Na Zdrovye New York -- The Russian Vodka Room

Russian Vodka RoomGot vodka? The Russian Vodka Room does. A lot of it.  The Russian Vodka Room is a great and relatively inexpensive bar in the theater district of New York City.  Ms. Cocktail Den and I discovered it almost 20 years ago, and we go there every time we travel to New York. 

As the name suggests, vodka is the main focus at the Russian Vodka Room. It carries an impressive selection of "little water" (what vodka literally means).  The real showstoppers are the house infused vodkas. The flavors are different than you what might see at other bars.  My personal favorites include the garlic, pepper and dill, apple and pomegranate, and ginger. If you want to put some hair on your chest (metaphorically speaking), have the horseradish.  The food is quite good, too. I can embrace my Russian and Baltic ancestry by pairing vodka with herring (I think this combination is awesome, Ms. Cocktail Den thinks it's disgusting).

Vodka infusions in all their liquid glory.
Vodka infusions in all their liquid glory.

At any top notch bar the people are just as important, if not more, than what it serves.  The Russian Vodka Room is no exception.  We've always had great service from the bartenders (thank you Bo) and your fellow drinkers are sometimes very interesting.  For example, the last time Ms. Wulf Cocktail Den and I were there we had a great conversation with Dale Badway, a Tony award winning Broadway producer.  Speaking of people, another good thing about the Russian Vodka Room -- some native Russian speakers hang out there.

Whether or not you're like me and have some Russian blood in you (or blood from somewhere that used to be part of the Soviet Union), the Russian Vodka Room is a great place to have a drink or three. You'll be saying na zdrovye (the Russian equivalent of "cheers") in no time.


A Wealthy Drink -- The Millionaire

Who wants to drink a Millionaire? There's more than one. The Millionaire is a group of drinks that came around before and during Prohibition.  Just like other cocktail groups with the same name, e.g. the Corpse Reviver #1, the different Millionaire numbers have different base spirits and recipes.  However, there's no clear consensus about which number corresponds to which base spirit.  Here are two variations of the rye based Millionaire.

MillionaireThe first million:

2 ounces rye
.75 ounces Cointreau
.5 ounces glorious grenadine
1 egg white

The next million:

The first million
.25 ounces absinthe
Juice from 1/8 lemon

Whether you're making your first million or your next million, combine everything except the egg white in a shaker with ice, shake with the thrill of winning the lottery, strain everything into a glass, toss the ice from the shaker, pour the contents of the glass back into the shaker, add the egg white, shake as if your stock portfolio quadrupled in value overnight, and strain into a separate chilled glass.

The Millionaire (first million) has an appropriately rich taste.  This is due to the froth of the egg white, and the sweetness of the grenadine and Cointreau (or some other triple sec). Make this one if you and/or your favorite millionaire like drinks a little bit on the sweet side. With the next million the Millionaire develops a subtly sharp undertone. While I've used absinthe to coat the glass for a Sazerac, this is the first time I mixed it directly into a cocktail.  It works well.

While the Millionaire won't cost the same as Dr. Evil's initial extortion attempt in the first Austin Powers movie, after one or two of them, you'll definitely feel like a millionaire.


A Sesame Street Cocktail -- The Negroni

The Negroni is a quintessential classic cocktail. What does it have to do with Sesame Street, the popular long running American educational television show for kids? As a proud Sesame Street "graduate," I can tell you the Count was one of my favorite characters on the show. The Negroni's history also involves a Count. In 1919 Count Camillo Negroni, an Italian nobleman (unlike the Count, he was not modeled off of Bela Lugosi's interpretation of Count Dracula in the movies) asked Franco Scarselli, his bartender, to strengthen his favorite cocktail.  The result became famous around the world.

Negroni1 ounce gin (I used the Botanist)
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth (ciao Carpano Antica)

Combine in a shaker with ice, stir with Italian flair and grace (or the Count's deliberate cadence), and strain into a chilled glass or a glass with ice. Orange peel garnish optional.

The Negroni is a great gateway cocktail for people who haven't experienced gin or an amaro (bitter liqueur).  Campari, an indispensable ingredient, is a widely available amaro with a vague orange taste. One of the great features of the traditional Negroni is how easy it is to make.  Three ingredients, equal proportions. If you like one ingredient more than the others, you always can adjust the ratio. Although in modern times one typically serves the Negroni in a rocks glass, at the time of its creation it's more likely one would serve it in a smaller, more delicate glass. Unfortunately for Scarselli, Negroni got the credit.

The Negroni lends itself to all sorts of variations.  Substitute bourbon for the gin?  Now you have a Boulevardier.  Reduce and switch the Campari for Fernet Branca?  Now you have a Hanky Panky.  The cocktail can be like what I imagine the Count (the one from Florence, not Sesame Street) was like in real life -- sophisticated, elegant, and powerful.

So how many Negronis will you have? Start counting like the Count from Sesame Street ... one ... two ... ha ha ha ha.


Canadian Whisky (the book, not the booze)

Whisky drinkers frequently and mistakenly overlook Canada's contributions to the global whisky portfolio.  I was one of those people until I read Canadian Whisky by Davin de Kergommeaux.  After speaking with him at Tales on Tour in Edinburgh (he was a presenter at the seminar that led to Tales of Grain and Suggestion), he provided me with a free copy of his new book.  What you're reading now is a first in the Den -- a book review.

As a sign of respect to de Kergommeaux and my northern neighbor's distilleries, I will spell whisky the way he does. To paraphrase the famous line William Shakespeare penned in Hamlet, to e or not to e, that is the question.

Canadian Whisky final cover copySometimes non-fiction books get so hung up on minutiae they turn off readers who are either casually acquainted with the subject, or not at all.  That's not a problem with Canadian Whisky. De Kergommeaux deftly provides enough detail to satisfy whisky neophytes and aficionados, but not so much that it becomes exhausting to all but obsessed whisky geeks. His writing style is neither too simple nor too intellectual.

The first quarter of the book focuses more on science.  On a very basic level, Canadian whisky must contain some rye and age for at least three years in oak barrels. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that. The chapters on whisky components and the production process take what could be really boring subjects (particularly for people like me who aren't into science) and make them really interesting. De Kergommeaux's discussion about the science behind flavors, aroma, and taste is equally interesting. Even though he presents it in the context of Canadian whisky, one particular observation from de Kergommeaux resonates with me because it applies to all sorts of things, including cocktails -- the fun is in the nuance.

The rest of the book focuses on the history and evolution of the Canadian whisky industry.  Fortunately de Kergommeaux largely eschews what could be a mind numbing recitation of facts, and he paints evocative pictures of some of the people who made the industry what it is today. To his credit, de Kergommeaux makes a point of separating myth from fact, such as with the section about Sam Bronfman (who made Seagrams a powerhouse in the 20th century). In addition, de Kergommeaux is clear eyed about some unsavory aspects of Canadian whisky history.  For example, I had no idea lawlessness associated with frontier whisky trading led to the establishment of what is now the Mounties (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). 

I appreciate the breadth and depth of de Kergommeaux's research. Don't let the possibility of information fatigue dissuade you.  Canadian Whisky is a fascinating, valuable, and informative resource. Those who love whisky and those who want to learn more about it should thank de Kergommeaux for his work about this underappreciated spirit.

Writing about Canadian whisky has made me thirsty, so I'm going to get a bottle or two ... and conveniently, the book has tasting notes for many Canadian whiskies.


A Cocktail Of Valor -- The Don't Give Up The Ship

You're outnumbered, outgunned, and dying.  What do you do?  If you were Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake, you give one final order -- don't give up the ship. This episode during the War of 1812 became a rallying cry for the United States Navy.  While the history behind the phrase is clear, the history of the drink is not.  It first appeared in a 1941 cocktail guide, then remained dormant until it resurfaced on the Seattle and New York City cocktail scenes more than 60 years later. 

Don't Give Up The Ship 21.5 ounces gin (I like the Botanist)
.5 ounces Cointreau
.5 ounces sweet vermouth (hello Carpano Antica)
.5 ounces Fernet Branca
1 dash orange bitters (I like Embitterment)

Combine in a shaker with ice, stir with the steely determination of a true leader, and strain into a chilled glass. Orange peel garnish optional.

All of the flavors in the Don't Give Up The Ship, which sort of expands on a Hanky Panky, work really well together. Even though it's all alcohol, it's not overpowering. Use Cointreau (my favorite triple sec) because it has a cleaner orange taste. There are a few versions of the Don't Give Up The Ship, but I like this one for a couple of reasons.  First, the proportions are pretty easy to remember. Second, the result is a well balanced cocktail -- a little sweet, a little sharp, and definitely unforgettable.

If you're going to give up some of your liver cells ... just Don't Give Up The Ship.


Tales of Grain and Suggestion

Grain and suggestion are not words you usually see in the same sentence. They were the subjects of an interesting seminar Ms. Cocktail Den and I attended during our fabulous time at the recent Tales on Tour in Edinburgh. The presenters at the seminar, titled "Against The Grain," were Davin de Kergommeaux, an acclaimed Canadian whiskey expert and author, and Kevin Vollebregt, the senior brand ambassador for Libbey, a glassware company. Our conversations with them after the seminar exemplified some of the nice features of Tales of the Cocktail and the global cocktail community in general -- they were very approachable and more than happy to share their knowledge.

It's all the same whiskey ... or is it?
This whiskey all tastes the same ... or does it?

Some of the seminar focused on the science of grains and how they become whiskey. Even someone as science-challenged as me was able to follow along and retain some facts. For example, each of the four grains used in whiskies (corn, barley, rye, wheat) have different primary flavors (creamy, nutty, salty, bread), and pulling whiskey off a still at high proof causes it to lose a lot of its flavors. If you want to read more about the whiskey making process, you can go to past posts such as What's In Your Bourbon?, as well as numerous other resources.

Courtesy of Davin de Kergommeaux and Kevin Vollebregt.
Image courtesy of Davin de Kergommeaux and Kevin Vollebregt.

The fascinating part of the seminar pertained to the power of suggestion. Illustrating their point, Davin and Kevin had everyone taste the same whiskies in different glasses. Did they taste the same? No. Your brain activity will be a huge influence on your drinking experiences. You're not just tasting a drink with your mouth and nose.  You're combining all of your senses, your past memories and experiences, and other variables.

I know this stuff sounds basic, but did you ever really stop and think about it?  For example, if you recoil at the mere mention of a classic cocktail such as a Whiskey Sour or a Margarita, ask yourself why.  Was it too strong, too sweet, too sour? Maybe it was.  Or was it the context surrounding the drink, e.g. the glass in which it was served, your mood, etc.?

For me the important takeaway from Davin and Kevin's seminar is simple -- open your mind. Be receptive to new flavors, new experiences, and new influences. Consider reframing and reclaiming your past bad cocktail experiences. Whether it's the proportions of the drink, the glass in which you drink it, or the music that's playing in the background, the resulting experience could be profoundly different and positive. Cheers!


Drinking Like Jersey Boys and Girls -- The Newark

I've never been to Newark (only through it), but I've repeatedly heard it is not one of New Jersey's highlights.  That didn't stop Jim Meehan and John Deragon at PDT in New York City from creating a cocktail in its honor. The Newark is not far removed from a Manhattan or a Brooklyn.  Tony Soprano would like the Newark because most or all of its ingredients come from New Jersey and Italy.  Am I good with that?  Fuggedaboudit.

Newark2 ounces Laird's apple brandy or applejack
1 ounce sweet vermouth
.25 ounces Fernet Branca
.25 ounces Luxardo maraschino liqueur

Combine in a shaker with ice, stir with the resoluteness of being Jersey tough, and strain into a chilled glass (preferably a coupe).

Laird's, which originated in New Jersey, makes apple brandy and applejack.  The two spirits aren't very different.  When you compare apples to apples, it's about exploiting different boiling and freezing points. In modern times Laird's applejack is a mix of apple brandy and other spirits. Add the sweet vermouth (most of which comes from Italy) and the Fernet Branca and Luxardo maraschino liqueur (both of which come from Italy), and you have one great cocktail. Want some accompanying music from some real Jersey boys?  I suggest Frank Sinatra (you might associate him with New York, but he was born and raised in New Jersey) or Bon Jovi.

As anyone who's seen the musical or movie Jersey Boys would tell you, big girls (and boys) don't cry.  They drink Newarks.


Transatlantic Cocktailing -- Tales On Tour in Edinburgh

Tales on Tour is the international version of the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans. Ms. Cocktail Den and I have been to the New Orleans conference a few times, and our first time there inspired us to launch the Wulf Cocktail Den in 2014.  This year we decided to go across the Atlantic to Edinburgh for Tales on Tour.  Not only was it our first Tales on Tour, it was our first time in Scotland.

Edinburgh Tales on TourSo was our journey worth it?  The short answer -- yes.  The slightly longer answer -- hell yes. We found Tales on Tour to be a smaller and more intimate affair than the wonderfully controlled chaos of New Orleans.  We had a lot of great experiences in the bars and on the streets of Edinburgh, a lovely small city.  The experiences included attending interesting seminars titled Against The Grain and Ballin' On A Budget, trying unforgettable local whiskies at the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, tasting vintage liqueurs, and savoring cocktails at various Edinburgh bars (in no particular order I'm thinking about Bryant & Mack, Kin, Panda & Sons, Hoot the Redeemer, Devil's Advocate, Bramble, and Lucky Liquor).

Most importantly, the real value is bonding with people. Here's an example. One night two Americans (me and Ms. Cocktail Den) ended up discussing the history of the Hanky Panky (a drink created by a British lady bartender at a time when bartending was almost an exclusively male profession) with our new barstalking friend from Germany and a bartender from Scotland. You can't make this stuff up.  It's times like that why I love Tales of the Cocktail and the global cocktail community.

Don't worry, future posts will go into more detail about our time in Edinburgh. Just think of this post as a preview of coming attractions ... and maybe a preview of your future cocktail experiences.


Italian And Not Really "Bitter" -- The Amaretto Sour

In celebration of National Amaretto Day, the Amaretto Sour pays homage to this ubiquitous liqueur. The Italian word roughly means "little bitter."  However, amaretto liqueur is quite sweet. Traditionally it's made from bitter almonds, but some versions also incorporate apricot pits. The history behind the Amaretto Sour is unknown.  The standard recipe (amaretto, lemon juice, and simple syrup, or God forbid some sour mix) is too sweet for me, so I prefer this very minor adaptation of an enhanced recipe from the renowned Jeffrey Morgenthaler.

Amaretto Sour1.5 ounces amaretto
.75 ounces bourbon (preferably at least 100 proof)
Juice from 1/2 lemon
.25 ounces super simple syrup
1 egg white

Combine everything except the egg white in a shaker with ice, reverse dry shake (see Shake, Shake, Shake your Egg Whites) with stereotypical Italian exuberance (you can put everything in the shaker all at once, but reverse dry shaking is worth the effort), and strain into a chilled glass.

As you might think, this Amaretto Sour is reminiscent of the Whiskey Sour and its variations such as the Midnight Train and the Icelandic Sour.  In some respects it also is reminiscent of the Stiletto. The bourbon keeps the Amaretto Sour from becoming overpoweringly sweet.  The egg white gives the Amaretto Sour a richer flavor and protein boost (Morgenthaler uses 1/2 of an egg white, but for me it's easier to use all of it), which makes the cocktail sort of ... healthy?

Despite it sweet base, this Amaretto Sour isn't all that sweet.  It's not bitter, it's buonissimo!


Clickbait Cocktail -- The Naked And Famous

Here's a sexy looking drink.
Here's a sexy looking drink.

Made you look!  That's what clickbait online is all about. Although Joaquin Símo at Death & Company in New York City created the cocktail, the Alley Cat Lounge in Savannah introduced me to the Naked and Famous. The name caught my eye (of course), but the ingredients sold me on it.

.75 ounces mezcal
.75 ounces yellow Chartreuse
.75 ounces Aperol
Juice from 1/2 lime

Combine everything in a shaker with ice, shake with the evanescent thrill of seeing an intriguing headline, and strain into a chilled glass (preferably a coupe).

As The Naked and Famous uses equal proportions and includes a Chartreuse (there are two types -- yellow and green) and lime juice, it's a variation on the Last Word.  However, it doesn't taste like a Last Word. Mezcal, which I've described in other posts (e.g. the Racketeer) as tequila's smokier cousin, brings some heat to the drink, and the yellow Chartreuse and Aperol make it smooth.  Aperol is a widely available orange tinged amaro that really isn't bitter.  It's a component of other drinks such as the Part-Time Lover.

Unlike most clickbait, the Naked and Famous really delivers.  So cocktail click away!