genever, or before gin

bols-genever-gin-antique-bottleBelgium might be best known for its beer, but it also makes a special spirit called genever (pronounced jen-EE-ver). Produced for over 500 years, this drink is to Belgium as whiskey is to Scotland. Many of today’s classic gin cocktails were originally made with genever, and with good cause: English gin evolved from this Belgian forebear. Belgians generally sip and savor genever ice cold in shot glasses that have just been pulled from the freezer, but why not shake things up and swap out gin for genever in a cooling summer cocktail? I’ve suddenly got a hankering for a new-style Pimm’s Cup.

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death takes a (drinking) holiday

I realize I’m a bit late to the trough but nevertheless let me heap high praise upon the meticulously crafted cocktails being concocted down at Death & Co., where quality is enjoying a triumphant – if expensive – ascendency over quantity. It’s the next best thing to firing up a Dunhill. (Though be warned: you know you’re chasing the zeitgeist when you find yourself on a Saturday lined up at 5:45PM outside a blacked out storefront in the East Village, sandwiched between a quartet of hipsters gents sprouting artfully sculpted facial hair and bedazzled couples from Long Island traveling in packs of six – for safety’s sake, natch.)

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pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag

I’m back at the sumptuous Merchant Hotel in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, site of a rather infamous party I threw almost three years ago. (let’s just say people are still talking about it, thank you very much.) It’s posh, for lack of a better word – meaning attentive, attractive, and very well-proportioned – with an Italianate sandstone facade of columns and capitals backed by carefully restored High Victorian interiors. In fact, the former Ulster Bank headquarters wouldn’t look out-of-place in London or Paris. For a city which ten years ago had but a single boutique hotel, the Merchant is a perfect example of how much in this city has changed. Even at the height of the property bust two years ago the hotel was able to build an Art Deco extension and more than double in size, adding rooms, a spa, and the city’s only authentic jazz bar. To call it a success would be an understatement. From the soaring grandeur of the Great Room Restaurant (where even the profiteroles are swan-necked), to the perfectly judged and beautifully friendly staff, to the overstuffed beds and ample marble bathrooms, the Merchant is an all-out triumph.

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jasper’s tap and corner kitchen

Appearances are deceiving in San Francisco: the distance between two points on a map, for instance; or that funny looking nun with a mustache. It’s true of restaurants as well. Elegant facades can belie inferior eats. And gritty basement boîtes often bubble up with tantalizing flavors. File Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen under the latter. In the harsh light of day the restaurant’s visual charms are all but washed out - like one of those Tenderloin tender traps I’d normally studiously avoid. Yet I’d heard there were interesting experiments going on behind the bar – as well as in the kitchen – and felt it my duty to check things out. I’m glad I did because Jasper’s – despite an anodyne sense of design – is no ordinary “corner kitchen,” but the latest in a wave of cocktail bars and speakeasies that are marking the City by the Bay as a town that takes its tipple seriously. I start with a classic, the Negroni, which Jasper’s happens to keep on tap. You read that right: gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in an ideal 1:1:1 ratio on tap. Frisco apparently has a penchant for lip-smacking aperitifs; the Negroni proved so popular that a second herbaceous cocktail recently joined the tap: a mix of gin, sweet vermouth, and fernet dubbed The Hanky Panky. Mixologist Kevin Diedrich is the mastermind behind the clever idea, as well as a dozen-plus seasonal cocktails, like Rhubarb Mule (a mix of bourbon, orgeat, rhubarb syrup, ginger ale and bitters) and a Wiessen Sour (bourbon, lemonade, orange marmalade, house-made bitters, and white beer). Plus, there’s also what might very well be the perfect summer concoction: house-bottled carbonated Pimm’s cup, muddled with strawberries and mint. Even better, there’s the kitchen in Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen, which under chef Adam Carpenter has it’s own seasonal sensibility. If this weren’t laid-back San Francisco, you might even call it a gastro-pub. (But it is, so you won’t) Even so, the constantly evolving menu has been crafted to complement the strongest stout to the most subtle ale. I order a handful of small plates to see if works with various cocktails: salty Shishito peppers, a trio of deviled eggs, briny brussel sprout slaw and house-made sausage bites, and a warm soft pretzel with smoked gouda fondue. It does. Then I squirrel away the fondue, knowing it will be heaven for dipping with French fries. If you want to go “full gastro” The J Burger is a monument to the humble pub burger of yore; griddled Lucky Dog Ranch beef, English blue cheese, bacon onion marmalade, and frisee salad on a baguette bun. You won’t finish it, but apparently few people do. A lighter alternative is an equally flavorful filet of Scotch salmon atop a bed of organic black lentils. Sated, sedated, and just a little bit intoxicated, I’ve no room for coffee, let alone dessert. Before I head to the door GM Matthew Meidinger makes a point to tell me how at first people came to Jasper’s for Diedrich’s drinks. Then I finish the thought for him: now they stay for the food, too.

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wishlist: the perfect (un) cube

When it comes to ice – to paraphrase a famous ecdysiast - you either got it, or you ain’t. (And boys, I got it.)  Or rather, I want it. Let the 2011 holiday wishlist begin with this Ice Ball Press Kit from Cirrus. For years I’ve been prattling on about substandard ice and you wouldn’t believe the curious looks I get – as though all ice was created equal. Ha! Too long a staple of only high-end cocktail bars, where a bartender would actually hand-carve them out of frozen blocks, these ice spheres have way less surface area than cubed or crushed ice. Which means they melt slowly, chilling your drink instead of making soup. If you think that sounds just a bit too precious try splurging for an aged single-malt whiskey. It’s something you want to savor, not slurp – and that, dear reader, is what proper ice is all about. The 16lb, gravity-powered, aluminum presses come in 2 sizes to produce either 2”- or 2.75”-diameter balls, and’ll turn out the perfectly round drink-coolers in just under a minute with next-to-no cleanup or attention. Santa, I’m ready to be bowled over.

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ulysses s grant: president, hotel, grill

While I stand by what I posted yesterday, it’s now time for me to gladly eat a slice of humble pie. The hotel US Grant commands the heart of San Diego’s city center across from historic Horton Park Plaza and the Irving Gill-designed fountain.  Built by Buck Grant in honor of his father, Ulysses S. Grant – yes, that Grant, the Civil War hero and 18th President of the United States – the hotel debuted in 1910, setting the standard for this city’s brand of glamor. Sophisticated, opulent, and appointed with original artwork by French artist Yves Clement following a multi-million dollar renovation in 2006, the hotel rightly deserves the moniker grande dame. Tucked behind the main entrance, the hotel’s chic Grant Grill makes a seductive setting for spectacular seasonal cocktails and – you guessed it – farm to table California cuisine, too. Organic produce, Pacific seafood, and local meats and poultry are given the “less is more” treatment by Chef Chris Kurth, keeping natural flavors at the forefront of market-fresh dishes like Dungeness risotto and Niman Ranch pork cheeks with spring fava beans. Now that I’m gladly eating (ever so slightly) yesterday’s words, let me also raise a toast to the Grill’s mixologist for inspired garden to glass libations. The Wildflower Whiskey Collins of cornflower infused oat whiskey, dandelion bitters and fresh pressed Meyer lemon is like drinking SoCal in a glass:  sweet, sour, salty and perfumed with flowers, it goes down oh, so very easy.

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we interrupt the feeding frenzy

Enough food for now.  It’s time for a drink.

While maintaining the integrity of the original Bloody Mary cocktail made famous in the King Cole Bar at The St. Regis, New York, the addition of spices and a distinctively sly Southern twist makes the West Paces Mary at Buckhead’s The St. Regis, Atlanta as unique and iconic as the original.  Offering an elegant reinvention of an old standard, it’s much like the hotel itself:  a new classic.  Now if only someone would give this drink a bloody proper name!  Besides being a mouthful to say, the West Paces Mary – named for the hotel’s street address – doesn’t conjure up much of a libation.  Might I suggest a Bloody Buck instead?

1oz vodka, 1/2 lemon, squeezed, 1 cup tomato juice, 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, 3 shakes Tabasco, 1/2 tsp. fresh black pepper, 1/4 tsp. cayenne, 1/4 tsp. celery salt, 1 tsp. whole black peppercorns, 2 Tbsp. fresh horseradish, 1 Tbsp. pickled okra juice.  Combine all ingredients in a shaker.  Fill glass with ice, shake well and pour over ice.  Garnish with olives, okra, and a celery stalk.

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caliente cocktails

Puerto Rico’s Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa is spicing up travel this summer with the launch of what could well be the world’s spiciest drink – the Fire Pit Bloody Mary.  Made with Indian Bhut Jolokia chili peppers, the Fire Pit Bloody Mary’s killer kicker is no joke.  The pepper has a ranking of more than one million Scoville units – making it 400 times hotter than Tabasco – and is officially ranked by Guinness as the hottest in the world.   Just how hot is hot exactly?  How’s this for perspective: the Indian government is in the midst of implementing a new hand grenade designed to safely flush terrorists out of hiding.  The main ingredient:  Bhut Jolokia.

That said, for 10 bucks the Fire Pit Bloody Mary comes with its own fire extinguisher and free refills for anyone foolhardy enough to finish the first round and live to tell the tale.  I think I feel a dare coming on …

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