of the machine, not talking, not texting, not looking around, not dancing a jig, nada. But if you could manage to hold mind and body perfectly still for three minutes, hey presto, here’s your beer.
In light of the fact that Labor Day has come and gone, and we are all back at work, being given beer for doing nothing sounds particularly good right now. Of course, beer vending machines aren’t likely to take off in the US anytime soon, unless they can figure out how to make them check ID’s, too, so that will remain a dream. But in the meantime, thanks to the craft beer world’s fascination with high-alcohol beers, here are a few potent—and very good—brews that will pretty much ensure you'll relax once the work day is over (of course, you could just down a couple of Amstels, too, if you wanted).
Stone Espresso Imperial Russian Stout
Definitely not wimpy at 10.6 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), this lightly bitter, chocolaty stout has a distinct coffee note. That’s unsurprising, given that it was brewed together with several hundred pounds of espresso beans. It lifts you up even as it relaxes you. If you can’t find this one, Stone Smoked Porter is a mighty fine alternative (and about half the alcohol by volume).
Deschutes Black Butte XXV
In honor of this Oregon brewery’s 25th birthday, earlier this summer it released twice as much of its annual anniversary beer as usual. A potent imperial porter at 11.3 percent alcohol, it was brewed with cocoa nibs, figs and dates, and gets vanilla notes from a portion of it being aged in bourbon barrels. An excellent, easier-to-find alternative is Deschutes’ regular Black Butte Porter.
Smuttynose Rhye IPA
Part of the Smuttynose “Big Beer” Series—they come in 22-ounce bottles, hence the name—this aromatic, citrus-hoppy IPA gets an unexpected spiciness from 30 percent rye malt. It’s 7 percent ABV; not wildly strong, but a notch more than usual. Another option: the grapefruity, regular-release Smuttynose IPA.
Samuel Adams Tetravis
A Belgian quadruple ale that’s part of the Sam Adams Barrel Room collection—a limited series of barrel-aged beers fermented with a special blend of yeasts the Sam Adams folks have seen fit to call “Kosmic Mother Funk”—this is a caramel-y, dense, ruby-hued ale, 10.2 percent ABV. There’s no real alternative to it, but the annual, reliably tasty Sam Adams OctoberFest is also now in stores and worth checking out.
Most American bartenders pour beer incorrectly. At least, that's according to New York's new Czech-inspired beer bar Hospoda, where the staff is trained to generate proper foam, not avoid it. Hospoda even serves draft Pilsner Urquell (the original pilsner) four different and precise ways featuring different levels of suds. “When you have the proper head and the proper glass it can change the taste of the beer substantially,” says beverage director Steven Rhea. Here, he expounds on the benefits of foam, explains Hospoda's various pour styles and offers tips for beer drinkers at home.
The Crème. “This is the most common way to pour a beer anywhere in the world—except for some American bars it seems, which offer no foam on top. You should expect at least two to three fingers of foam, which opens up the beer,” says Rhea. To create the Crème, bartenders open up the tap just slightly, allowing a little bit of beer to come through the microscreens in the tap, exposing it to the air and creating a thick head. After a few seconds, bartenders move the glass up and open the tap completely, pouring the beer under the head at a 45-degree angle. “The head creates a barrier between the beer and oxygen so that the beer will taste less tainted.”
The Slice. “The Slice is symbolic of dragging your mug through the keg and coming up with mostly foam and a little bit of beer on the bottom.” According to Rhea, the style was popularized in the 1970s when Pilsner was advertised as the workingman’s beer. “It’s something in between, for the man who wants to be practical but also wants to enjoy himself. He doesn’t want to drink a big beer because that’s a lot of beer and he has something to do afterwards, but he doesn’t want to drink a small beer because that would diminish his masculinity. So he drinks a Slice.” The Slice is created similarly to the crème but the bartender allows more foam to come through. “I find the pleasure is more in the texture—you have this rich, creamy foam top. It’s just a little more satisfying,” Rhea says.
The Sweet. You won’t be able to find this pour in the Czech Republic; it’s a Hospoda original. Essentially, it’s a glass of foam (it's better than it sounds). Served only in a small size, the Sweet takes the longest of all the pours and is the most precise. “If you pour too slowly it will start to settle by the time you finish. If you pour too quickly it will settle because it’s not going through the microscreen slow enough to create that friction,” Rhea says. “It’s a fine science.” Customers are encouraged to drink the lightly sweet foam quickly. Rhea suggests drinking it as a toast or on Christmas Eve since it looks like snow.
The Neat. Also known as the chochtan, this is the style most commonly seen in the U.S. It has no head. “It’s done in the U.S. because people want to maximize how much beer they’re drinking,” Rhea says. “Generally it’s more bitter and less open. You won’t get the subtle aromas. It’s like drinking red wine from something really tiny or drinking whiskey out of an eyedropper.” That said, Rhea does like to pair the bitter style with a hearty dish like pork chops or steak. To pour a Neat, bartenders clear the lines by letting the tap run for a few seconds until the beer becomes clear, then slip the glass under the stream at a 45-degree angle. “You have to be gentle because any sort of sudden movement will create a head,” Rhea says.
How to Pour Beer (with Foam) at Home
1. Opt for a beer with some weight to it like a Belgian or a German Hefeweizen—or Pilsner Urquell. They hold the head longer.
2. Use a tulip glass or a wine glass. “But resist the urge to swirl the beer around in a wine glass, which makes it flat,” Rhea says.
3. Make sure your glass is dry and slightly chilled.
4. Pour at 45-degrees with vigor.
5. If no foam comes out, try swirling the beer around in the bottle before pouring. “That would be faking it,” Rhea says. But it would work.
Of course a British ex-sailor is making gin. With his American wife, head distiller Ashby, Timo Marshall recently opened Spirit Works distillery in the sleepy hippy town of Sebastopol, California. The couple met working as deckhands on icebreaker ships (Timo even sports an anchor tattoo) but together dreamt of making sloe gin stateside.
“As far as we know, we are currently the only ones making sloe with real sloe berries in the US,” Timo says. “If anyone else is, they are keeping it a secret.” A liqueur made with gin, tart sloe berries (members of the plum family) and sugar, sloe gin is primarily reserved for sloe gin fizzes in America. But in Timo's native England, it’s sipped like a digestif. “I’ve been making it at home since I was 14,” says Timo. Spirit Works’ version will straddle the line between cocktail ingredient and digestif—it will be tart enough to sip alone, but sweet enough to flavor a fizz or gin and tonic.
Timo’s family still makes sloe gin the super old-fashioned way: “Take a bottle, half fill it with sloes that have been hand-pricked with a thorn from the bush. (There was something very calming about that process.) Fill it up to the neck with sugar and then add gin.” After three months, the liqueur is ready—though traditionally it’s not tasted until the following winter when the sloe berries come back into season.
At their California distillery, Ashby and Timo take a slightly more modern approach by macerating berries imported from Bulgaria (they are hard to find in the US where the invasive plant is avoided) in their housemade gin and adding sugar. “My family really helped us hone in on the recipe,” Timo says. “We tried 42 different combinations.” In about two months, the sloe-curious will be able to taste the finished product—along with the couple's dry gin (flavored with zested orange and lemon rinds, cardamom and other spices) and creamy wheat vodka—at the Spirit Works distillery. Whole bottle retailers will be listed on the website. “A lot of people out there are waiting for our gin,” Timo says.
I found myself on the horns of a vicious dilemma recently, when I tried to figure out whether I preferred rum punch to a rum and tonic, or vice versa. Some people might say, “Well! You, sir, are one to be bothered by trivial problems,” and in fact they might be right, but given that National Rum Day recently passed, I feel that if ever there were a time to be puzzled by matters concerning rum, this is it. But though I might offend my in-laws by saying so—they’re the rum-and-tonic crowd, where I live—I’m going to have to go for rum punch. It’s an excellent drink in that, aside from the fact that it tastes good, it gives you the feeling that you are sitting in a hammock on an island in the Caribbean, rather than, for instance, sweltering in a shoebox-size apartment in New York.
Classically, rum punch follows the traditional proportions for punch making: one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. A common set of ingredients might be (in order) lime juice, pineapple juice and/or grenadine, rum and water, for instance, but the variations—both on ingredients and proportions—are relatively endless. Personally, I’d suggest trying a combo of pineapple juice, orange juice and grenadine for the sweet proportion, and using a good white rum for the strong, then floating a layer of dark rum on top (if you’re making a single drink, that is; it’s hard to float a layer of dark rum over an entire punchbowl). A couple of other nifty recipes: Rum Punch and Puerto Rican Rum Punch.
In terms of what rum to use, there are similarly endless possibilities. One good choice for a white rum, though, is the Flor de Caña Extra Dry 4 Year Old ($15 or so), which has more personality than many white rums; the lightly tangy Ron Matusalem Platino (around $17) is also an excellent option. If you’re willing to search a little (and pay a premium price), the Banks 5 Island Rum ($28) is a blend from five rum-producing regions (Guyana, one of them, isn’t an island—no idea why the Banks folks seem to think it is). Because the blend includes several aged rums, it’s got an impressive depth of flavor and complexity, with a distinctive sugarcane-spirit aroma. Finally, for that dark rum float—though given the price, you may just want to sip it—there’s the Brugal 1888 ($50), which is aged first in ex-bourbon casks and then in ex-sherry casks. (The latter unusual for rum, but not uncommon for Scotch; no coincidence that the majority owners of Brugal also own The Macallan.) The Brugal is impressive stuff. A blend of rums aged between five and 14 years, it has distinct toffee-oak notes, a hint of espresso toastiness, and a finish that isn’t too sweet, which is sometimes a failing of expensive aged rums.
The perfect nightcap is different for everyone. For some it’s a stomach-settling shot of Fernet Branca, for others it’s a perfectly crafted Manhattan and for many it’s whatever is left in the bottle.
This past Tuesday night at the inaugural Sip a Nightcap competition presented by Santa Teresa, four judges including Leo Robitschek, of Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad, and “King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff judged the ultimate nightcap to be Jessica Gonzalez’s Fortune Teller cocktail: a simple but powerful mix of Santa Teresa 1796 rum, Cynar (an artichoke-based Italian liqueur) and Bonal (a bitter French aperitif wine). It is exactly what Robitschek looks for in a nightcap: Four ingredients or less. Strong and stirred. “Something that makes you want another sip but also doesn’t make you want to drink it too quickly.”
While Gonzalez’s drink falls in line with the modern cocktail trend of brown and boozy, nightcaps weren’t always like that. Here, cocktail historian DeGroff shares four examples of some historic nightcaps that probably wouldn't have stood a chance in the competition.
Coffee Cocktail “It was half Cognac, half port, an egg and a teaspoon of sugar, shaken very hard. There was no coffee in it. They called it the coffee cocktail because it looked like coffee with cream and sugar. That was a nightcap from the turn of the century from the 19th to the 20th—when everything was richer and sweeter.”
Stinger “Half Cognac, half white crème de menthe, shaken very hard, served over crushed ice. In the ’70s and ’60s we were eating these rich French foods, so when you got to the end of a meal of wine and multicourses and cheese and creamy this and saucy that, you had this minty, icy cold Cognac–crème de menthe drink. It was kind of an adult after-dinner mint.”
Frappés “In the ’60s you had women—mostly—who after dinner would order frappéed liqueurs like green crème de menthe and white crème de cacao. It was a crème over crushed ice.”
Brandy Alexander “Around the same time as the frappés, the last thing you had at night if you were a kid out with a phony ID was a Brandy Alexander: Cognac, white crème de cacao and heavy cream, shaken.”
Mead may call to mind Friar Tuck in that Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood, or something sipped only by Renaissance fair–goers for the sake of historical accuracy. But the honey wine is worth drinking even when smoked turkey legs and jousts aren’t involved. Ranging from dry to sweet, floral to earthy, mead can pair with anything from buttery desserts to spicy Sichuan. At Distilled NY, a Tribeca tavern inspired by the American public houses of yore, bartender Benjamin Wood features four meads and one mead-based cocktail. “Mead is the grandfather of all fermented beverages,” he says. “It’s the OG.”
Here, a mead primer from this honey wine lover:
What is Mead?
“Mead is fermented honey and water,” Wood says. “It can be sparkling, still, sweet, semisweet, dry, flavored with spices, and served like a mulled wine during the winter: warmed with cinnamon, nutmeg, orange and clove. The variations are limitless.” In terms of body, Wood compares it to a Riesling but heavier. “Expect it to have a more viscous texture than a typical dry white wine,” he says.
“Mead predates cultivated soil,” Wood says. “From what I understand, that began around 2000 BC. Some historians have used it as a marker to indicate the change in humanity from nature to culture.” Mead also is connected to the origination of the term honeymoon: “It is derived from a historical tradition where newlyweds were given honey wine (mead) to drink every day for one full moon after their wedding to enhance fertility,” Wood says. “Mead is considered a natural aphrodisiac.”
How to Serve Mead
“It’s made from honey, so there are particles that could coagulate when mead gets too cold, so a lot of people recommend serving it at room temperature,” Wood says. “But the response from the public is that they want it cooler, so we chill it. It’s just a matter of finding the right temperature so that it’s not cold enough to coagulate but chilled enough that it’s pleasing to a palate.”
4 Meads to Try
All of Distilled NY’s meads are still and come from New York: two from Earle Estates—the traditional, which is sweeter due to more residual sugar, and the semisweet contemporary. Rounding out the selection is a traditional, floral style from Carroll’s Mead, and one from Mystic Mead, which is made with a blend of wildflower honeys to achieve a “more herbaceous, earthy quality.”
How to Make a Mead Cocktail
At the bar, Wood uses Carroll’s Mead in the Mead Americano, his take on the classic bittersweet cocktail made with Campari, vermouth and club soda. “It’s a spirit-on-spirit, all-booze cocktail,” he says. He mixes Aperol with juniper-heavy Spring 44 gin and the lightly sweet mead, and then carbonates the drink in-house for fizz. It’s served on the rocks with a dash of grapefruit bitters and grapefruit oil.