There are great bars and there are great cocktails, and there are of course great barmen who provide their guests with great service, beverages and conversation. But once and awhile, a certain bartender will create a certain drink which transcends the typical and becomes more than a drink. It becomes a classic, a destination and an indelible drinking experience which only one bar can call its own. These posts are an attempt to capture these signature drinks and bars in which they can be called, The Usual.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Seelbach Cocktail

The Seelbach Hotel
The resurgence of bar-menus filled with classic cocktails served by well-educated bartenders who have hundreds of books dedicated to the subject from which to learn is only a thing of recent memory. There was a time not too long ago when digging-up a classic recipe meant more physical dedication than simply visiting a website database. In fact, that wasn’t even an option. The unearthing of a lost cocktail took some collegiate-style research, long hours of reading, personal interviews and a great deal of luck. Such is the case with the Seelbach Cocktail, discovered and rebirthed by Adam Seger while employed at the Seelbach hotel in Louisville. However even after its discovery placement back on the menu at the Seelbach’s Rathskeller Bar, Adam kept the recipe a closely guarded secret. After all, this was and would again be the hotel’s namesake and signature drink.

Built in 1905 by two Bavarian brothers, Otto and Louis Seelbach, at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, KY, the Seelbach Hotel was a culmination of thirty years of dreaming and planning. Billed as the city’s only “fireproof hotel,” the brothers spared no expense for this Baroque style hotel; importing bronze from France and hardwood from the West Indies, along with Turkish Rugs and fine Irish linen.

The hotel very quickly gained widespread acclaim and was regarded as one of the grandest hotels in the United States. Among the many notable guests – some of which include FDR, Woodrow Willson, JFK, Al Capone, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley - was F. Scott Fitzgerald who took inspiration from his stay at The Seelbach for his novel the Great Gatsby.

When Seger arrived at the hotel in 1993, he set himself on a path to research the grand hotel’s long history. Along with the aid of an intern, he sifted through large files of menus, notes and documents and eventually uncovered a curious mention of the eponymous Seelbach Cocktail. With little information aside from the name, Seger had to dig pretty deep to truly uncover the history of this drink. His search eventually led him to Max Allen Jr, a third generation bartender.
The Rathskeller Bar at the Seelbach

According to Mr. Allen, his father spoke of the cocktail as the result of an accident and a curious bartender. As the story goes, a couple was visiting the Rathskeller from New Orleans, lets say, in the year 1910. He ordered a Manhattan and she a glass of bubbly. The bartender stirred together a Manhattan in his mixing glass but accidentally used triple sec instead of Italian Vermouth. When he opened the bottle of sparkling, it started to bubble over. The closest thing to catch the bubbles was the nearby shaker with the improperly made Manhattan.

After correcting the mistakes at hand and serving the couple their requested drinks, the bartender reached for the mixing glass containing the Manhattan with triple sec and bubbles. He liked the mixture and with a few adjustments was born the Seelbach Cocktail. The cocktail was the number one seller for the hotel until it was edged out of first place a few years later by the more popular Mint Julep. Eventually, prohibition edged both drinks along with many others further into obscurity.

The recipe calls for the drink to be built in a flute: 1 oz Old Forrester Bourbon, 1 oz Triple Sec, 7 dashes each Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, then topped with sparkling. However, if mixed with spirits at room temperature this provides for a tepid drink with flattening bubbles.

Seger says when he re-launched the drink, he kept the recipe a secret. He would mix the bourbon and triple sec along with the bitters in his office distributing it to the bars in bottles marked “Seelbach.” The bars would keep the bottles chilled, then pour the secret mixture into a flute and top with chilled champagne. If building from scratch, it is recommended to give the bourbon and triple sec a quick stir with ice before hand.

The Seelbach’s recipe eventually came into public view with the printing of Gary Regan’s “New and Classic Cocktails.” As Seger tells the story, “Gary Regan's exact words to me in the lobby of The Seelbach when I told him the Seelbach Cocktail story whilst he was working on 'New Classic Cocktails' (I agreed to give him the recipe to publish as long as he kept it secret until the book went to print) was, ‘I thought you were giving me a load of bull#{%?! Adam, but now that I see the recipe with all the bitters, I know it is typical of the period and makes sense’.” 

The Seelbach
In a pint glass add
1 oz Old Forrester 100 Proof Bourbon
1 oz Combier Triple Sec
7 dashes Angostura Bitters
7 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

Add ice and give a quick stir to chill.

Strain into a champagne flute and top with Champagne and add a lemon spiral.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Singapore Sling at the Long Bar, Raffles Hotel

Perhaps no cocktail has as much mystique, lore and confusion about it as the Singapore Sling...

First served to the world from what was once a far-off land, the Singapore Sling’s name immediately conjurors up images of a romanticized time when writers, politicians, tycoons and socialites would gather to cool off with a long, cold, tropical concoction. Today, the name will often conjuror up looks of confusion from your average bartender as they go in search of that one ingredient… that one ingredient which they can’t quite put their finger one…that one ingredient which seems to be missing from the bar and so the drink cannot, unfortunately, be prepared.

Just about every drop of this cocktail is up for debate including its name, exact date of inception, and most especially its recipe. We have just a few facts to cling to and yet, for not completely fully knowing how this cocktail should be made, it remains an enduring classic. But perhaps, oddly enough, it is the lore and mystery rather than its precise balance and consistency that make the Singapore Sling so legendary.

In his 1948 “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks”, David Embry writes of the Singapore Sling, “Of all the recipes published for this drink, I have never seen any two that were alike. Essentially it is a Gin Sling with the addition of cherry brandy.”

Named after Lieutenant-Governor Stamford Raffles, who decades earlier decided the mostly ignored island of Singapore would make a perfect port for Britain to better gain control of Asian trade routes, The Raffels Hotel was a legend in its own time. Completed in 1887, it was most famous for accepting guests of any race. A temporary home to journalists, novelists, royals, adventurers, and tourists, stories of the hotel quickly spread throughout the world. These stories, as stories often do, included some tales of drinking at the hotel’s Long Bar. So, luckily, mentions of the cocktails from the Raffles Hotel do have literary mention, unfortunately they are not always consistent.

The “facts” which are, for the most, agreed upon are that the drink was invented by barman Ngiam Tong Boon around 1915 at the legendary Long Bar within the famous Raffels Hotel. Yet now, that excepted date is even in question as 1910 and 1913 keep popping up. Drink historian David Wondrich has pulled up evidence of “slings” mentioned as early as 1897 and a 1903 reference to “pink Slings for White People”. At least with this note, there is recognition of color – pink - or pinkish at least.

The Raffels admits that the exact recipe was lost very soon after its inception. So the recipe was lost, gone for good, forever.

Writings pop-up from the first half of the Twentieth Century with references to a long or tall drink with gin, cherry brandy, citrus, biters and on occasion there is reference to the herbal French liqueur Benedictine. Even with that frame-work for the cocktail, there is disagreement on the exact measurements and even its exact name as it comes up as the Straits Sling and Raffles Sling along with the Singapore Sling, which probably caught on for the allure of its exotic name and the ease of alliteration.

The commonalities which appear would make this cocktail a Gin Sling – Gin, Lemon, Sugar, Bitters and Soda – with cherry brandy added. And this cherry brandy would almost certainly have been Peter F. Heering Cherry Liqueur, which was widely shipped around the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Yet the widely accepted version, and the one served today at the Raffles, contains grenadine and pineapple, neither of these ingredients appears in any tidbits of writing. So why the confusion?  Well, the Sling was not the only famous cocktail created by Mr. Boon at the Long Bar. His other gift to the cocktail world was the Million Dollar cocktail. Another gin based cocktail, this one containing sweet vermouth and egg white along with pineapple and grenadine. As recipes were lost and as memories attempted to piece them back together, the blending of the two recipes was entirely possible.

Today, tourists still visit the Long Bar at the Raffles in search of that legendary concoction which the hotel serves thousands of each year.

The hotel’s official recipe is:

Official Raffles Hotel Singapore Sling Recipe
30 ml (1 oz) Gordon's gin
15 ml (1/2 oz) Heering Cherry Liqueur
120 ml (4 oz) pineapple juice
15 ml (1/2 oz) lime juice
7.5 ml (1/4 oz) Cointreau
7.5 ml (1/4 oz) DOM Benedictine
10 ml (1/3 oz) grenadine
Garnish with a slice of pineapple and cherry.

Note: At the Raffles Hotel, the gin used is Gordon's, the cherry brandy is Cherry Heering, and the grenadine is Bols.

Something a bit more striped-down and closer to the original Straits Sling would be:

2 oz Gin
½ oz  of Bénédictine.
½ oz of Cherry Heering
¾ oz Lemon Juice
2 dashes of Orange Bitters,
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Shake with ice and strain into a fizz glass, add 2 oz chilled soda water and two pieces of ice.

So in the case of the Singapore Sling, the usual, is a bit unusual. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

McSorley's Old Ale House

A visit to McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York is as much a step back in time as it is game of numbers; open for nearly 160 years, only for the last 40 of them have women been allowed inside, 5 dollars gets you a pair of mugs full of suds and McSorley’s serves only 1 thing, beer, but it does come in 2 styles, light or dark.

Nestled in the East Village, Manhattan has risen around McSorley’s over the last century and a half; it sits as low and quiet as an old shed tucked deep in a back-yard now overcrowded by old trees. But to step through the saloon door is to step out of the madness of Manhattan and into a space of calm and Comradery, a place where beers are taken in hand to forget the technological driven worries of the day and to celebrate the timeless human spirit.

Inside, portraits of presidents, New York politicians, firefighters, policemen, barkeeps and the faces of men lost to time watch over the saw dust covered floor while a chair which Lincoln once occupied sits stoically above the bar keeping the peace below. The thick dust and sticky cobwebs which drape over the collected artifacts and drip from antique light fixtures seem more out of a Hollywood horror film set than part of the setting at one of the country’s most famous watering holes. McSorley’s is legendary for its antiquity, its refusal to change over time, the number of historical figures who had tipped back a pint at the bar and of course for only serving its own beer.

The story of the Ale House starts with John McSorley, an Irish Immigrant who left Ireland during the potato famine to seek a better life in America. In 1854, McSorley opened what he called the "The Old House at Home" at 15 East 7th Street. John’s son William apprenticed under his father and took over the business after his father’s death in 1910. A brief experiment with selling liquor ended as quickly as it began and McSorley’s cemented it self as an ale-serving house only. However, the longer Nobel Experiment did not deter McSorley’s – after all, the politicians and the police needed someplace to drink – and the Ale House served what they called “near-beer” brewed in the basement.

In 1936 McSorley’s was sold to patron Daniel O’Connor, who was the first non-family member to own the bar. However his ownership was brief as he died three years later leaving the business to his daughter Dorothy. With a strict no-women allowed policy, fears of change rumbled around the wooden walls but she abided by her father’s wishes to stay out of the bar, turning the management duties over to her husband Harry Kirwan. Change in the women only policy came after McSorley’s was sued to allow female patrons. The bar briefly considered becoming a private club to avoid the change but finally relented in 1970 and women were allowed to lift two mugs of McSorley’s beer to celebrate the win. In 1977, Matthew Maher, the night manager of McSorley’s and also an Irish Immigrant who Harry Kirwan had met when his car had broken down on the side of a road in Ireland, bought the bar.

The formula for the saloon’s original golden lager, is credited to Fidelio Brewery who brewed the beer until the enactment of prohibition in 1919. With the brewery shuttered, beer making operations had to move to the basement of McSroley’s. After the repealed, Fidelio re-opened and again took up McSorley’s brewing, making both the Cream Stock and Golden Lager. Rheingold Brewery took over Fidelio’s business after the company went into receivership, and McSorley’s legendary beer was now being brewer across the river in Brooklyn. Rheingold would also eventually close its doors and brewing operations now went to Schmidt's Brewers of Philadelphia and so the ale was now being made without New York's legendary water. In early 1990's Stroh Brewery purchased the McSorley's brand and brewed it until they too were bought, this time by the Pabst Brewing Company.

The beer may have changed slightly, the neighborhood a lot, a few owners have seen over the saloon, and faces have come and gone, but McSorley’s still remains McSorley’s, a rest-stop off the concrete and steel landscape of Manhattan. To step on the saw-dust covered floor and put a foot on the brass rail at McSorley’s bar is to be a part of history and the human spirit, whether lifting the copper hued lager to be clinked with friends in celebration of the day or a solo visit to contemplate life in the reflection of the black stout. To be in McSroley’s is to be a friend of all who have imbibed at the Ale House, past and present. But while at McSorley’s remember one thing above all, “Be Good, or Be Gone”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Kentucky Derby and the Bourbon Mint Juelp

Thoroughbreds, hats and juleps are the trifecta of tradition that grace the Churchill Downs the first Saturday of every May. This is the Kentucky Derby, a place where the best of the best compete for the most coveted title in the racing world. And a race which is celebrated with one cocktail, a drink which has become synonymous with the derby: The Mint Julep. According to organizers of the Derby, over 120,000 Juleps will be served at Churchill Dows over the two-day weekend event.

If mention of the Kentucky Derby instantly brings about images of well-healed spectators sipping on frosty mint juleps, then the mention of a mint julep evokes images of green sprigs of mint, dew covered sliver cups, stately gentlemen on lush Southern lawns. But what is now reserved for one day a year, was once one of the most popular cocktails served in this country. The Cosmopolitan of its day. And it wasn’t just reserved for the south, the Julep was popular in northern urban cities just as it was on southern plantations.

The word julep was for centuries applied to a medical treatment. A concoction prescribed by a doctor to his sick patient to cure a variety of ailments. Sometime in the 18th-Century, the Julep in America became a morning nip, something much closer to a cocktail than a medicinal cure. Soon mint found its way into the drink and eventually a formula for the julep developed. A Julep is a category of drink, meaning that it has a prescribed structure and methodology, but the base spirit can be swapped out for another. For example a thirsty customer could call for a Julep made with rum or cognac. But in the heart of the south, in the land of bourbon, to make a julep with anything but the local spirit would be unthinkable.

Yet, the word Julep also stirs words of debate, a gentlemanly debate of course. There are questions of if the mint should be muddled, infused into the sugar, or simply there as a garnish and not in the body of the drink at all. However, this is not a place for debate, simply some information of this world famous race and its tradition.

Since 1939 Churchill Downs has promoted the Mint Juelp as the signature drink of the derby. Although nowadays some short-cuts are taken to make the drink en masse  to accommodate the thousands of thirsty spectators what follows is simply my preferred way to prepare a julep.

Recipe: Bourbon Mint Julep
  • In the bottom of a silver julep cup add 4 or 5 fresh mint leaves along with 1 oz of simple syrup (1 to 1 ratio). Gently press the mint, making sure not to tear or bruise the mint.
  • Add 2 oz of strong bourbon.
  • Fill the cup with crushed ice and stir until the outside of the cup is frosted. The level of drop, so add more ice until it there is a glistening mound crowning the cup.
  • Select a few fresh bunches of mint and plunge close together into the ice.
  • Place a straw into the julep close to the mint and cut the straw, if necessary, so that its length is just taller than that of the mint leaves.
Some tips
  • Always use the freshest mint possible, discard brown, dried and limp looking mint
  • Placement of the straw is key, a drinker’s nose should be buried in the mint
  • Use a higher-proof bourbon, 100 proof or more. The crushed ice will water down the julep and bring down the proof. Starting with an 80-proof bourbon will create a weak watered down drink.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

NELSEN'S BITTER HALL, Washington Island, WI

There is an old joke in the bartending world, “What lasts longer: A bottle of Angostura Bitters or a Marriage?” At Nelsen’s Bitter hall on Washington Island, where nearly 10,000 people a year pass through for a shot of Angostura, there can be little doubt that a bottle of bitters will not outlast any marriage, even the most explosive ones Hollywood can dish out.

With a current year-round population of roughly 600 people, Washington Island is a tiny speck of land that sits six miles off of the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula and across the legendary Death’s Door passage. Here in 1899, Danish immigrant Tom Nelsen opened his bar, and for 20 years served beer and alcohol to the summer tourists and the year round residents, who were mostly farmers. With the approach of Prohibition in 1919, Tom needed to maintain his way of living and developed a creative idea around the ban of alcohol sales in the United States. Tom applied for and was granted a pharmacists license. Tom could now continue to “dispense” these medicinals to his guests; claiming to the Feds that he was simply providing cures for stomach ailments despite Angostura being at 90-proof.

A bottle of Angostura, brown in color with an oversized white wrapper with way too much small script and a few fancy seals on it, is something that could be found in most homes and bars. But finding a bottle was the easy part, for a long time finding something to do with it was the tough part. Sure it was used in a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned, and maybe a Champagne Cocktail if you could find a bartender who knew what that even was, but really how much should be used? And would anyone notice if it were left out? After all they are bitters and what are bitters? They just sound…well…bitter.

Bitters got their beginnings as pharmaceuticals, medicines usually intended to cure stomach upset and digestive ailments and most pharmacist and barkeeps made their own version. Many commercial brands existed as well, the leading being Angostura from Trinidad. Prohibition not only killed the craft of bartending in the United States, but also many of the ingredients used in pre-prohibition cocktails particularly in the world of certain liqueurs and bitters. But at Nelsen’s Bitter Hall in Wisconsin, prohibition did not kill anything; it actually spawned a tradition and a legend. All throughout prohibition, customers would stop in at Nelsen’s to enjoy a full shot of Angostura bitters. Tom himself drank 16 oz a day and attributed his healthy longevity - he lived until he was 90 years old - to his large daily ration of Angostura.

After the repeal of prohibiting in 1933, Tom could of course go back to serving other alcohols, which he did, but by this point the Angostura shot had become a tradition and almost a ledged of sorts at Nelson’s. To this day, visitors to Washington Island make a stop at Nelsen’s, now known as Nelsen’s Bitter Hall, for a full shot of Angostura Bitters.

Your entrance into the Bitters Club will be consummated with the presentation of a membership card bearing your name. After you complete your shot, your bartender or server will dip their thumb into the liquid left over at the bottom of the shot glass and mark your card with a brown-reddish thumbprint print and their initials in the corner. Guests can also sign their name in a register to permanently mark their experience.

Nelsen’s claims to be the largest consumer of Angostura in the world as well as the longest continuously open tavern in Wisconsin. If you never find yourself on Washington Island, you can still partake in its famous tradition. The recipe isn’t hard: Just pop off that yellow restrictor on the top of the bottle, pour, raise a glass to Tom Nelsen, and shoot.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Buena Vista and the Irish Coffee

The story of the Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista is a well documented one and from what can be seen, a straightforward one without too many myths, legends or tall tales attached to it. As stated in the many readily available press material from the Buena Vista, “The historic venture started on the night of November the 10th in 1952. Jack Koeppler, then-owner of the Buena Vista, challenged international travel writer Stanton Delaplane to help re-create a highly touted "Irish Coffee" served at Shannon Airport in Ireland. Intrigued, Stan Accepted Jack’s invitation, and the pair began to experiment immediately.”
If and how the Irish Coffee did get a start at the Shannon Airport is unclear, however. Yet it was already a legendary drink which Koeppler wanted to provide for his guests at The Buena Vista. Now if you have never had a proper Irish Coffee, you may be asking yourself what’s the big deal about some coffee spiked with Iriish Whiskey and Bailey’s, topped with a mound of wavy whipped cream from a can and drizzled with green crème de menthe. Well, there isn’t anything special about that drink unless you’re my grandmother. But once you have had a properly built Irish Coffee and sipped the strong spiked coffee through the thick cool layer of floating cream, you will understand why it is such an alluring drink and why it is difficult for many people to execute properly.
A proper Irish Coffee should be a blend of black coffee sweetened with at least a teaspoon of sugar and then spiked with a healthy amount of quality Irish Whiskey. The cream should be heavy cream which has been whipped to thickness but not to a point where peaks form and it should be thin enough that it still pours over the back of a spoon. All is served in a preheated small wine glass. The affect is that the drinker has a rich and warming glass of coffee that is balanced by drinking it through the cool, unsweetened, layer of cream.
Koeppler and Delaplane had great trouble with getting their cream to float properly and sought out many avenues to solving their problem including traveling to the Shannon Airport. The answer came eventually from the then mayor of San Francisco who was also a dairy farmer. It was determined that the fresh cream needed to rest for 48 hours to develop the proper composition to allow it to be frothed to the point where it could float.
Ordering an Irish Coffee often brings about a deer in the headlights look from many a bartender, but at the Buena Vista it is a proud tradition but I would guess that the bartenders there sometimes get a bit tired of preparing literally hundreds of these a day for both tourists and locals a like. Yet a trip to the Buena Vista is a must while in San Francisco and a must for anyone who wants an eye opening experience with their Buena Vista. Upon entering you will see the bar lined with dozens of signature cups with wisps of steam floating upwards as they are heated in preparation for the rush of cold and thirsty customers waking in from Ghirardelli Square.
On the surface the Irish coffee is a simple drink, but it is these simple drinks (like the margarita and daiquiri) which have been mangled and misunderstood by bartenders and which have in-turn turned off customers from their beauty. However, as simple as it is, there are some key steps needed:
  • Use a small wine glass which has been pre-headed with hot water
  • Use a quality Irish Whiskey (the Buena Vista swears by Tullamore Dew, as do I)
  • Use a strong, quality coffee
  • Use 1 to 2 teaspoons of sugar, the cream will not float without it.
  • Whip the cream until it thickens and the surface looks smooth but not to the point where peaks form. I have found this time varies from 1 to 2 min depending on the cream. (It is no longer necessary to leave commercially produced creams to rest for 48 hours.
  1. Fill a small wine glass with warm water
  2. In a metal bowl whip the heavy cream with a whisky until thickened and bubbles begin to dissipate and the surface looks smooth but not to the point where peaks form. Transfer to a smaller pitcher if preferred.
  3. Empty water and add 2 teaspoons of sugar (I prefer turbanado or “sugar in the raw”) along with about 4 oz Black Coffee, Stir to dissolve sugar
  4. Add 1.5 oz Irish Whiskey (Tullamore Dew) and stir
  5. Give the cream a few more good whips and then pour over the back of a spoon held just over the surface of the coffee. Pour until there is a good 1/2” “collar” of cream above the coffee.