Why Connoisseur Is A French Word

I was treated to lunch by two fine, upstanding gentlemen from France (no, that’s not an oxymoron), and we tasted through a couple of great Cognac cocktails from Michael Mina and then four of their fine brandies1, but the highlight of their selection was a pair of vintage cognacs about to come to market in the US.

Camus (rhymes with Shamoo, not Seamus) 1971 and 1989 vintage Cognacs were really fascinating, and totally out of my price range ($590 and $280 respectively).  These rare and exceptional distillates really are something to write home about, and to be honest, I liked the ’89 better than the ’71 (call me a cheap date). I wish I had the cognac vocabulary to express the joy they brought to my mouth, but these bottles really are something special.

An interesting tip I picked up at lunch: the quality of Cognac levels off after about fifty years, and generally starts to decline not too long after that.  It’s not a hard and fast rule, but if someone is showing off an 80-year old bottle, they probably don’t really know Cognac.


1 Cognac vs. Brandy

  • Brandy is any spirit made by distilling wine. This category includes a number of grape brandies like Cognac, pisco, and Armagnac, fruit brandies like applejack, German schnapps and eau de vie, and then there are pomace brandies that are made from the fermented crap left behind from wine making, like skin, seeds and stems.
  • Cognac is brandy that must be made in the Cognac region of France, made only from certain grapes (primarily Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard), distilled twice in a copper pot still and aged at least 2 years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais.



History of Craft Cocktails

My latest article for DrinkMe Magazine just rolled off the presses, but if you can’t pick up a copy, here’s the piece I wrote, accompanied by some great photos by my dear friend Liza.

Click the image to link to the article on the DrinkMe site, or read it less prettily formatted below.



While we may assume that the fancy infusions and quirky conglomerations on offer in craft cocktail bars are something new, it’s a tradition that goes back as far as formal fermentation. Even in the Iliad, Homer wrote of epic heroes drinking wine mixed with goat cheese and ground barley, which might make a Long Island Iced Tea not seem so bad.

The current craze for carefully-constructed cocktails with fresh and exotic ingredients has its roots in a number of historical trends, so don’t be alarmed if a man wearing arm garters offers to make you a drink involving eight ingredients that takes six minutes to prepare; it’s all been done before.

Nearing the end of the Middle Ages, the technology for distilling wine and beer into stronger spirits was carried around the world by explorers, and mixological innovation grew exponentially to combat the fierce assault of raw spirits on the palates of peoples unaccustomed to the burn. Despite commonly-held assumptions, cocktail lovers owe far more to those foul-mouthed sailors than to any mustachioed, vest-clad dandy saloon keeper. It began with their discovering the effects of barrel-aging while transporting booze on ships, where time in oak would calm the fiery spirits and impart vanillin, oils and other flavorings.

The mariners’ importance extended through the early-1600s with what some argue to be the greatest drinking innovation since the advent of distillation: the creation of punch. The salty seamen of the East India Trading Company prepared punches by combining their strong brandy with citrus (to combat the effects of scurvy), sugar and spices being transporting in the ship’s hold, and water that may not have been safely potable without the sterilizing effects of alcohol. It was a highly efficient and delicious system for fighting back the cold, while keeping one’s teeth from falling out and [insert disentary joke here, something about the poop deck].

British colonialism offered more punchy wisdom, like the rhyming recipe for Barbadian Rum Punch “One of Sour,Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak,” in this case meaning one part lime juice, two parts sugar, three parts rum, and four parts water. Garnished with fresh-ground nutmeg, that recipe holds up well even today, if the water is frozen and you add a dash or two of bitters.

In fact, it was the bitters that differentiated the cocktail from all previous punches and myriad mixed drinks, and which distinguished it as a uniquely American invention. Created by steeping medicinal herbs in alcohol to extract and preserve their healing properties in an easily-administered liquid, bitters were first sold for their purported curative value, but the patient’s resulting robustness probably had naught to do with anything vegetal in the mix.

Prior to the 19th century, drinks had not evolved very far beyond the original punch recipes, but once the Revolutionary War was resolved (we won!), and daily life started to settle down, great things started happening on the American cocktail scene. The first cocktails were hangover cures, blending those healthsome bitters with a little hair of the dog and a spoonful of sugar, but eventually cocktails made the transition from morning medicine to evening indulgence. One of the most renowned instances of this development occurred in New Orleans around 1850, when Aaron Bird, seeing the long lines for an elixir being made made by his local pharmacist, Antoine Peychaud, opened the Sazerac Bar and began using Peychaud’s Bitters in his signature cocktail.

1862 saw the publication of the first cocktail manual, The Bon Vivant’s Companion by “Professor” Jerry Thomas, which provided recipes for hundreds of drinks and detailed a number of innovations in the American cocktail craft, like stirring and straining, using gomme syrup, and fancy garnishes on many drinks, even specifying “berries in season” to “dress the top” of many of his punch recipes.

Americans continued in unfettered creativity with spirituous beverages up until the darkest years in American history (1920-1933). Prohibition forced most every skilled bartender who had not taken up another profession to expatriate to Europe and ply his trade. Even with the repeal of the Volstead Act, most never returned. The prevailing tastes devolved over more than a decade of contraband hooch as new cocktails were designed to hide the flavors of bathtub gin, and whiskey was rare because it required years of barrel aging, raising the likelihood of being busted.

The post-prohibition palate still wanted the strong, simple drinks to which it was accustomed, but after World War II, veterans who had been stationed in the South Pacific brought back a love of Polynesian drinks and launched a craze that consumed American pop culture through the end of the 1950s.  Tiki featured fresh produce and culinary fusion in innovative drink design, which all factor heavily in the craft cocktail resurgence we are seeing now, but unfortunately, not much of value happened in between.

In the 1960s, vodka went from zero-to-sixty faster than an Aston Martin, thanks largely to the James Bond films; everything was served on the rocks in the seventies; and sweet, simple shots dominated the eighties. At some point in the nineties we began to renounce the sins of our fathers, and as the new millennium dawned, a generation of drinkers discovered classic cocktails.

Many contemporary cocktailians pay homage to Dale DeGroff, who was among the first to develop what he calls the “gourmet approach to recreating the great classic cocktails.” Around the same time, the seeds of California Cuisine blossomed into the New American culinary approach, with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, and experimentation that stemmed from a reverence for classical French technique, pioneered by chefs like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.

This trend has been mirrored in the contemporary craft cocktail craze, rejecting sour mix for fresh-squeezed citrus, and jars of maraschinos have been tossed out in favor of fresh cherries marinated in brandy behind the bar. As often as possible, ingredients are made in-house and some purists won’t even serve a Cosmo because they refuse to carry bottled juice. Bar-tops are dominated by bowls of fresh fruits and herbs, hand-labeled apothecary bottles, and towering pillar juicers; cocktail menus change weekly or daily to make the most of what is available at the farmers market. Higher regard is being paid to all ingredients, and great debates rage over the optimal techniques and ingredients for individual drinks.

This trend can be traced most directly to bars in coastal American cities like New York and San Francisco but there are also distinct influences from Europe, where the development of cocktails was never interrupted by Prohibition. It is of little surprise that most every new concoction is a twist on a classic and its roots can likely be followed back to the Savoy Cocktail Book, printed in London in 1930, written by Harry Craddock, an American expat bartender.

The more specific developments, however, are harder to track. Contemporary trends no longer follow the distinctly linear paths they once did, and the driving forces in the beverage industry have become decentralized and multi-directional. With the rise of a DIY ethic in the arts and the ease of online information sharing, the necessary knowledge has been disseminated for modern mixologists to home-brew sodas and tinctures, infuse their own liqueurs , pickle garnishes, and even barrel-age a batch of Negronis, and no such gimmick has gone unexplored.

Just as culinary progress has spawned the recent molecular gastronomy movement, there have been parallels in the cocktail world. Molecular mixology brings science behind the bar to transmogrify traditional ingredients into jarring sensory experiences, such as drinks topped with Campari foam shot from a whipped cream canister, crystallized Chartreuse scattered as a garnish, grenadine suspended as a gellified sphere, or whole drinks being frozen with liquid nitrogen.

The story of the well-crafted cocktail embodies everything we honor about the American spirit, and its resurgence unsurprisingly hearkens back to simpler times.The historical influences of the movement are evident now, with a number of new bars designed in the fashion of saloons and speakeasies, with both punch and Tiki trending again, and as many top bartenders openly model their recipes (not to mention their facial hair) on the nineteenth century styles of the early mixologists.

Frickin Laser Beams

I needed new business cards for Tales of the Cocktail this year, and realizing that it was an opportunity to be remembered and redirect a boring conversation, I made these beauties on an Epilogue Laser, modeled after an old-school model airplane kit.

It’s a first draft, more than final product, and I learned a few things while I was in New Orleans.  Everyone who got one was impressed, but everyone I saw two days later who put it in a pocket instead of a card case, said it went to pieces, BUT everyone remembered me, and several people wanted to commission a set of their own.

BarSmarts Wired Is Free!

I’ve mentioned BarSmarts, but didn’t go into detail, however I have completed the course and found it enlightening.

BarSmarts Wired is an online cocktail and spirits education program created by some of the biggest names in the business, and it is incredibly thorough, with superb content, expert-led videos, tests and a printable pdf manual that I still refer back to regularly. At the end of the program you can earn BarSmarts certification that shows you know your booze.

For the summer (through September 30, 2011), the BarSmarts Wired program is FREE, if you use the promo code summer2011.

I would say to tell them Quinn sent you, but it’s just a standard online registration form.

The Cheery Herring

I had forgotten all about this recipe, which I posted on nermo.com before I wrote (or knew) much about cocktails, until I got an email today from a gal at Al Gore’s office asking if he could use my red herring Illustration in some of his presentations on the environment.

Permission granted and recipe reposted.



Cocktail Recipe: The Cheery Herring

May 9, 2009

The featured ingredient in this cocktail is Cherry Heering, hence the name.  Heering is a smooth and not-too-sweet liqueur; the original cherry brandy as developed by Dane Peter Heering in 1818.

I was just going to call it Happy Fish, but I wasn’t sure that would be enough info to get the joke, so now I am over-explaining it.  Meh, I can’t win.

  • 1 ounce bourbon
  • 1/2 ounce Cherry Heering
  • 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1 ounce grapefruit juice

Shake with ice and serve up, garnished with a Swedish Fish

Note: Swedish fish candies are made to resemble herring and a red herring (like this one I drew) refers to irrelevant information given to distract someone from the main issue, rooted in an old superstition that when travelling, one could keep predators off one’s trail by dragging a red herring back and forth across the path.

Aromatic Garnish

Last week I attended a tasting for Bloom Gin, a floral London Dry from the world’s only female master gin distiller (update: or so they claim. See Chad’s comment below), which is about to launch in the US.  Among a flight of  cocktails, there was something simple yet remarkable.

The Bloom G+T was garnished with half a fresh, ripe strawberry that totally changed the experience of drinking gin and tonic. It’s not something I order very often any more, but I expected it to taste like any other, and it probably would have, but for the interplay of rich strawberry fragrance with the crisp juniper, citrus and quinine flavors, making for a completely unique experience.

Like the strawberry, you can use an aromatic garnish to make a decent drink into an extraordinary experience. The scent of your garnish could complement or contrast with the flavors of the cocktail, crafting very different sensory adventures, so just play around with the possibilities until you find something that excites you. Some options include citrus zest squeezed to release its oils; a dash of bitters or a spray of absinthe from an atomizer atop a foamy cocktail; green herbs like mint or basil, clapped between your hands to extract the oils; edible flowers; and fresh cut fruits like apples, pears or berries.



A Proper Cocktail Menu

One of the most impressive seminars I attended at Tales of the Cocktail was this year’s industry-focused presentation on designing your bar’s menu. It’s a topic which fascinates me, and yet serves no practical purpose in my life…for now. Hopefully I will open up my own little cocktail bar one of these days.

If nothing else, it’s advice that the home bartender can apply to designing the menu for an epic cocktail party.

Angus Winchester and Sean Finter presented really thoughtful and practical advice, based on their decades of combined industry experience:

  • –Assess the talents of your team and reverse engineer them into a cocktail list.
  • –Produce a menu that is interesting enough to corrupt an honest customer into stealing it.
  • –A fancy (expensive to produce) menu may impress, but you can print more of a cheaper menu, which enables you to give more away.
  • –When naming your cocktails, don’t use names people won’t remember, can’t pronounce, or feel uncomfortable saying (the litmus test is to ask yourself if your grandmother could/would order a drink by that name).
  • –Determine if you want your menu to be visual or verbose (consider your audience).
  • –Everything about your menu should be a strategic tool.

The biggest discussion was around the size of the menu.

General consensus was to limit your menu. Angus pointed out that only seven drinks created in the last 25 years have been worthy of “classic” status, so you probably don’t need to have all of your creations on the menu. Having an impressively large menu can ultimately be self-defeating, as customers will likely get overwhelmed and just order a vodka soda.

Sean mentioned that at one of his bars, they started with a menu of  8 great drinks and told the staff they could add a 9th when they provided a full business plan to justify the addition. I think this is the same project where they only carried one type of beer (note to self: when you open that cocktail bar, offer one lighter beer and one dark beer, cans only).

Then there is the Merchant Hotel’s cocktail menu. The most recent third volume runs a full 112 pages.

Properly Pickled: Vinegar in Cocktails

I’ve mentioned using vinegar in cocktails before, and it remains a pretty prevalent trend. Most often you see these cocktails described as containing a shrub, but sometimes the menu will come right out and list vinegar as an ingredient. This may keep the weak-of-heart at bay, but it is a time-honored and chemically sound approach to brightening a libation.

At Tales of the Cocktail this year, an entire 90-minute seminar was dedicated to the use of this soured wine by-product, and although the first cocktail they served us was offensively sour for a Saturday morning, I got over it and got a lot from the discussion. Sorry there aren’t better photos, but it was an hour and a half of PowerPoint.

There are several examples of vinegar drinks in cocktail history far predating the modern mixology trend. Almost 500 years BC, the Greeks were drinking Oxymel, a mix of vinegar, honey and water, which was still being consumed in Rome by Pliny the Elder half a millenium later with a little coriander and a new name, Posca. Even early American settlers were tempering their rum with apple cider vinegar and molasses, and calling it a Switchel.

Essentially, a cocktail without acidity will be flabby, backboneless swill, which is why most drinks include citrus, but lemons and limes can get old after a while (both literally and figuratively), so vinegar is an awesome alternative.

Unlike citric acid in lemon, lime or orange juice, or the malic acid from grapes or apples that might be found in an ingredient like cider, the tartness of Vinegar comes from acetic acid that is also a great appetite suppressant (perhaps to be avoided if you run a restaurant’s bar), and is thought to have a variety of other health benefits.

How to use vinegar in your cocktails:

1. Straight from the bottle (based on molecular weight 1 oz lemon juice can be replaced with â…“ oz vinegar).
2. Create a shrub by macerating fruit in vinegar for a week or two.
3. Cook up a gastrique, like a shrub, but simmered down to a thicker consistency, and generally sweeter .
4. Kombucha is created by the same process as vinegar, from sweet tea instead of fruit, and is available in a variety of flavors.
5. Make a tincture using vinegar in place of alcohol. The solvent power of acetic acid leeches the flavor from herbs and spices quite well. We used a white vinegar fennel tincture and a balsamic cacao tincture in seminar.


The one seminar that really didn’t thrill me at Tales of the Cocktail this year was on swizzling. It was the third Tales seminar by Stanislav Vadrnas that I have attended, so I have learned that his presentations are hit-or-miss.

The first irritation was that he made us wait 20 minutes while he passed around toilet paper, then got all upset and serious when people laughed about him calling it his best friend. I guess it’s one of those temperamental artist things, but I’m not sure that he has earned the right to act that way.

He went on for a while about the daily ritual of “wiping you ass,” and the importance of how we use the tool (toilet paper). His point: on the toilet, we are all the same, none more important than anyone else. The reason he made this point at length: I have no idea.

What I managed to learn about the swizzle stick:

– The  Italian work Sprezzatura means “to hide conscious effort and appear to accomplish difficult actions with casual nonchalance,” and should be at the back of your mind when swizzling for a guest.
–Swizzling serves many purposes (aerating, blending, frosting, cooling, diluting).
–You should practice the technique until you have internalized it.
–The swizzle stick started as a traditional cooking tool in India and Slovakia.
–You can make your own from the branch of a christmas tree (might make a good holiday article).
– Stan believes that it got its name from a combination of the drinks Switchel and Fizz
–The recipe for a 151 Swizzle:

  • 15ml fresh lime juice
  • 15ml petite cane sugar syrup
  • 2 dashes Pernod Pastis
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • 45 ml 151 Demorara rum
  • Garnish with a cinnamon stick abd dust with nutmeg

Intellectual Property On The Bar

It’s an issues that has haunted bartenders for several weeks if not centuries: no matter how much innovation you put into crafting an amazing new cocktail, you cannot patent, trademark or copyright your recipe.

With that much generally understood at Tales of the Cocktails’ “Intellectual Property 2” semiar, the question became how to protect your great ideas.

1. You can patent a process or an invention used in creating cocktails (note to self: patent “shotgun beer can” design). Patents are only granted if your idea is new, useful and not an obvious improvement. You will also need a good lawyer, $5000-20000 and 2-4 years.

2. Trademarks can be had for a name, logo, or phrase, functioning as an identifier of source of product or service (so I will not be inviting you to my new SF tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cave) to prevent consumer confusion and maintain control quality. There is another related term, the penumbra of protection meaning that you can have an umbrella of related products, images, sounds and meanings under one trademark.

3. Copyright happens by default upon creation when you write, draw, photograph, etc., but to claim damages, you must register your creation. It costs $35 but you can do it yourself.

Note: when a work is made for hire (ie. when I photograph a corporate event as a freelancer on contract), copyright goes to the creator (me), unless the creator is an actual employee, in which case, it goes to the employer.

So, back to that amazing cocktail recipe that you created and want to be available only at your bar… well, there is still nothing you can do to prevent people from taking your recipe, other than keeping it a secret. In fact, the team leading the IP seminar recommended that bar owners have nondisclosure agreements, and not show employees their trade secrets.

On the other hand, a number of great cocktail recipes – like the original formula for pisco punch – have been lost this way, with only the owner knowing the exact recipe and mis-labeling or pre-mixing ingredients while locked in the back room, and really if your recipe is that amazing, won’t the world be a better place if you just share it freely?