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Tales of Virtual Catalysts

Attending the Tales of the Cocktail conference inspired me and Ms. Cocktail Den to launch this blog in 2014. Since then, we've attended numerous Tales conferences in New Orleans, as well as Tales on Tour in Edinburgh and San Juan. We've met fascinating people, learned a lot, and had great experiences such as when we mixed beats and drinks that led to the creation of the Les Bon Temps Roule.

This year was different. The COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to have Tales in person.  So what did Tales do in this extraordinary and challenging time in history? It went 100% virtual for the first time. Adapting to a dynamic situation, this Tales involved another first -- it was 100% free. This made Tales available to anyone with a computer or smartphone and a decent Internet connection. 

Catalyst was the theme of this year's Tales. Everyone is a catalyst in their own way, and human catalysts affect everyone. Maybe you listen to a presentation or read a post on a website that leads you to try a new drink. You get the idea. Compared to years past, this year's Tales programming had an increased focus on the people in the cocktail industry. This is a good thing. As with many other industries around the world, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on people's livelihoods. People are resilient, but no one truly knows how how the landscape of the cocktail industry will look once the pandemic subsides.

Tales of Virtual Catalysts
I couldn't see the iconic Jackson Square in New Orleans this year, so I'll wait until the next Tales.

The sessions I attended generally fell into one of three categories -- spirits (e.g. Amaro 101, Low ABV Cocktails), history (e.g. The Man Behind James Bond, The Rat Pack), and topics that transcend  the cocktail community (e.g. You Sell Cocktails Now Sell Yourself, Storytelling Behind The Bar). As with sessions at live Tales conferences, I learned all sorts of interesting things. For example, did you know Ian Fleming was a big fan of bourbon? I didn't, and I'm a James Bond geek.  

So what were the pros and cons of the first virtual Tales? The big pro for me was the flexibility. You could absorb the presenters' content as it occurred or later. This convenience meant you didn't have to run (occasionally literally) from event to event. Sometimes a live Tales or Tales on Tour gives you a sense of underlying FOMO. As in, "I want to hear ____ talk about ____ but it's the same time as the session on ______." That wasn't an issue this year because you had the convenience of seeing and hearing everything and everyone you wanted. All of the sessions were on demand (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL60KktNa23J0tn7NAf3-NSLigFRYjJy9W). A silver lining pro that's actually the result of a con? I didn't gain weight from eating really good local food.

The con of the virtual Tales has nothing to do with the people involved in the conference or the sessions. It was the inability to have the spontaneous and serendipitous in person encounters that make Tales truly memorable. For example, Ms. Cocktail Den and I always will remember meeting Vodka Girl ATX, who we had been following online, in a small conference room at the Hotel Monteleone, or bonding in Edinburgh with a diverse group who became the self-anointed Inebriants. I miss having opportunities to connect like that. Meeting people virtually is fine, but it's a poor substitute for meeting in person. Thanks a lot, COVID-19. Of course, the virus also prevented me from being in the unique city of New Orleans.

There was one aspect of the virtual Tales that, depending on your perspective, was a pro or a con. To what do I refer? No mandatory controlled day drinking. During the days of Tales or a Tales on Tour you're always trying new spirits and cocktails. I'm not saying I abstained from booze during this year's Tales. I'm simply saying I drank far less than I did at any other Tales or Tales on Tour.  

As for Tales, here's my wish -- next year in New Orleans!


Dawn Of A New Day -- The Alba Dorata

Alba DorataSunrise speaks to a new day, a new beginning, a new opportunity. Translating as "golden sunrise" in Italian, the Alba Dorata evokes that potential in cocktail form. The Alba Dorata is a new creation from Christiano Luciano at the Bar Longhi in the Gritti Palace hotel in Venice. Ms. Cocktail Den and I had a wonderful experience staying at the Gritti Palace and meeting people there; our journey inspired the Venetian Kiss. So how do you make this liquid gold?

1.5 ounces cachaça
1.5 ounces ginger liqueur (ciao Barrow's Intense, see below)
Juice from 1/2 lime
.25 ounces super simple syrup

Combine in a shaker with ice, shake with the joy of discovering a new love, and strain into a chilled glass.  Lime peel or mint sprig garnish optional.

Alba Dorata 2
Gritti Palace, Venice (photo taken from across the Grand Canal).

Cachaça is very similar to many rums, as it comes from fermented sugar cane juice. I'm a big fan of Barrows's Intense, and not just because I'm a small investor. It gives you a clean, strong, and unmistakably ginger taste. Courtesy of the cachaça and super simple syrup (Luciano calls for a few drops of it), the Alba Dorata is a little sweet at first, but then the ginger liqueur and lime juice kick in and give it a nice little afterburn. It's a lovely drink, particularly in warm weather. Luciano described the Alba Dorata as "expressing our wishes for a new beginning." Like Luciano, who created the Alba Dorata at home during the COVID-19 pandemic (which inspired my Flattening Curve), I hope the drink leads you to a new and promising chapter in your journey.

Join me and Signore Luciano, have an Alba Dorata, and declare bravo e cin cin!


An Alluring Drink -- The Gintriguing

"Intrigue" is a great and versatile word in the English language. Gin is a great and versatile spirit commonly associated with England (although its predecessor is Dutch). What happens when you combine them?  The Gintriguing is an original creation that was the the basis for the Ginvention cocktail featured at the Golden Jubilee party with Government Executive Media Group, a corporate client.

Gintruiging1.5 ounces gin
.75 ounces Cointreau
.5 ounces dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters

Combine in a mixing glass with ice, stir with a sense of curious fascination, and strain into a glass, preferably a coupe or martini.  Orange peel garnish optional.

The Gintriguing is a variation on a traditional gin Martini.  It is enhanced twice with orange, first with Cointreau (my favorite triple sec used in other drinks such as the Cancer Killer #1 and the White Lady) and second with the orange bitters. I recommend using Cointreau instead of other triple secs (a generic term for orange liqueurs) because it has a clear color and a crisp orange taste. Even though my client liked the Gintriguing, the people there asked for a something a little lighter, so I removed the bitters and added a splash of seltzer water.

Are you intrigued?  Then have a Gintriguing!


A Cocktail "Cure" For COVID-19 -- The Flattening Curve

The COVID-19 causing coronavirus affects all of us. When there's a dangerous pandemic, it's natural to want a cocktail or two. "Flattening the curve" refers to the epidemiological model of trying to have infections over a longer period of time. This is a good thing. A flatter curve means less sickness and death because there's less stress on health care systems. Inspired by my Cancer Killer #1 and Cancer Killer #2, I give you another original creation, the Flattening Curve.

Flattening Curve1.5 ounces bourbon
1 ounce Aperol or Campari
.25 ounces super simple syrup
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine in a mixing glass with ice, stir with resolute determination, and strain into a chilled glass.  Serve straight (get it?) up if you can.

The Flattening Curve will not cure COVID-19 or destroy the coronavirus. I wish it could. The amaro in the Flattening Curve is the variable. Aperol, used in drinks such as my Venetian Kiss and the Naked and Famous, is lighter than Campari, used in drinks such as my Scandinavian Suntan and the traditional Negroni. Which one you use depends on your personal preference and/or what you have in your home. Designed to have ingredients many people stuck at home might have, the Flattening Curve is sort of an amaro enhanced Old Fashioned.

We're all in this together, so have a Flattening Curve at home and flatten the curve together.


Absinthe Beauty in New Orleans -- Belle Époque

Belle Epoque 1Absinthe has a certain mystique. Many have heard of it, few have had it. The anise (licorice) flavored spirit became popular in France in the late 19th century during the Belle Époque, a period of French cultural and artistic ascendancy. Even though absinthe became legal again in the United States in 2007, places that stock more than one brand, much less know about it, are few and far between.

Enter Belle Époque, a fairly new bar in New Orleans. Literally steps away from the raunchy merriment of Bourbon Street, Belle Époque figuratively is a world away. Mixing a look evocative of late 19th and early 20th century Paris with a low key and fun atmosphere, Belle Époque is a great place to learn about and drink absinthe. It even has two original fountains for the louche ritual, a process that combines absinthe with water and sugar to make the absinthe cloudy and milky green.

Belle Epoque 2The design of the drink program also is quite impressive. In addition to a wide selection of absinthes (who knew it could be red?), Belle Époque classifies cocktails by how much absinthe they contain (I particularly enjoyed the Ear and Loathing and the Viking Funeral).

If you've read other Wulf Cocktail Den bar reviews, you know to me the people in the bar are just as important, if not more important, than the drinks. Belle Époque hits the mark. For example, bar manager Laura Bellucci, who is smart, dynamic, and gracious, took us on an impromptu history tour of the multi-story space. If the original chandeliers in the upstairs event rooms don't dazzle you, the view from the balcony overlooking Bourbon Street will. 

Belle Époque is ascendant on the New Orleans cocktail scene for good reason.  Next time you're in town, go see why. Vive la Belle Époque!


New And Old School Drinking In Venice -- Time, Il Mercante, and Harry's

When Ms. Cocktail Den and I went to Venice we wandered the streets, ate a lot of great food, got caught in historic acqua alta (high water) with resulting flooding ..... and of course had some cocktails. We saw some of Venice's storied cocktail past and got more than a glimpse of its bright cocktail future.

Time Social BarLocated in the Canareggio district, TiME Social Bar (not a misprint) combines creative cocktails with a friendly and low key atmosphere. The space itself is small and bright, and the music was loud enough to be heard without being distracting.  Quite fortuitously, we happened to meet Alessandro Beggio, the owner of Time.  Like his bar, he was generous in spirit (pun intended). What about the drinks? In a word -- buonissimo (very good in Italian). Time's casual vibe belies its interestingly sophisticated cocktail menu. Alessandro and his team clearly put a lot of thought and effort into it. The drink components are a mix of familiar and exotic, and as you can see in the photo on the left, their presentation is well executed.  On a personal note, I was very impressed one of the drinks, the Caribbean Negroni, included homemade mamajuana.  I definitely didn't expect to see that liquor on the European side of the Atlantic Ocean. Time is only 20 minutes away from the tourist hordes in St. Mark's Square, and it's worth the short walk.

Il MercanteSpeaking of bars not far from famous landmarks, Il Mercante is only a 10 minute walk from the Rialto Bridge. Spread over two levels, the space is tastefully decorated with an an intimate and vaguely seductive atmosphere. It's the type of place where you'd want to take your significant other for a drink.  That said, it's certainly not fussy or pretentious.  As its name suggests, Il Mercante evokes the journeys of merchant adventurers. The cocktail menu is inspired and creative.  Much of the rotating menu is designed to pair with particular Italian and international.  Another section of the menu has really good twists on classic drinks. I opted to have a Reef, a libation marrying whiskey, house pimento dram (used in drinks such as the Donna Maria), mango, and pepper. I'm drooling just thinking about it. The people at Il Mercante are friendly, knowledgeable, and approachable. We had the pleasure of meeting Daniele, a man who is committed to his craft.  The low light and my bad eyesight may have deceived me, but I'm fairly certain I spied a martini glass tattoo on the inside of his forearm. That's dedication.

Harry's in VeniceDedicated to serving cocktails for many decades, Harry's is the quintessential old school bar in Venice. Overlooking the Grand Canal, it's a stone's throw from St. Mark's Square and been the watering hole for many famous people.  Let me be blunt -- you'll pay very high prices because of the history and location. Sometimes high prices definitely are worth the history, location, and the drinks. The Hemingway Bar at the Ritz Hotel in Paris is a great example.  However, aside from a really good Bellini at its birthplace, the drinks at Harry's are good but not great. In addition, while the people there were pleasant and efficient, they were not terribly warm to tourists like us (they were much warmer with the older gentlemen who clearly were regulars).  Perhaps because just as St. Mark's floods with water, Harry's floods with tourists. Ms. Cocktail Den enjoyed our experience there more than I did.  One thing I did like is Harry's prohibits people from taking photos of customers (I asked for permission before I taking photos of the bar and my Negroni).

So what's my advice if you want cocktails in "La Serenissima" (a nickname for Venice meaning "the most serene")?  Make time to go to TiME, be adventurous and journey to Il Mercante, and recognize Harry's for what it is. Saluti!


A Unique and Lovely Drink -- The Venetian Kiss

Venetian Kiss 1
Taste the glory of Venice in this cocktail.

Venice is a unique city. Nicknamed "La Serenissima" ("the most serene" in Italian), there are many reasons it is on many people's travel bucket lists. Having returned from a recent trip where Ms. Cocktail Den and I got caught in historic acqua alta (high water) and flooding, Venice is the inspiration for this original creation for the new year.

1.5 ounces Aperol
1 ounce vodka
.5 ounces Campari

Combine in a mixing glass with ice, stir with the serenity of watching life go by on the Grand Canal, and strain into a chilled glass.

Venetian Kiss 2
Ms. Cocktail Den in Venice. The photo is real, and there's no filter.

Aperol and Campari are Italian amari (bitter liqueurs), and bottles of them are in bars everywhere in Venice. Campari, an indispensable part of cocktails such as the classic Negroni and my original Cancer Killer #1, has a stronger taste and is more bitter than Aperol, featured in drinks such as the Naked and Famous. That's why the Venetian Kiss has more Aperol than Campari. So why does it have vodka?  There's nothing inherently Italian or Venetian about vodka.  I included vodka because the Russian word literally means "little water," and it is a tribute to the water that surrounds Venice and frequently floods the city.  In addition, it brings balance and subtle potency to the Venetian Kiss. 

The 3:2:1 ratio of the ingredients gives the Venetian Kiss elegance in its simplicity. Its name may remind of you of the Almost Red Lips Rye, and its color may remind you of pink drinks such as the Cosmopolitan and my original Italian Sunrise. Have a Venetian Kiss, and savor liquid serenissima!


A Golden Jubilee with Government Executive Media Group

GovExec 1Want a signature cocktail program?  Government Executive Media Group, a corporate client, did for its recent customer event. Not only did I get to create the program, I got to mingle with guests and talk about the libations. Highlighting Government Executive Media Group's four publications, one of which was celebrating its golden jubilee (a fancy term for a 50th anniversary), guests sampled these cocktails:

Ginvention (inspired by Nextgov) -- For this cutting cutting edge spin on a traditional Martini, put 1.5 ounces gin, .75 ounces Cointreau, and .5 ounces dry vermouth in a mixing glass with ice, stir, strain into a martini glass, and top with a splash of seltzer water and lime peel garnish.

States of the Union (inspired by Route 50) -- To make this modified Jack Rose, combine 2 ounces Laird’s applejack (featured in drinks such as the Diamondback), .75 ounces Pama pomegranate liqueur, .5 ounces super simple syrup, and .25 ounces lemon juice in a shaker with ice, shake, strain into a couple glass and garnish with a lemon peel.

GovExec2
I never miss an opportunity to talk about cocktails.

Patriot (inspired by Defense One) -- This variation on an Old Fashioned calls for 1.5 ounces bourbon, .5 ounces Luxardo maraschino liqueur, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, and 2 dashes Bittermen's molé bitters.  Combine everything into a mixing glass with ice, stir, strain into a rocks glass over ice (either a large cube or a couple of smaller ones) with lemon peel garnish.

Golden Jubilee (inspired by GovExec) -- This is a modified Champagne Cocktail. Place a sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne flute, add 1.5 ounces Licor 43 (an indispensable part of the 43 Up) and 2 dashes Angostura bitters, then top with sparkling wine.

Just as people had fun rocking the red carpet with Cognitio, people had a great time at the Government Executive Media Group event. The overall result?  Another happy client.  Cheers!


Casablanca In Tampa -- CW's Gin Joint

"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine." That is one of many classic lines from the iconic film Casablanca. Much of it takes place at Rick's Café Americain.  Humphrey Bogart, the actor who played Rick, would have felt at home at CW's Gin Joint in Tampa, Florida. Earlier this year Ms. Cocktail Den and I were in Tampa.  Our friends Kirk and David, who we knew online through the cocktail community but never had met in person, invited us to join them at CW's. We all had a wonderful time.

CW's Gin JointThe motto of CW's (CW is Carolyn Wilson, the owner) is "Where style and grace have an attitude." The motto hits the mark. Glancing at the stunningly designed interior, you might think the bar is one of those annoyingly expensive and pretentious establishments.  It's not. While you can go to CW's impeccably dressed (like Kirk and David, who would've looked perfectly normal on the set of Casablanca), the people there will treat you just as well if you're wearing an aloha shirt (like me). We didn't meet Carolyn, but we did have the pleasure of meeting Daniel Bareswilt. He's a true professional.

CW's Gin Joint 2
Channel Captain Renault and round up this Usual Suspect.

You will be shocked, just shocked to learn CW's has a serious focus on gin (if you don't get the joke, please watch the movie). If, like me, you're not a gin connoisseur, CW's gin matrix can be helpful. When I say matrix, I don't mean the Keanu Reeves/red pill/blue pill sort of matrix. If you want to learn about gin, this is the place. If gin isn't your thing, CW's has plenty of other spirits and cocktails. I particularly enjoyed the Gateway, sort of a cross between a Martinez and a Hanky Panky. In the unlikely event nothing on the menu tickles your liver, I'm confident the bartenders can make you something Rick's patrons drank, e.g. the Champagne Cocktail resistance leader Victor Laszlo orders as he figures out how to evade the Nazis.

In many ways CW's resembles the fictitious bar in the movie. Great drinks? Check. Classy atmosphere? Check. Great bartenders?  Check.  International intrigue?  Not that I saw or heard.  Unless you count sharing stories about international travel adventures.

If you're in Tampa and want somewhere to have a drink as time goes by (again, if you don't get it, watch the movie), go to CW's Gin Joint.  It will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


The 3/4 Cocktail -- Low Or No Alcohol Drinks

In 1806 a New York newspaper editor named Harry Croswell gave us the first definition of the word cocktail: "a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters ..."

So what's a 3/4 Cocktail?  It's my way of describing a spirit free cocktail.  You still have the sugar, water, and bitters. As long you have at least those three ingredients, the possibilities are infinite. Bitters are highly concentrated alcoholic tinctures, so a 3/4 Cocktail isn't completely booze free, but it's quite close.

34 Cocktail -- No Booze BoricuaIn recent years cocktail programs have made a point of emphasizing low or no alcohol drinks, or at least not relegating them to the proverbial kids table in the room of cocktails. People have different reasons for wanting a refreshing and delicious libation without alcohol. In my case, I'm standing in solidarity with Ms. Cocktail Den, whose temporary medical issue renders her unable to drink booze for a short period of time.

There's no real formula for creating a 3/4 Cocktail. Personally I like to mix fresh citrus juice, a sweetener, a couple dashes of bitters, and ice (this is the water), shake it up so I follow the Hamlet Cocktail Conundrum, and strain into a chilled glass.  I suggest adding flavored seltzer water to increase the drink's volume and intrigue factor.  For example, the pictured 3/4 Cocktail is a No Booze Boricua, a spin on the Pina Colada.  Combine juice from 1/2 a lime, 1.5 ounces fresh pineapple juice, 1 ounce cream of coconut, .5 ounces super simple syrup, 2 dashes of Liquid Gold bitters from Embitterment, shake with ice, and top with orange seltzer water.

If I was one of the guys on The Big Bang Theory I'd write a complicated formula explaining how a 3/4 Cocktail can get you 100% satisfaction. I'm not one of those guys.  I'm not crazy (my mother had me tested), so trust me on this one.  Cheers!