For over two years I worked as bartender at a small town whisk(e)y bar, pouring pours, slinging bevy, shaking cocktails, eavesdropping on sordid affairs, and offering unqualified therapy advice. For the most part, I really enjoyed it. The place, the one and only Amherst Coffee, provided me with an exceptional education in whisk(e)y, old world wines, mixology, and beers. I feel confident in saying that I can make a Manhattan that will leave you wondering why you haven’t been buying drinks from me for years. One of my favorite creations, the Goldie Hawn (featuring a Spanish anchovy as the garnish) met with (almost) universal praise. During down time I would chat with my regulars and concoct various drinks to suit their tastes. When it got busy, I had no trouble hauling ass back and forth, always trying to ensure that my bevys were better than any other in town.
I assumed that when I moved to New York City my well rounded education and experience would make me a prime candidate for any bartending position. I found out, very quickly, that is not the case. In a city that is often considered the cultural center of America, where image and money are often the driving factors, there is an unfortunate absence of quality in the bevy world. That is not to say that this city doesn’t offer some of the worlds finest. It’s just not always as good as you would expect it to be. Hell, sometimes it’s downright shameful what places offer for what they charge.
The standard practice for hiring bartenders in the city seems to be that the applicant will come in and tend for 3-4 hours as the management observes. Bully! In my experience, one of the key elements in the art of bartending has to do with knowing where your ingredients are so you can actually engage in the social element of bartending, instead of swearing under your breath every 5 minutes because you grabbed the wrong bottle. Add to the fact that most bars are dark, labels are illegible, and New Yorkers are thirsty, and you have a recipe for disaster. Knowing where your well liquors are is no trouble. Discerning different wine labels, written conveniently in obnoxious cursive in another language, is just about impossible.
My first experience was in SoHo at a tobacco bar. They gave me a 5 minute run down of the POS (glowing computer register thingy), showed me where everything was, and let me loose. I had spent the past few days studying their drink menu so as to be prepared. Didn’t help to say the least. Considering that the average cocktail price was around $15, I assumed (incorrectly) that they would make an effort to give a shit about what they served. I asked a lot of questions. Too many apparently. “Do you shake or stir your martinis? Do you go heavy on the sweet vermouth in your Manhattans? How big are your wine pours? 6oz? 8oz?” I didn’t really receive any answers so after about 2 hours I just started doing what I do.
About an hour later they told me I could go home and that they would be in touch. I called several times over the next couple days before someone finally picked up.
“Sorry, but we are looking for a “star bartender.” Yup. Those were his exact words. So I asked what I did wrong. “You seem like a nice guy and you seem to know what you’re doing, but… you’re just too slow and you ask too many questions.”
Oh I’m sorry, I just thought you might want me to do things the way you want me to do them. I’m not Tom Cruise and this is not the 80’s.
If you expect me to flip a flaming bottle of Stoli Razz in the air while pouring shots, flirting, you can just sit on it. I make drinks, and as much as people go to a bar for atmosphere, company, to forget something, they are also willing to part with $15 for a cocktail. If all they wanted was to get fucked up, I recommend the shot-and-a-beer program, which is cheap and only moderately offensive to the palate. When ordering a cocktail, you want it to be great. Or at the very least good. When no one cares what’s going into it, you’re bound to get screwed more often than not.
My other experience was at an Italian restaurant in the West Village. The Italian guy (a real deal Italian, as in made in Italy) that was training me was clapping the mint he put in his mojitos instead of muddling it with the drink. Wanker. He then served a Manhattan with no bitters. I couldn’t hold my tongue.
“No bitters?” I asked.
“Nope. We don’t have any.”
If you can’t already tell, I love Manhattans and get pissy like a fat kid at Whole Foods when they get abused. Once again, at $15, it should be good. At $15, it should have what it’s supposed to. I couldn’t take it. It suddenly dawned on me that a large portion of the supposedly informed citizens of this great city have no idea what quality as far as bevy is concerned. Also, it seems almost everyone loves Peroni, which is some schwilly Italian beer. Just because it’s Italy’s version of PBR doesn’t make it any good. Worldly hipsters eh? Even worse.
Everything in this city is driven by volume. To an extent, I can understand that. The monthly rent at some of these spots is probably more than I make in a year. But c’mon people. Try, for just a minute, to give a shit what you’re serving.
The city that never sleeps.
I’m currently in the process of moving to New York City, and part of me thinks no one who lives in New York calls it the big apple. But for now I don’t live in the city, and am therefor a tourist by default and free to represent every obnoxious stereotype. Last week while scouting for housing and employment I tried to hit as many cafe’s as possible. That being said, I tried to skip out on the places that were heavy on the “scene” and were more focused on the quality of their offerings. I was in search of great coffee, and to be sure there is plenty to be had in New York.
Blue Bottle Coffee (Williamsburg)
On the Blue Bottle Coffee website they explain that the name Blue Bottle comes from central Europe’s first coffee house. Not sure that matters if the coffees no good. Lucky for them, it’s grand. They go on to explain that their founder opened Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland as a response to schwilly 16 oz. pumpkin spiced hazelnut macchiatos, Starbuck, three pumps of vanilla, and the like. It’s important to note that their is no such thing as a 16 oz. macchiato. The word macchiato is Italian and it means, more or less, marked. Tainted. Maybe stained. But in this case, it only means marked with milk, not drowned in it. It’a ratio thing, and if you’ve got 16 oz. and it’s only “marked” with milk, you’re drinking an obscene amount of espresso which will probably induce severe vomiting. Just saying.
Where Blue Bottle excels is in it’s adventurous methods of coffee preparation. The space looks half like a coffee bar and half like a science lab, with tubes and beakers and all other manner of confusing equipment that makes me think they’re processing Columbian cocaine, not coffee.
I got a pour over (a method of extraction whose sole purpose is made-to-order drip coffee) of the blend named “Three Africans,” comprised of a Ugandan Mt. Elgon, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Sidama. I tend to enjoy African single-origin coffees, and this did not disappoint. Tasting notes? Nah, just get a cup. Black is beautiful. It was simply tasty. Afterwards, I had to try the espresso. As a barista for a few years, pounding triple ristretto, double shots, and small cups of drip all day every day, I thought I was prepared. The counter person looked at me like I was trying to drink enough coffee to ensure an embarrassing moment on the metro whereby the extra bevy causes extreme loss of bowel control. Anyone who’s had too much coffee (and smokes) knows exactly what I’m talking about. Also anyone who’s ever had to clean a cafe bathroom also knows the potential for disaster where coffee is concerned. Within an hour I was grossly dehydrated and twitching more than I’m comfortable with. My fault, I know.
I liked the fact that there was limited seating real estate. A few laptops littered the place, but otherwise the focus seemed to be on coffee. No plush couches, no visible power outlets, no camping. There’s nothing more frustrating than going to your favorite cafe to meet a friend and talk for a little while and finding that every seat is taken, where everyone in the place has spread out their weeks work and set up shop for what appears to be an indefinite amount of time. Blue Bottle is a place for lovers of coffee. Best try some.
RBC Coffee (TriBeCa)
I wanted to like this place, and I did. Sort of. The coffee was good, but not great. The space was small, but not without charm. I settled for a cup of drip, and it had hints of flavor, but ultimately fell flat. I can’t even remember what it was, though they post all of their coffee origins and the roasters on the wall.
Ultimately, it seemed a decent place to meet and have a decent cup, though if you’re in the city looking for a game-changer, and cup that’ll make you say “HOT DAMN THAT’S GOOD!” look elsewhere. That is all.
Kaffe 1668 (TriBeCa)
This spot was actually a nice synthesis of slick, cushy cafe vibe and boutique coffee bar. They also work with a three-group Synesso, which is the only espresso machine I have ever used, so I was intrigued. I settled on a single origin espresso, an Ethiopian I think (notice a trend here?) and was highly impressed. The barista was down to talk a little shop, which is always a plus when I’m looking for something tasty. He told me “it’s pretty mellow, with some nice floral notes without being a fruit bomb.” And he was right. I’m always flattered when a barista pulls me a shot, looks suspiciously at the demitas, gives it a quick sniff, dumps it out, redials the grinder settings, and makes another go at it. That tells me that the barista is intent on ensuring that each shot makes the grade. Now, maybe when he’s hauling drink after drink, he doesn’t have the time to really perfect each shot, which is fine. Especially where single-origin espresso is concerned, it can be a fickle process to get it just right. It’s why most espresso uses a blend, to create balance in not only taste, but in preparation. I know I’ve had to dump multiple shots trying to dial in my grinders when working with single-origin espresso.
The space was rather unique in that they had traditional cafe seating upstairs, though it was more of a bustling cafe than a writers haven from unpaid heating bills. Downstairs there was more seating, a couch and a couple tables, and it was clearly for the laptop workhorse types who like to lounge and work on their blogs that will hopefully get them some low-paying paying staff job at some equally unheard of internet publication… They also had tons of cheeky artwork, all referencing the cafe. Bordering on kitsch, it was kind of charming.
Considering it’s New York, I imagine I could cover three cafes a week and never catch up. But for my first foray into city coffee, I was delighted to find that I didn’t have to try to hard to find such fantastic bean based bevy’s. Got a favorite spot? Spill the beans!
I might as well be sitting in a furnace. It’s that hot. Heat like this reminds us all to take it a little slower, to ease into everything, lest we overexert, dehydrate, vomit, and pass out. Maybe even die a sweaty, unflattering mess. It happens every summer, you know it’s true. Some elderly man, left to his own 87 years of devices, passes out during one of his seven daily old person siestas, and never wakes up. Still, it’s a cautionary tale we should never forget. Drink water or you’ll die. Respect the heat, or you’ll die. Especially when it’s so hot that the glare on the blacktop burns out your eyes. Seek shelter.
Much like all things hot and heavy, cask strength (or barrel-proofed or whatever) whiskies are meant to be respected. Let your attention wander too far, drink one too many, and suddenly your’e telling your father-in-law about the night you met his daughter on a trampoline at a kegger in the woods. Drink too quickly, and most likely you’ll burn your face and your taste buds right off the map. There can be elegance in something that is made up of 64% alcohol. You just have to know how to tame it, make it sit, and make it stay.
My first experience was with a George T. Stagg. I can’t recall exactly how high the alcohol content is, but I think it might be somewhere around 70% ABV. I took a slug, maybe an ounce or so, thinking myself seasoned in the ways of drankin’ whiskey. I choked a bit, started sweating, and made like nothing was wrong, though I was convinced I was in over my head.
For a long time I was wary of such bottles. I’d see cask strength written on a bottle and brush it off as gimicky, suggesting that such high alcohol was meant to attract gourmet thrill seekers, and little else. In my mind, you had to fight through the alcohol, only to get to pedestrian whiskey.
I found myself working my back into stronger whiskey with Scotch. Ardbeg makes some serious monsters, and I’m a sucker for big, heavy, salty peat and smoke. So i started working my way back up the alcohol chain. Then I met the Black Adder Raw Cask, 1996 Lochranza. They claim that their filtration serves only to ensure that splinters don’t make their way into your drink. Aside from that, it’s about as raw as it gets, right out of the cask. You can even see bits of the charred oak floating at the bottom. It’s oily and it reeks, like a sweaty summer day. I mean that as a compliment. When I took a single drop of water to it, it blossomed. All of that aggression sat down and opened up into a burst of deliciousness. It had flowers, and light citrus, and peat, and smoke, and much, much more.
Fast forward to the present, and I’m sipping on Bookers Cask Strength in 97 degrees, humidity somewhere around 10,000%, with a proof around 107. One misstep and I could be done for, spending the next few sweaty and delirious hours regretting my foolish choice to down the Bookers like a heavy handed shot. It takes a little restraint and recklessness to truly enjoy a booze beast such as Bookers in weather like this. Tips for drinking cask strength when maybe it’s not a great idea.
1) Get your nose in there. Not too deep, being that the ever-so prominent element of ethanol might burn your nose hairs, interest, or confidence.
2) Drink a spash, just a tad. Really, just barely a couple drops. Swirl it around, get a feel for what it tastes like beyond the booziness. Now wait, because you’ll probably taste it for another five minutes in your stomach, in your esophagus, on the back of your tongue, and probably on the roof of your mouth. If done correctly, all of the flavors will present themselves in time. You just have to breath it to know it.
3) Add anywhere from 1-3 drops (seriously… drops. it doesn’t take much) to the open it up a bit. Just as wine drinkers will swirl their beverage to encourage breathing, a tad of water will cut out some of the alcohol, and in the case of the Bookers, it really opens up to reveal honey and nice oats, maybe some tobacco and vanilla. At least that’s what I got. It was silky, well rounded, and plain old tasty. It’s certainly beats all the faux top-tier stuff like Makers Mark and Knobb Creek for overall ass kicking taste. Kudos to you Booker Noe (of the famous Jim Beam lineage to be sure.)
4) When you’re almost done, on a day like today (still 90 thousand degrees) it’s probably wise to ensure a bit of hydration. Drop a nice fat ice cube into your drink. Be done with it. Watch that gargantuan whiskey turn to a nice, gentle, kinda boring summer bevy. Aww, how cute, look… a whiskey and water.
Nice try Hemingway.
p.s. I can’t write about cask strength without giving a nod to the William Larue Weller. It is a second cousin to the Stagg mentioned above, as part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. If you can find it, you buy it. As far as I can tell, it is second-to-none in the category of cask strength whiskey.