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.

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.