Thursday, August 3, 2017

:: we the people -- cocktails in the colonies ::

On Saturday morning, I had set wake-up alarms in triplicate for I was presenting that morning along with moderator Brian Maxwell (bartender Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co) and fellow panelists Wayne Curtis (author of And a Bottle of Rum etc.) and Warren Bobrow (author of Bitters and Shrub Syrup Cocktails etc.). Brian started things off by declaring that this was not a punch seminar: it was about individual serving-sized drinks in the American Colonies.

Wayne began by describing how rum dominated American drinking from the 1600s until about the Revolution in the late 1700s (with beer and cider also playing a role with some imported wine and Madeira as well). A year after Columbus discovered the New World for the Europeans in 1492, he brought back sugar cane plants to the West Indies from the Canary Islands. As luxury items like coffee, tea, and chocolate began to take off in the mid-1600s, these bitter foodstuffs required sugar to make them more palatable. The cooked down, caramelized molasses that was a byproduct of sugar production was of little use for a while until plantation owners learned the value of mixing it with a little water to allow it to ferment. Soon, sugar plantations could cover their costs on just the rum and molasses and the sugar was just profit. Wayne pointed out that it was not just the Thirteen Colonies, but 26 colonies under England rule if you included the islands. The northern colonies supplied the food and lumber while the islands traded back rum and molasses.

Wayne described historical accounts such as Israel Acrelius' where brandies such as apricot and peach were made domestically whereas grape brandy was imported. The Flip of rum, sweetener, and a hearty beer heated with a red-hot piece of iron had a good run until around the 1780s. The caramelization of the sugar and the toasting of the grains added a heavenly flavor that Wayne was not allowed to demonstrate this year (the fire marshal probably caught on since I saw Wayne demonstrate it at Tales of the Cocktail 2011). The egg was most likely not in this hot Flip for the result would end up chunky akin to egg drop soup. The evolution into a cold drink with eggs most likely happened in the 19th century.

Warren took over with a description of how water was a major source of food poisoning. We take for granted that our water is pure today, but in the Colonies, water had to be boiled or mixed with alcohol to cleanse it. Vinegar was also used extensively along with bitters to heal the stomach. That vinegar ended up in acidulated beverages called Shrubs that were a method of fruit preservation.

Next, Brian discussed how the pineapple became the symbol of hospitality in the Colonies as it was hung to signify that someone was back from a voyage. While the Tea Stamp Act got most of the attention in the history books for leading to the Revolution, it was the 1764 Molasses Act that showed the first signs of rebellion. It also shaped how the country drank for when sugar, molasses, and rum became taxed, the country focused more on making our own alcohol with grain.

I rounded out the talk to discuss how the concepts and drink recipes that the other panelists mentioned could be brought into effect in a modern bar given my experiences as head bartender at Loyal Nine, a Colonial-inspired and East Coast revival theme in Cambridge, MA. Here are excerpts from my notes with links to the drinks (instead of putting up a slide deck). Since I was given a lot more time to fill than expected, I ended up providing a lot more detail, extra pointers, and side anecdotes:

"I first met our chef, Marc Sheehan, back in 2012 through one of my bartender friends who partnered with him to do a historically themed pop-up dinner series called Brass Tacks. Marc was cooking at one of the better restaurants in town but he wanted to utilize the love of history that he went to college for. When I saw an ad for a bartender in January 2015 for Marc's own brick and mortar restaurant, I applied since I wanted to work with his energy and respect for history and it was time to move on from the bar I was working at. The restaurant is named after the Loyal Nine who along with the Sons of Liberty spawned from the Boston Caucus Club. The Caucus Club was a tavern society formed to discuss issues of how England was financially and socially constricting freedom in the Colonies. While the Sons of Liberty were the politicians who fomented the Revolution, the Loyal Nine were a secret society of tradesmen and craftsman that included printers, distiller, jeweler, metal workers who opposed the Stamp Tax. They all worked with their hands and were trying to institute a change – not unlike what we are trying to do at our restaurant.

We at Loyal Nine focus on the 3 main spirits that were drank around that time: brandy from the Old World, rum from the New World, and Madeira which was a tax loophole. Madeira was a trade loophole for British law forbade colonists from importing goods directly from Europe – they had to pass through England and pay taxes and shipping costs; however, Madeira is an island off the coast of Africa and it was exempt. It is also fortified and also very shelf stable with Madeiras being fine two hundred years later. Madeira was what was drank at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We do have other spirits but with less depth such as only having one blanco tequila and one mezcal especially in deference to one of the finest agave bars in the city, Lone Star Taco bar, being across the street.

There are three ways that we approach Colonial drinks and older styles of drinking
a) recreate the classics as close as possible
b) reconsider the old & updating them with modern flavors
c) rethink the modern to bring an aspect of it back a few centuries

Recreate the classics as close as possible:
Switchels have some similarity to shrubs in that there is a vinegar component to make it refreshing, but it is a mix of the vinegar, ginger, sweetener, and water; often, that sweetener was molasses but honey, maple, and various sugars have been utilized. The drink's origins began in the Caribbean, but it traveled up to New England where it took hold in the late 17th century. It was also dubbed the Haymaker's Punch for it was very popular with New England farmers especially on hot days. I worked with my chef to see what housemade ingredients he had that I could play with that included a fermented molasses that we use on our ribs and Russet apple cider vinegar that he had made from last year's harvest. I also used the house fermented ginger beer that one of the owners makes as the ginger element. To make it boozy, I opted for rum as a base which was temporally accurate if there was any mixing done back then. As an off menu item, half the servers described it as a Switchel and half as a Haymaker's Punch, with the latter being a better seller. It would not be the last time that name choice was key. At the bar, I connected with guests by describing the drink as a “Colonial Dark & Stormy” – an old combination that matches modern sensibilities.

For Winter one year, I made a Hot Buttered Rum batter that utilized the regular spices of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and clove. I also worked with the kitchen to match the food by including in Piccalilli spices which were a British condiment spice blend based on Indian spices that made its way over to the American Colonies. It was an easy sell to offer this with the dish or dishes that utilized Piccalilli spices with guests commenting on the beautiful pairing. Also very easy to sell when the temperature drops to the single digits. At our Holiday party, I made this for our chef Marc with his favorite liqueur Malört as a joke – except he really loved it. We put it on the menu below the rum option as “…or drink like chef with Malört” and it sold very well. People love to drink like the bartender or the chef. Which leads me to the next concept...

Reconsider the old with modern flavors:
When I did the Black Stripe that appears in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 cocktail book, I opted for the hot version of rum, molasses, and water. Obviously a very old and basic combination. Here, I subbed out half of the rum for Malört – a wormwood based herbal liqueur. Despite the cold weather, when it was called a “Black Stripe,” no one bought one. The following day, I pitched it to the servers and the bar guests as a “Toddy” and it sold rather well. Adding the herbal liqueur added some pizzazz as well as modernized it.

As a tribute to the predecessor of the Loyal Nine, I created a Rum Flip to honor the Caucus Club. While keeping Colonial flavors like honey and Madeira, I also added some modern ones like Amaro – here, Averna. Another Flip was based off of Jacob Grier’s sherry-based PX Flip that utilized a whopping amount of Angostura Bitters. Using extreme amounts of bitters is definitely a modern trend that can be a selling point to certain guests where a Madeira Flip alone would not be as convincing to them.

Rethink the modern to bring an aspect of it back a few centuries:
One of the only drinks that predated the restaurant’s hiring of the bar staff was the Dirty Martini. I remember at my job interview, one of the owners told me that there would be a Dirty Martini on the menu. I replied that if there was a way to elevate this drink, that would be awesome, otherwise we shouldn’t waste space on the menu. I wasn’t told how it would work, but I had faith. The Dirty Martini here ties in with our kitchen by using sauerkraut brine (as well as sauerkraut salt and pickled vegetable garnishes). Lactic pickling is Colonial and similar to shrubs but is often more done with vegetables than fruit. It also utilized a byproduct of our kitchen. When we opened, we did not have olives in house for they were not very New England. However, guests expected them and servers made emotional pleas to make their current and future guests happy. Eventually, we had to bring on olives and olive brine and make sure that the guest wanted the Dirty Martini on the menu. Unlike the kitchen, the bar is expected to be more general and for everyone’s taste sensibilities.

Another modern drink style that could be merged with the exploration of the Americas during the Colonial times is Tiki. Rum and citrus were very Colonial. So were tea, tamarind, guava jelly, Madeira, brandy, and other ingredients that work well with the Tiki style and the Colonial theme. Here, I riffed on Hell in the Pacific subbing out the 151 rum and swapping it for Madeira and adding some spice element to make Hell in the Atlantic. We also utilize Colonial Tiki mugs (bird-shaped planters) instead of exotic ones.

Points to consider:
• Just offering the drink verbally or on the menu is not enough.
• Think about the name and consider renaming it to something more modern or approachable.
• Sell it with enthusiasm.
• Use more modern ingredients, flavors, and styles to gain the guest's trust.
• Figure out how to compare the old to modern drinks.
• Utilize the moment of bartender's choice or gifting “thank you juice”
• Use flavor and spice combinations that pair well with dishes and desserts and sell it that way as a pairing. Work with the kitchen to generate this synergy.
• While you can design your food and drink program any way you wish, the bar is still believed to be more general purpose. My chef would not put a burger on the menu (he did put a sandwich on the bar menu) for example, but Cosmos, cold glasses of vodka, and olive-laden Dirty Martinis still are requested and made.
• It is surprising how many people declare that they are “foodies,” and then a beat or two later say that they only drink vodka.
• Our menu has diversity from modern to Colonial and hybrids in between to make things approachable. Also, life would not be as livable without a Negroni, so we definitely offer a variation on the menu as well as make the original."

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