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Europe Drinkie: Tippling my way through England, Scotland and France

22 Jun

My husband and I just returned from a whirlwind trip to France and the United Kingdom, where we visited countless cocktail bars and two distilleries. Here are some highlights:

LONDON

69 Colebrook Row

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe made a reservation for 10:00 p.m., but got there a little early and our table wasn’t ready. The space is quite small, so the hostess asked us to wait on the stairs that lead to the bathroom, and a server took our first drink order. When the drinks came, we sipped them while standing awkwardly on the steps. Fortunately, we were seated a couple minutes later.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy husband chose the Bloody Mary — which we noticed is common on London cocktail menus — and my friend Danielle selected the Serafin, mixing Calle 23 Tequila, pear liqueur, lime juice and Fever Tree ginger beer. I got the Vintage El Presidente, a blend of Havana Barrel Proof rum, Martini Rosso vermouth, Merlet triple sec and homemade grenadine that’s aged for six months.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the next round, I ordered the Sirocco, made with flint-and-pink peppercorn vodka, sugar and grapefruit oils, and I really enjoyed the taste of clay complemented by sweetness, citrus and spice, with a dry finish. I finished off the night with an off-menu offering: the Orange Grove Fizz, blending gin, vanilla-orange blossom syrup, egg white and soda. My husband also tried the Prairie Oyster, a shooter comprising horseradish vodka, Oloroso Sherry, shallots, pepper sauce, celery salt and micro herbs, with a tomato “yolk.”

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Mark’s Bar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stopped by Mark’s Bar, located below Hix restaurant, for a few drinks before catching comedian Stewart Lee at nearby Soho Theatre. The extensive menu features sections like Brit Pop (“Most modern cocktail bars want to replicate [the speakeasies of Prohibition]. We’d prefer to focus on the success of British cocktail culture in the 20th century…”) and Pomp & Circumstance (“The pomp and ceremony of time-old concoctions is tempered by the circumstance of modern values”). From the former category, I selected the Celebration, a blend of Havana Club Añejo 3-year-old rum, Beefeater London Dry gin, housemade redcurrant syrup and grapefruit juice, and the Hanky Panky, mixing Beefeater London Dry gin, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, Fernet Branca amaro and orange zest. The second drink was served in a small cocktail glass, with a sidecar containing containing the remainder.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy husband ordered the Hix Oyster Ale, brewed by Palmers in Southwest England, and the Stiff Upper Lip (from the Pomp & Circumstance section), comprising green pea-infused Beefeater London Dry gin, Kamm & Sons ginseng spirit, Somerset cider vinegar, housemade quinine cordial and mint. A dispenser containing the infusion of gin and “Yorkshire caviar” stood on the back bar in all its glory.

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Experimental Cocktail Club

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the show, we headed to this Chinatown speakeasy, which is hidden behind a door with neither street number nor handle. Luckily, two nice gentlemen stood outside the entrance smoking cigarettes and showed us how to get inside. My husband again got a Bloody Mary, and I ordered the That’s What She Said, mixing lavender-infused Beefeater gin, lemon juice, jasmine syrup, Peychaud’s bitters, egg white and Perrier, but they were no longer serving it. So I instead selected the Loose Lips Sink Ships, made with pineapple-and-chipotle-infused Plantation 3 Star rum, Wray & Nephew rum, lime juice, cane syrup and saline solution.

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Artesian

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On our last night in London, we got a nightcap at this upscale hotel bar, which offered a menu of inventive cocktails in the form of a painter’s palette. I chose the “Adventurous” Above & Beyond, comprising Zacapa 23-year-old rum, 30-year-old Pedro Ximénez Sherry, fernet, banana and coffee. To my surprise, it came with a eucalyptus vapor-filled plastic pillow, which the server broke open and held to my face to inhale.

IMG_7135cropThe pillow also contained Guatemalan worry dolls, which should be placed beneath your pillow at night to take away your worries while you sleep. I’ve yet to try it, but will post an update if they work!

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Beefeater Distillery

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We also took a tour of the brand new Beefeater Distillery visitors center in London’s Kennington district, where the gin has been produced since 1958. We spent the first 30 minutes perusing an exhibit that highlights the history of gin and the Beefeater brand. Comprising informative videos, photographs, displays and reproductions of historical items, such as the the 18th century Old Tom gin dispenser. There were also areas showcasing different types of cocktail glasses and the evolution of Beefeater’s bottles since 1947.

Beefeater bottles

The second 30 minutes is a guided tour that includes a hands-on exploration of the botanicals used in the gin and an explanation of the production process. The actual distillery isn’t open to the public, but you can see the stills through windows built into the visitors center.

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After the tour, we enjoyed a complimentary gin and tonic (with lemon — the way I like it!) at the bar, followed by the opportunity to pick up some souvenirs in the gift shop. I took home a Beefeater tote bag and a bottle of Beefeater Summer gin, which is only available at the distillery.

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EDINBURGH

The Queens Arms

Before our dinner reservation at Cafe St. Honore — the best meal we had during the entire trip — we had a quick drink at this New Town dive, which features a whisky of the day and fun cocktails like the I Like Sherry Butts and I Cannot Lie. I ordered the Rum & Raisin Old Fashioned, comprising Pampero Aniversario rum and Pedro Ximénez Sherry, with a shot glass containing chocolate-covered raisins.

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Whiski Rooms 

We managed to catch last call at this Old Town bar, which serves more than 500 whiskies and has a retail component. I told the Canadian ex-pat bartender that I like Sherried whiskies, and he recommended that I try the Glendronach 18-year-old and the Aberlour 16-year-old. Both drams were delicious.

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Tullibardine Distillery

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Located in Blackford, about an hour drive from Edinburgh, the Tullibardine Distillery has been around in some form since 1488, when it was a brewery. The building was converted into a distillery in 1947 and is now owned by French wine and spirits group Picard Vins & Spiritueux, which also markets the Highland Queen brand. We chose the Connoisseur Tour, which features an in-depth guided tour of the distillery and warehouse, as well as tastings of four whiskies, paired with chocolate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur gracious guide Gavin explained every part of the distilling process, from the milling of the barley to the mashing and fermentation to the distilling, barreling and aging. We got to see each stage for ourselves, nose whisky straight from the barrels and taste the Sovereign, the 225 (finished in Sauternes casks), the 228 (finished in Burgundy casks) and the 25-year-old expressions. The experience was well worth the one-hour train ride to Bridge of Allan, followed by a 20-minute bus ride to Blackford.

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PARIS

Red House

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We only spent one night in Paris and ended up at this American-run cocktail bar in the the 11th Arrondissement on the Right Bank. It was surprisingly low-key for a Friday, but the drinks were top-notch. First I ordered the Red House Old Fashioned, mixing rye whiskey, pimento dram, Drambuie and cardamom.

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Then I capped off the night with the Sherry Cherie, comprising Amontillado Sherry, eau de tamarind, Prosecco and dry curaçao.

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Both drinks were amazing and made me feel right at home in a foreign country.

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Vegas Drinkie: Reviving vintage cocktails and class in the Nevada desert

8 Jan

Sin City is certainly known for its decadence and debauchery, but all I care about are its drinks. On a recent trip, I decided to check out some places off the beaten path, aka The Strip. A new restaurant called The Barrymore had opened inside the Royal Resort, a small hotel on Convention Center Drive, just north of many of the large casinos. With a combination of 1950s supper club classiness and modern elegance, The Barrymore offers an eclectic menu of American cuisine, alongside an extensive wine list (with 50 selections priced less than $50 a bottle) and delicious signature cocktails ($10.50).

I started off with the Basil2, made with Basil Hayden Bourbon, Dolin Dry vermouth, fresh sour, lemon syrup and Thai basil, served in a Martini glass. It was a balanced blend of rich whiskey, sweet citrus and herbal notes.

I followed up with the Funny Guy, comprising Zaya rum, Cointreau, orange juice and Old Fashioned bitters. The drink was tasty and refreshing.

After dinner, my friend Candice and I headed downtown. Local mixologist Tobin Ellis of Bar Magic had recommended Downtown Cocktail Room (DCR), a dark lounge located on Las Vegas Boulevard at Fremont Street. DCR reminded me of New York’s speakeasy-style spots, with mustachioed or vested bartenders, intimate booths and tables, and hand-crafted drinks ($8 to $11).

The cocktails are rated according to their level of approachability, ranging from
1 (easy) to 5 (advanced palate). I ordered the Leeki My Tiki, a Level 1 concoction featuring Pisco, tiki bitters, cranberry juice and egg white. The warming spices, winter fruit and velvety texture made for a satisfying drink.

Candice tried the Funky Pear Medina, which at Level 2.5 (somewhere between approachable and mildly complex) was a bit too much for her. However, I enjoyed its mix of rum, amaro, pear purée, sparkling wine and nutmeg—sweet and slightly minty, with a brightness from the fresh fruit and bubbly.

I wish I’d had more time to explore Las Vegas, but I was happy with what I did experience there. On my list for next time: The Chandelier and Vesper Bar at The Cosmopolitan and Herbs & Rye on Sahara Avenue. Viva Las Vegas!

 © 2012 Amber Drea and New York Drinkie. Unauthorized use or duplication of images and text without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts may be quoted, provided that clear credit is given to Amber Drea and New York Drinkie with links directing to the original content.

Chicago Drinkie: Achatz’s Aviary and Cantu’s iNG offer experimental experiences in the Windy City

10 Nov

Since the last time I was in Chicago, two cutting-edge venues opened right around the corner from each other in the West Loop area: The Aviary from Grant Achatz of Alinea—next to his aptly named Next restaurant—and iNG Restaurant from Homaro Cantu of Moto, which is also nearby. I scored a reservation for The Aviary at 8:00 and showed up early to try one of the famed “flavor changing cocktails” at iNG. I sat at a long red counter in the stark minimalist space and selected a Smoked Manhattan, made with Bulleit Bourbon, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters, with a rinse of Arbeg single malt Scotch, which is the “peatiest and smokiest of all the Islay malts,” according to the whisky’s website. The cocktail was indeed smoky.


My husband Jeb and my friend Kenan arrived, and we were handed the list of flavor changing cocktails, along with a bowl of cranberry cheddar popcorn. Head bartender Mario Catayong explained the concept behind this special menu: First, we sip our drinks to experience the original flavor, then we pop the “miracle berry” pill and let it dissolve, coating our mouths with the protein miraculin, which comes from a small African fruit.


The pill suppresses the tongue’s sour and bitter taste receptors, making the flavor of the cocktails change. To provide a sharp contrast, Mario gave us some lemon wedges, which tasted like hard lemon candy after taking the miracle berry pill. We ordered our cocktails, and Mario prepared the drinks in a laboratory-like room with a red porthole window.


I couldn’t decide between the Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie or the PB&J, but eventually opted for the latter. The cocktail featured Frangelico, rum, crème de cassis and vertjus (a tart green grape juice), served in a Martini glass with a rim of caramel and crushed peanuts. It was nutty and salty-sweet, but the flavor didn’t really change much after taking the miracle berry.


Kenan had the Skinny Margarita Under a Tequila Sunrise, which mixed Tequila, lime and orange juices—sans sugar—served with a “pipette” dropper. The sourness was definitely subdued, allowing the sweetness to come through.


After my friend Leah showed up, we sucked down our drinks and headed to The Aviary. Thankfully, the host was able to accommodate a last-minute addition to the party of three. I recognized the space from its old days as a bottle service-style nightclub called The Office. The current décor is a vast improvement, though it’s a little more “luxe hotel lobby” than “contemporary cocktail lounge” due to the high-backed booth seating, pewter upholstery and crystal chandeliers. No matter—we were there for the drinks, not the design. Instead of a bartender manning a bar, chefs prepare the cocktails in a kitchen that’s sectioned off by a steel fence.



The libation list is divided into two parts—à la carte cocktails and a three-course tasting menu. Since most of the drinks cost around $18, I went for the $45 prix-fixe (I’m always looking for a deal). The server delivered a complimentary round of amuse-bouche and glasses of water, each containing a single large ice shard—one of the more than 20 different types of ice used to cool and flavor the drinks. Our cocktails came out almost immediately. For my appetizer course, I chose the Quince, a light carbonated concoction of Pisco, quince juice and ginger syrup, served in a soda bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. Leah selected the Chartreuse, which comprised three small servings of Green and Yellow Chartreuses mixed with blueberry, honeydew and pineapple juices and chilled with mint ice cubes, presented in a Chartreuse V.E.P. box on a bed of fresh herbs.


Kenan ordered the Oolong, which is a mixture of gin and pear brandy that’s heated in a two-tiered glass beaker over an open flame at the table, then steeped with tea, herbs, nuts and dried fruit. Science!


Jeb got the infamous In the Rocks, which is an Old Fashioned inside a sphere of ice that must be broken using a mini slingshot. (I would have taken a photo, but The Aviary doesn’t allow flash photography, so I had to sneak shots when the staff wasn’t looking.) My main course was the Peach, a bold blend of wheat whiskey, white Port, peach purée, maple syrup and sweet annie, served in a highball glass filled with tiny frozen Angostura balls.


For his second drink, Jeb opted for the Cranberry, made with 12-year-old Bourbon and cranberry ice cubes, topped with chervil foam. It was very pretty.


And finally, my dessert course was the sweet, fizzy Cream Soda, a “distilled” combo of aged rum, Licor 43, vanilla and vanilla ice—Ice Baby!


The bill totaled $136 (tip included)—well worth it, in my opinion. In fact, I’m going again in December!

© 2011 Amber Drea and New York Drinkie. Unauthorized use or duplication of images and text without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts may be quoted, provided that clear credit is given to Amber Drea and New York Drinkie with links directing to the original content.

Boston Drinkie: Two Beantown establishments offer top-notch cocktails in classy settings

26 Aug

While Boston isn’t the first place that comes to mind when discussing cutting-edge cocktails, the New England city certainly has its fair share of venues that deliver delicious drinks. Last weekend, I visited some friends there and took the opportunity to check out the cocktail scene on Saturday night. We started the evening at Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks, a Kenmore Square mainstay that serves an array of upscale meat and seafood dishes and has extensive cocktail and wine lists. At the bar, I tried the Colony Cocktail ($10), a Martini-style concoction made with Plymouth gin, maraschino liqueur and fresh grapefruit juice. It was sufficiently strong yet pleasantly refreshing — the perfect aperitif.

Eastern Standard’s cocktail menu features a variety of libations in such categories as Standards, Heritage, Infusion and Tikisms, many of which fall into the $10-to-$12 price range. The restaurant also offers “Table Sized” pitchers ($25 to $70) and a Vic’s 1940s Scorpion Bowl ($22 to $65) that serve two or more people. We ordered a bottle of 2009 Pascal Granger “Le Bouteau” Beajolais ($30) to pair with our meal of grilled flat iron steak, pan-seared foie gras, roasted bone marrow, jumbo prawns and halibut ceviche. The red wine was earthy and complex with a spicy zing.

After dinner, we headed to the Waterfront and attempted to gain entry at Drink, a sleek nightspot from the Barbara Lynch Gruppo that serves bespoke cocktails. As expected, the line to the lower-level drinks den filled the stairwell and almost spilled out the door at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. The fact that there were six of us didn’t help. Fortunately, the extremely accommodating hostess allowed me to put our name in and grab a round at Lucky’s across the street, rather than stand on the steps for 45 minutes. The rambunctious college bar was crowded with baseball cap-wearing fraternity types, but I enjoyed an Absolut Wild Tea and ginger ale — my go-to drink at more mainstream establishments — as my friends and I engaged in loud conversation.

Once back in line at Drink, we only had to wait another 15 minutes or so before we were finally seated at one of the three U-shaped bars. The place has a minimal design with modern lighting fixtures, exposed brick walls, an industrial ceiling and street-level windows.

Our bartender, Brin, asked us what we’d like to drink, and while a letter board listed a few cocktails, we decided to go for the whole bespoke experience. I requested a classic-style drink with dark rum and bitters. The result was a lemony, slightly sweet concoction served up in a coupe glass.

Josie asked for something “minty and milkshaky,” and that’s exactly what she got. We deduced that it was probably a Grasshopper, which comprises cream, green crème de menthe and white crème de cacao. The drink tasted just like melted mint chocolate chip ice cream and looked like it too.

Adam wanted a citrusy vodka cocktail, but failed to mention that he doesn’t like gin. Bartenders are notorious for tricking vodka drinkers into trying gin, and true to form, Brin served him a combination of gin and lemon juice. It actually worked — Adam said he didn’t mind the taste. So maybe he’s not a full on convert yet, but at least he drank the cocktail. Meanwhile, Genie ordered a Pimm’s Cup and received a beautiful work of art featuring layers of sliced cucumber like a Pimm’s parfait.

For my second cocktail, I asked for something rum-based, but stronger than my previous drink. Brin obliged with a mix of rum, whiskey, lemon juice and simple syrup, though it definitely had more of the first two ingredients and less of the latter two. Let’s just say I was done for the night after that.

All the cocktails cost $11.50 — a steal for the amount a craftsmanship that goes into them. And our bartender was a hard worker. At one point, she carried out the largest cube of ice I’d ever seen.

Between drinks, Brin procured a dangerous-looking tool and sawed away at the solid surface. I’m assuming she made smaller ice cubes out of the gigantic one, but we didn’t stick around long enough to find out. There’s always next time!

© Amber Drea and New York Drinkie, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of images and text without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts may be used, provided that clear credit is given to Amber Drea and New York Drinkie with links directing to the original content.

L.A. Drinkie: New York Drinkie samples cocktails in the City of Angels

21 Feb

A group of friends from San Francisco, New York City, Chicago and Dubai converged on Los Angeles last weekend for a few days of drunken debauchery. We started the fun at chef Mark Peel’s Tar Pit, which Leah suggested after seeing it on “Top Chef: Just Desserts.” The venue’s dark décor, sleek style and plush seating created a sophisticated ambience. The cocktail menu is divided into sub-sections like “More Tart Than Sweet” and “Crushed” (all cocktails are $12). From the former, I ordered the Twist on a Twist, made with Jamaican rum, Amaro CioCiaro, Luxardo Sangue Morlacco cherry liqueur, lime and bitters—which I’m guessing is a Italian take on the classic Daiquiri. From the latter, I opted for the refreshing Juniper Flats, comprising gin, Averna Amaro, guava, lime and Mexican cinnamon.

Barbara got the East Indies Fix, also from the “Crushed” category. The lush cocktail mixes Batavia arrack—a rum-like Indonesian spirit distilled from sugar cane—with maraschino liqueur, pineapple, lime, mint and Angostura bitters.

In addition to drinks, we shared a variety of small plates and desserts, including Pickled Deviled Eggs, Duck Confit Sliders, four-cheese Macaroni & Cheese and Guinness ice cream with fig compote. But the revelation—and probably the best thing I ate in L.A.—was the Fricassee of Gnocchi & Escargots, a delicate dish lightly doused in a garlic-parsley tomato sauce.

The following night, we ate at Lucques, an eclectic restaurant from James Beard award-winning chef Suzanne Goin. We sat outside in the lovely, vine-covered patio area and enjoyed a decadent dinner, accompanied by wine, beer and drinks. I tried the two seasonal cocktails ($14), beginning with the Almond Grove, a milky blend of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Grand Marnier, tangerine, blood orange and house-made orgeat syrup, resulting in a tasty tropical concoction.

Next I chose the spicy and tart Brazilian Sunset, mixing aged cachaça, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, kumquat, lemon and jalapeño. Beer-lover Dave ordered a flight of the three brews that Lucques offers on draft, which changes regularly. During our visit, the selection included two special brews from Craftsman Brewing Co. in Pasadena, California—Poppy Fields and 1903, a minty pre-Prohibition-style lager made with corn—as well as an amber ale called Red Seal from North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, California.

For food, I ordered the flavorful Fried Squid Salad with sweet peppers, red curry vinaigrette, cilantro and Thai basil and the savory Slow-Roasted Lamb Sirloin with parsnip purée and balsamic-glazed Brussels sprouts. Needless to say, it was a deliciously satisfying meal.

After dinner, we headed downtown to Las Perlas Mezcal y Cerveza, a bar specializing in the Mexican agave-based distilled spirit and beer. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, with a Caribbean vibe and a DJ playing old-school tunes like Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step I Take.” An impromptu break dance battle even broke out near closing time. “Las Perlas” means “the rabbits,” so of course I opted for the signature 400 Rabbits cocktail ($12), comprising mezcal, muddled blackberries, Port wine syrup, egg white, agave nectar, lime juice and a float of Pinot Noir, topped with Angostura bitters and edible flowers. The rich and vibrant drink is served with a bubble tea straw to suck up all the fruit and ice.

General manager Raul Yrastorza recommended I try the Pablano Escobar ($12)—a play on the name of Columbia drug lord Pablo Escobar—made with mezcal, Royal Combier liqueur, Poblano pepper, pineapple, cumin, lime and agave nectar. The tart and tangy cocktail featured a healthy kick of heat, providing a perfect nightcap for an extravagant evening.

© Amber Drea and New York Drinkie, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of images and text without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts may be used, provided that clear credit is given to Amber Drea and New York Drinkie with links directing to the original content.