Devin Hahn

Multimedia Storyteller, Writer, Cocktail Blogger

Category: Tales of the Cocktail 2010

Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 8 — King Cocktail

Continued from Part 7…

It was my last night in New Orleans. I was sitting at the Carousel bar in the Hotel Monteleone, rotating slowly and nursing an absinthe. I always nurse absinthe. Can’t stand the stuff. But it was my last night in New Orleans, so I’d ordered one.

I’d been at Tales of the Cocktail for three days and I felt like last year’s Mardi Gras beads—sun-cracked and still dangling from that iron railing. I don’t know how people last the full week.

I looked at my absinthe. It looked like an antiseptic. I drank to my health.

Since I’d started investigating the origins of the Periodista I’d dug deep into Boston’s craft cocktail world. I’d met the people, pried into their relationships, teased out the story.  And in telling how the Periodista found a home in Boston, I’d also told the story of how a community was born out of a shared passion.

In its way, it was the story of how the cocktail renaissance of the early 21st century had taken shape. Similar stories could probably be found in all the great cocktailing cities of America.

But mine was Boston.

All that time I’d kept my distance. I was an observer. Always leaning in from the far side of the bar. It wasn’t until this trip to New Orleans that I finally felt like a member of the Boston cocktail community.

I’d also realized that that wasn’t my place.

I was an outsider investigating the affairs of a family, not a member of the family. To be an agent of truth I had to maintain a semblance of neutrality. Journalistic objectivity.

But I’d gotten so wrapped up in the question of my own place that I’d lost sight of my real purpose. I still sought the Periodista, and for one week there had been more cocktail knowledge gathered in New Orleans than any other place in the world.

I’d given myself three days. What did I have to show for it? Okay, a few leads. Good ones. But I’d walked out on who knew how many. I’d gotten too wrapped up in the spectacle, the internal politics of the cocktail world, and my own self-doubt.

I drank some more absinthe.

The bar had closed an hour ago, but it was still full. A man walked into the room. I recognized him immediately. So did everyone else. It was Dale DeGroff. King Cocktail himself.

DeGroff meandered slowly around the rotating carousel. No one spoke to him, but every head turned. He knew it. DeGroff is silver-haired and olive-skinned. He’s what executive types call a room-changer. As long as that room is a bar.

I got up out of my seat. This was my last shot. I thought about John Gertsen and Jackson Cannon the night of the Brawl. The stories are better than the drinks themselves. I owed them the real story. And I owed it to myself to find it.

I walked up to DeGroff and held out my hand. As we shook, I asked him if, in all his years of bartending, he’d ever made a Periodista.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “The Periodista guy. I heard about you.”

I didn’t say anything. Not for lack of trying.

“Someone emailed me about it,” he said. “All of Boston is worked up about the Periodista.”

I opened my mouth. Seemed like a good place to start.

“I know it’s in Schumann’s book,” DeGroff said. “I think Charles found it during his research for the book in Cuba. Obviously Cuba’s been sort of out of touch with the world for a while. Their history and their drink culture can be hard to dig up.”

DeGroff looked thoughtful.

“You know,” he said. “I have an old textbook. Around the time Prohibition ended, the best school for bartenders in the world was at the Hotel Sevilla in Havana. At that time, Cuban bartenders were considered the best in the world, because they had seen so much action over the past ten years. So this school became very famous.”

This was it. Why I was here. Who else but Dale DeGroff would have a textbook from a mid-century bartending school based out of a Havana hotel?

“The textbook I have is from the ‘60s,” he said. “At that time, all the older bartenders were still around. They were the ones who taught the new generation, and they all contributed to the textbook as well. The Periodista might be in there.”

I thanked him. He nodded.

“It’s gotta be Cuban,” he said. “This is your card you just gave me, right?”

I seemed to have given him my card. It had become habit over the past 72 hours.

“I’ll take a look in that textbook,” DeGroff said, “and if I see it I’ll send it to you.”

He left. After paying for my absinthe, so did I.

New Orleans was as hot that night as the day I’d arrived. I walked down Royal Street toward Canal, wondering if the streetcar was still running. At the intersection I turned back and looked up at the Monteleone marquee, glowing five stories high.

New Orleans remained a ghost to me. A fleeting backdrop of light, color, and sound. I waited at the streetcar stop for a minute, then decided to walk.

All of Boston is worked up about the Periodista.

I’d gotten my lead, but it was that line that had me grinning all the way back to India House. At that moment, I knew exactly where I fit into the Boston cocktail world. I would never be their brother, but I could be the guardian of their stories. It was a responsibility I’d chosen. It was a promise I would keep. I said my final goodbye to journalistic objectivity.

Because, after all, I’m not a journalist.

I’m a Periodista.

Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 7 — The Bartender’s Breakfast

Continued from Part 6…

That night was the Bartender’s Breakfast, a big party for all the bartenders who had gathered in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail. It was invitation only. You couldn’t buy a ticket to this thing. You just had to know.

I hadn’t scrounged a dimestore lead that day and I was sore about it. I needed to make it up to myself. All the key players would be at the Breakfast: Dale DeGroff and Ted Haigh, David Wondrich and Audrey Saunders. It was my last shot to get in their faces about the Periodista.

I kidded myself that that’s why I was going. I knew better. I was nobody—but I had a golden key. And when someone gives you a golden key, you use it.

There were two lines of people trailing out of the brick corridor that lead into the party. At the end of the tunnel was music and light, noise and laughter. I got in the shorter line. The one that was moving. A beautiful woman held a clipboard.

“Key, please,” she said.

I showed her the key. For a moment I was sure it was all a practical joke. She drew an X on the key with a sharpie and let me in. Out of some arcane instinct I licked my thumb and rubbed out the X before it could dry. You never know.

The Bartender’s Breakfast was the typical frenzy. There were stations set up around three long rooms. Celebrity bartenders were taking short shifts at various stations. Some less famous bartenders were taking longer shifts. Jackson Cannon was stationed next to Jim Meehan. They each had shakers in both hands and were shaking in step with one another. I exchanged a nod with Cannon, then moved on.

Audrey Saunders—owner and operator of NYC’s Pegu Club—was mixing drinks in a corner station. I wanted to talk to her, but she was three deep, so I went to the next room.

Beyond a crowd of vests and fedoras a live band was playing a mix of funk and hip hop. I saw Misty Kalkofen bussing tables. Misty was probably the most famous bartender in Boston. She had personally won more competitions at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail than anyone else I knew. Her team had been voted Best Bar in America at the Bar Room Brawl the night before. And she was bussing. Like a pro.

I wandered from station to station, bore witness to feats of spectacular mixing talent and mass cocktail production. Guests held whole pineapples filled with Corpse Reviver No. 2, delicate coupes green with Chartreuse and gin, tall glasses pink with Campari. In the back room, yet more beautiful women were operating vending machines that dispensed premixed cocktails in commemorative hip flasks, gummy cocktails, water bottles, t-shirts. Whatever you wanted.

As I drifted through the party I saw familiar and unfamiliar faces. Butler and Bunnewith were there, Ben Sandrof, the Eastern Standard team, the LUPEC ladies. Boston was well represented at this year’s Tales.

I thought about the previous night, when Drink had taken the prize at the Bar Room Brawl.

Then I thought about where I’d been just before the Breakfast. My mind had been stuck there since.

I’d found myself at dinner with some people from Boston. A few brand representatives, some industry types, a young socialite there to make the scene. I knew their names then, but wouldn’t an hour later.

Conversation got around to Drink’s victory the night before. That moment of sheer joy and celebration had carried me through the frustrations of my Periodista hunt. Never a sports fan, I’d felt suddenly what it meant to love a team. I was ready to say as much, when—

“Fuck Drink.”

I turned to see who was talking. One of the the brand reps. He was drunk on his own product.

“The crew from Drink won’t hang out with the crews from any of the other cities,” he said. “They’re just hanging with their little Boston clique. They think they’re better than everyone here.”

He paused. Made sure he had the room. Took a drink.

“They think they’re the cool kids,” he said.  “Shit, my boys on Lansdowne street are twice the bartenders of anyone at Drink. You think the Drink crew would give any of them the time of day? Hell, no.”

There was some murmuring around the table. Nothing audible.

I wanted to argue. I wanted to say that the Periodista had given me a glimpse into the heart of the Boston cocktail world. These people were never the in-crowd. They weren’t the cool kids, those whispered of in hushed tones as they walked the halls. They weren’t the beautiful people who gathered together on schoolyards to flex their adolescent muscles and vilify the awkward and brainy. These people were the awkward and brainy.

They were the history geeks, the science nerds. They were the kids sitting behind the portables at lunch running lines for the school play. They’d grown up, and under the tutelage of the ultimate outsider, Brother Cleve, they’d found a calling to rally around. The cocktail renaissance had provided it all: history, rule books, arcane wisdom—historical costumes. Only a mistake of happenstance and culture had turned the nerdy kids’ new obsession into the latest A-list trend.  Ultimately, this was a band of outsiders who had found a place to come inside after all those years.

I wanted to argue, but I didn’t.

Who was I to say that once outsiders come in from the cold, they don’t lock the door behind them?

Who was I to say anything when, gripping the golden key in my pocket, I finally felt like I was on the inside with them?

I walked the rooms of the Bartender’s Breakfast, watching smiles passed as handily as drinks and devoured just as quickly. Mine all tasted bitter. I left the party without talking to anyone. Without uttering the word “Periodista.” I walked out into the hot New Orleans night just as a warm rain began to fall.

To be continued…

Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 6 — Brian Rea

Continued from Part 5…

After putting a pile of fried oysters into my body at Mother’s, I was back at the Monteleone, aiming for the Carousel bar. It was about that time. I spotted Jeff Berry sitting at a squat table next to the bookstore, signing copies of his Beach Bum Berry Remixed. There was a potato of a man in a button-down shirt sitting next to him.

I said hello to Berry and thanked him for the Schumann lead.

“Oh, no problem,” he said. “I’m sorry I don’t know more about the Periodista. I don’t know anything about it, really, other than it’s a really good drink.”

I told him he wasn’t the only one. We chatted for a moment about California, then Berry gestured at the man beside him.

“This is Brian Rea,” he said. “You were talking about mid-century Los Angeles—Brian was there, man! You know the Host Lounges?”

“In the airport!” Rea blurted.

“The Host International Lounges,” said Berry. “Brian put tiki bars into those! It was like an executive version.”

I shook Rea’s hand and told him I’d heard of him.

“Who spoke of me? Who mentioned my name? My ex-wife?”

Rea is like a cartoon of an old man from a bygone era. Bald head, elastic expression, wrinkles with wrinkles. He’s been in the business since the ‘40s. He isn’t part of the craft avant-garde, but he has all the stories.

I asked him about the Periodista.

“What was it called?”

I told him.

“What was in it?”

I told him that, too.

“Where the hell have I seen that?” He scratched his pate. “In Muckensturm? Was it in Muckensturm’s book?”

I told him I wasn’t sure. I don’t have all the books.

“See, I have all the books,” Rea said. “That’s what I’m known for, my collection. It may have been in Louis’ Mixed Drinks. Or it may be in Jack’s manual. I know I’ve seen that combination, because it’s a great combination. Drop me an email, give me what you have on it, and let me figure it out. Everyone else does it. David Wondrich, you know—Dale DeGroff lives in my library, Lowell Edmunds did Martini, you know? I don’t remember it all—I’m lucky I remember my name—but I still have a lot of goodies in there, you know? A lot of history.”

At the risk of gathering evidence to support a theory, I mentioned the possibility of a Hemingway connection.

“Hemingway will drink anything,” Rea said. “You know, Hemingway was a lot of work being a bartender for. We were all probably calling him boss at the time, which made him feel good, but ‘boss’ spelled backwards is ‘double s.o.b.’”

He said it like he’d been there, but the Abbott and Costello line made me doubt it.

“It was probably named for one of the broads he was hangin’ out with, all right? It happens!”

That struck a chord. I thought about something I’d read in Wayne Curtis’s book. Hemingway’s third wife had been Martha Gellhorn. A journalist—one of the 20th century’s most celebrated war correspondents. They frequented El Floridita together in the early ‘40s.

I saw the two of them there at the bar. Hemingway slurps his usual Papa Doble. Gellhorn complains that they always order the same thing. Constante the bartender indulges her with a new creation, a spin on the daiquiri, with triple sec and apricot brandy. For the occasion, he names it for her. La Periodista.

A nice story. Too nice to be true. Rea was still talking.

“What we used to do,” he said, “our worst customer in the world, yeah? Real asshole customer—we’d tell ‘em, ‘Look, we’re gonna create a special drink for you, and we’re gonna buy it for you.’ We’d take a double old-fashioned glass, fill it with ice cubes, put a garnish in it, and then take the bar mat, and dump everything in. Hey! Coulda been a great recipe! Everything is in there, you know! That’s what we used to do for those special customers.”

He pointed at Jeff Berry.

“Who is this, by the way?”

Berry laughed. “Some old rummy,” he said.

“I love it,” said Rea. “He puts on a hat and he collects money. My kinda guy!”

“Don’t organ grinder monkeys do that too?”

I left before they could ask me who was on first.

To be continued…

Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 5 — Mixography with Dave and Jeff

I was riding the streetcar down Canal Street toward the French Quarter. It was nearing 10 a.m. on my second day at Tales of the Cocktail and I was trying not to think too hard. Every time a neuron fired my head throbbed with equal parts pain and recrimination. At the Dauphine Street stop, two middle-aged men in wife-beaters and jean shorts were eating sausages out of a can. They knew how to start the day.

I’d gotten some good leads the day before, but I’d lost focus—lurched down the rabbit hole and passed out. Today I needed to be on my game. My first seminar was with David Wondrich and Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry, both experts at tracking down old cocktails. Berry had already delivered all he knew, but if there was anyone at that year’s Tales who might be able to give me a hard lead on the Periodista, it was Wondrich.

There was a crowd of people outside the Queen Anne Ballroom on the second floor of the Hotel Monteleone. They all had the same, haggard look. Long night. I spotted Jackson Cannon. He looked rough, but still bubbled with the usual effervescence. Like one of his own cocktails.

I asked him about the golden key he’d put in my hand the night before.

“That’ll get you into the bartender’s breakfast,” he said. “It starts tonight at eleven. It’s sort of the last hurrah. All the bartenders who’ve been working hard all week get to go wild. Except me—I’ll be working the breakfast.”

The doors opened and we filed into the room. Long rows of tables led up to a raised platform where Wondrich was seated next to Berry. The title of the seminar was New Tales for Old Cocktails: Techniques and Problems of Historical Mixography. I sat down next to Cannon in a middle row.

“Thank you all for coming down to listen to us at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning at Tales of the Cocktail,” Wondrich said, “which is like 5 a.m. for normal people on a workday. This is gonna be a little meandering—if you think it’s bad to come and listen to this, you should try coming and talking at this hour. Whew!”

David Wondrich is the author of Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar. Wondrich’s book set the standard for writing about drink origins. It’s part academic history, part swashbuckling historical fiction. If you want to know how they made a Manhattan in 1915 at New York’s Manhattan Club, read it.

Wondrich has the godfather of all goatees. Bare cheeks and chin hair down to his second button. He’s got a thinking man’s belly. When he speaks, you get the sense that he feels right at home being the most knowledgeable guy in the room.

“I’m Dave Wondrich,” he said, “spirits writer, historian—sort of. And I’m very, very pleased to have Jeff Berry with me. Jeff is responsible more than anybody else for bringing the drink part of the tiki world back to life—figuring out why these drinks were great, and how to make them great in the modern world. So it’s a real thrill and an honor for me to be speaking with Jeff.”

“Oh, you hush, Dave,” said Berry.

“Beach Bum” Berry was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a floppy straw hat. When I looked at him I started to hear ukeleles. I stopped looking.

“We’re here this morning to talk about drink history,” said Wondrich. “How to write it, how to research it, how to make it work. Mixography—okay, perhaps not a true academic field, thank god, but nonetheless, a practical one. The past decade has seen an upsurge of interest in craft cocktails, and a big part of the reason people drink these drinks is the context—the stories behind them. So a lot of people are starting to write histories of drinks.”

Young bartenders who had enrolled in the Tales of the Cocktail apprentice program were shuffling around the room in their drab apprentice uniforms distributing orange drinks in little plastic cups. There was a small bucket on the table in front of me.

“It’s a very tricky field, the history of mixed drinks,” Wondrich continued. “It involves traditional history, of course. Wars and battles and great men and women of the past. The movement of armies means the movement of vast amounts of thirsty people who really, really enjoy alcohol.”

People around the room laughed. I saw Wayne Curtis in the front row. Jim Meehan and Paul Clarke further back. Popular talk. I tried not to smell the alcoholic vapor wafting up from the plastic cup on the table.

“It also involves cultural history,” said Wondrich. “Folkways and cityways. Commercial history is a very big part of it, too, because in one way the story of a cocktail is the story of mixing products together, and you have to know the histories of the products.”

I thought about the Periodista. The liquor company pamphlet where Joe McGuirk claims he discovered the original recipe. The Bacardi family history Ed Hamilton had mentioned the day before. Stories of products.

“It also involves a good deal of literature,” Wondrich continued. “Nobody likes to drink more than writers, except for maybe the aforementioned soldiers. There will be frequent artifacts of mixology to be found in the annals of Western literature.”

Cannon nudged me. I knew he was thinking about Hemingway. I was, too. Jeff Berry leaned into his microphone.

“I’d like to add something,” he said, “which is, no pun intended, but the driest thing you could want to write about, really, is drink. Deconstructing a cocktail, putting it back together. Okay, it’s interesting to you, it’s interesting to me. Today it’s interesting to probably everyone in this room. But who are you writing these things for? Are you just writing for the people in this room? Are you doing a blog for twenty people?”

Twenty people. That was generous.

“Think about your audience,” said Berry. “People like reading about history, people like reading about people. When drink writing is the most interesting for me, and the most fun, is when you weave it into the fabric of life. It’s not just about the drinks, it’s about when people were drinking them and why they were drinking them. We get to bring the past to life through cocktails, which is really cool.”

Wondrich and Berry continued to lecture. They introduced what they called “Dave & Jeff’s 20 Axioms of Mixography.” Rules for the aspiring cocktail historian.

Write with no attachment to outcome,” said Wondrich.

“Don’t start with a theory and then gather evidence to support that theory,” said Berry. “At that point you might as well be a Budweiser Clydesdale—all you’re going to see is that goal a hundred yards away. You’ll lose out on all the other information along the way that could have taken you in a much more interesting direction. Instead, gather evidence and let it lead you to a theory. Or not! But just let the evidence take you where it may.”

Wondrich introduced another axiom: It never stands to reason. Means, motive, and opportunity are not sufficient. You need testimony, not argument.

“This is the third rail of all cocktail history,” he said. “Just because ‘coquetier’ is the French word for egg cup and it sounds kind of like ‘cocktail,’ and just because a French egg cup looks a little bit like a cocktail glass, and just because they speak French in New Orleans, does not necessarily mean that the cocktail was invented in New Orleans.”

There was some booing and laughter around the room. Wondrich smiled.

“There are so many stories like that,” he said. “I love this one: it’s called a cocktail because the feathers in a cock’s tail kind of look like the rainbow colors of the liquors that go into a cocktail. Okay, what color liquors would have gone into an original cocktail? Brown! Show me a brown cock’s tail.”

He stroked his goatee thoughtfully. Probably no other way to do it.

“My current thinking,” he said, “is that a cocktail was something that, you know, cocks your tail up. Like you would call a nail-biter a bite-nail. And so it’s a cock-tail. It’s grammatically like that. Something to cock your tail up in the morning. That seems in some ways more likely, because there was a general class of drinks that you would have in the morning. Like, we would say eye-opener. What’s your eye-opener this morning? Well, in my case, gin, and plenty of it.”

More laughter. People were sipping the orange drinks that had been passed out. Cannon tasted his then spit into the bucket. That was one option. My stomach could think of another.

“This is how I comfort myself,” said Wondrich. “You’ll never get to the bottom of it. This is what happens in the eye of history, for the most part. The martini—that’s sort of the holy grail of cocktail origins. And even though we’re throwing huge amounts of computer software at it—you know, every book from the 19th century has been scanned for the origins of the word ‘martini’—we may never know who invented the thing.”

Then there was me, wandering around in the dark, shouting the word “Periodista” at anyone who would listen. But I wasn’t the only one. I just had the least funding.

“So, and I say this with a great deal of hyperbole, but The moment of creation is shrouded in stygian blackness, and if one should be granted a glimpse of it, one should be extremely suspicious. You’ll never find that actual moment, that active generation. You’ll never actually see that. Almost impossible.”

“But just because it’s unsolvable,” said Berry, “just because it’s this black hole that depresses you and makes you not want to get up in the morning, don’t let it stop you.”

Eventually, the lecture ended and a horde of people holding copies of Imbibe! and Sippin’ Safari! mobbed the front of the room. I should have been part of the mob, holding the Periodista question high above my head. Instead, I slunk out in silence.

To be continued…

Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 4 — The Bar Room Brawl

Continued from Part 3…

Time passed like it does on long nights. The ornate galleries of the French Quarter blended together in streaks of light. My cab pulled up in front of a velvet rope. I didn’t remember hailing one.

Tales of the Cocktail‘s big ticket event that night was the Bar Room Brawl, a competition that pitted six bars from across the country against one another for the chance to be heralded as the Best Bar in America. Los Angeles was represented by The Varnish, Sasha Petraske’s newest speakeasy, with Eric Alperin at the helm. New York had sent the Long Island City bar Dutch Kills, under the command of Richard Boccato. There was Rickhouse from San Francisco and The Florida Room from Miami. I’d heard the team from Chicago’s Drawing Room was a favorite. These were the country’s elite.

And then there was Drink. Drink is part of the Barbara Lynch group of holdings, buried down in Fort Point in South Boston. Drink launched Boston’s cocktail scene onto the world stage. It gets all the press. New Yorkers brave Amtrak to drink there. Cambridge imbibers who haven’t crossed the Charles in years find themselves trekking across the channel, through high-bricked corridors and back alleys, just to for a chance to taste what they’re doing at Drink.

I’d been there a few times, but never in search of the Periodista.

Drink is managed by John Gertsen, Jack Rose Society member and former bar manager of No. 9 Park. This is a man who can make a cocktail. But Drink’s real superstar is Misty Kalkofen. The local legend, forged in the fires of Cleve’s Saturnalia, seasoned in the boiler room of Lansdowne Street. Drink had given Misty a chance for national and international exposure, and she had seized it, shaker in hand.

The Bar Room Brawl was being held in an anonymous event space they’d dressed up like a Vegas nightclub. Women in sequined fedoras and not much else danced on tabletops. Women in tiny red dresses carried around trays of cloudy Grand Marnier cocktails. Women with microphones dragged film crews from room to room. Men watched the women, goatees trembling.

Everyone who was anyone was there. And plenty of people who weren’t. A beautiful woman put a drink in my hand. I felt like an iguana.

Six stations had been set up across two main rooms. Each was designed in the style of the competing bar. Drink’s station was austere—some vintage glassware and a sign showing the names of the cocktails they were entering into the competition: Mission of Burma and the Alicante. The latter was attributed to Scott Holliday, friend of Gertsen. I thought about my conversation with Scott at Rendezvous, almost two months ago. I had the sensation of looking down at myself from far away.

The staffs of the competing bars were hidden behind velvet curtains until the showdown began. Aaron Butler, bar manager of Harvard Square’s Russell House Tavern, and Corey Bunnewith, bartender at same, were milling around Drink’s empty station. They were both Drink alums, there to cheer on the team.

John Gertsen peeked out from behind the curtain. Butler and Bunnewith hollered. Gertsen shushed them, but walked over and shook their hands. Then he shook mine. I’d never met the man. I told him who I was.

He kept his game face, but made a gesture of triumph and looked me in the eye. “Before we do anything,” he said. “Thank you for what you’re doing. You’re teaching us all a valuable lesson. The stories are better than the drinks themselves.”

I gaped at him until he vanished behind the curtains.

Jackson Cannon appeared with some of the Eastern Standard crew—assistant manager Kevin Martin, bartender Nicole Lebedevich, ace mixologist Tommy Schlesinger-Guidelli. Cannon saw me and rushed over, excited.

“I’ve been talking to my father a lot about the Periodista,” he said. “My father has read every word of Hemingway—letters, everything. He has some ideas, but we’ll talk about that later. I’m toying with this theory that it might be connected with the Sandanista movement in the ‘80s.”

Hadn’t somebody said that to me earlier?

“Whatever it ends up being,” he said, “I just want to thank you. You’ve made us turn a more critical eye on ourselves.”

Cannon took something out of his pocket and placed it in my hand. It was a golden key. He muttered something about a “breakfast” before being swept away by the crowd. I stared at the key for a full calendar minute. It didn’t have anything constructive to say, so I put it in my pocket and tried to remember what I was doing there.

Time continued to pass. Suddenly, a man with a microphone began to announce the main event. All I heard was enthusiastic static. Then the team from Drink began to file out from behind the curtain and take their places at the bar. There was John and Misty. Scott Marshall came out, Josey Packard and Sam Treadway, Cali Gold and Bryn Tattan. Barbacks Will Thompson and Tyler Wang slid in behind them. Even Drink’s hostess, Rebekah Powers, was there to work the crowd.

A moment later a globe of light appeared in front of the bar. It was filled by the forms of Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, Audrey Saunders, Jim Meehan, Tony Abou-Ganim, and others I didn’t recognize. These were the kings and queens of the bar world. This is why I was here: to find these people and ask them what they knew about the Periodista. I had a goal, and there it was, lit up like a Broadway show. Only a velvet rope blocked my path.

The Drink team went to work churning out cocktails. Butler and Bunnewith shouted like Red Sox fans as DeGroff, Wondrich, and the others sampled the drinks. I tried to shuffle nervously on the spot, but my shoes were sticking to the floor.

Soon the judging was over and the six bars were opened to the guests. I ranged blearily from station to station, sampling drinks that had originated in New York, Florida, California. One from Chicago was named for a Tom Waits song and contained citric acid and baking soda. My head was a wreck. I wondered who’d been driving.

The man with the microphone turned out to be Steve Olson, of AKA Wine Geek. Suddenly he was on a stage with a look of deep meaning on his face. It was the moment of truth. The room fell silent as the runner-up was announced. Varnish, from Los Angeles.

The room cheered as rooms do for runners-up. I turned around to look at the crowd and saw a sea of Boston faces. Dave Cagle and Max Toste from Deep Ellum were there. The team from Eastern Standard. Lantheaume and the Glassers. Kitty Amann, Joy Richard, and the other ladies of LUPEC Boston. Drinkers I’d seen at various bars around town. All holding their breath.

“And the winner,” Olson said, “of the best bar in America is—DRINK.”

Then there was a moment in which we were all one. The Boston contingent erupted as only Bostonians can. Screams, tears, profanity. There was no tension, no competition. It was a community celebrating the triumph of one of its own. Where I fit in, I didn’t know, but there I was, and I hugged each of them like I was right where I was supposed to be. Scott’s wife kissed me on the cheek. I was lost in the collective outpouring of joy.

And later, even after they had won, Cali scrubbed the bar top clean and Will made sure everyone had a bottle of water in their hand.

Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 3 — The Mixoloseum

Continued from Part 2…

Our cab stopped in front of a townhouse barred by a six-foot-high iron gate. We stepped out into a roaring symphony of cicadas. Adam Lantheaume hit the buzzer on the gate. A plastic banner strapped to an upper balcony read The Mixoloseum. I could hear the wailing of a clarinet off in the distance. We spent a few minutes baking in the night air before a man in faded gray livery let us in.

“Welcome to Mixo House,” he said.

A long hallway with white wainscoting led us into a room full of people. At the back wall, a man with a straw fedora and bushy mustache was buried in a thicket of bottles, stirring frantically. Next to him, chips of ice were flying out of a huddle of men flinging small hammers. It smelled strongly of bourbon.

Bulleit is underwriting a lot of the costs of the house this year.” A man in a tan linen shirt and sandals was standing beside me. He had small, intense eyes and a glass in each hand. “And the food—there’s food out on that table, help yourself to it—the food was also underwritten by Bulleit. The shuttle that will take you back to the hotel was—”

I guessed. Underwritten by Bulleit.

“Yep,” the man said. “For them, it’s a bit of guerilla marketing. For us, it’s a way to evangelize certain brands we’re interested in that other people might not know about.”

I asked who “we” was.

“Most of the people here are members of the Cocktail and Spirits Online Writers Group,” the man said. “It’s mostly bloggers, but we have a few journalists as well.”

I told him who I was. He already knew.

“I really like what you’re doing,” he said. “If you keep it up, there could definitely be a place for you here.”

He surveyed the room as a Baron might his acreage, and drank deeply from the glass in his right hand. I asked him where “here” was.

“This is Mixo House,” he said. “Two years ago, the members of the CSOWG started renting out a bed and breakfast at Tales of the Cocktail. Most of us stay here instead of the Hotel Monteleone. There’s an appeal to being outside of the Quarter—these are not necessarily Bourbon street people. And we have events each night. Tonight some bartenders from Louisville are doing custom ice-carving.”

One of the carvers tossed a perfectly-formed ice sphere to the bartender, who capped off an Old Fashioned with it. Sugar, bitters, spirit, ice. Within the room, people mingled, lounged on couches, gestured furiously, laughed. And drank.

“Mixo House is a place for us to gather and be together once a year,” he continued. He pointed to a big man dressed in casual tiki. “Matt Robold over there—Rumdood—he’s from Southern California. The woman with the hair, that’s Tiare from A Mountain of Crushed Ice. She’s based out of Sweden. This is one of her only trips to the States each year. There’s a camaraderie that forms among us online, and one week a year, at Mixo House, we get to have that in person.”

These were my people, then. The chroniclers. The documentarians. The seekers. I recognized Paul Clarke chatting with Camper English. They’re both well-regarded drinks journalists as well as prominent bloggers. I saw myself joining the conversation, becoming a note of harmony in the larger cocktailia chorus.

Someone put an Old Fashioned in my hand. I drank it. It was sweet and strong, warm and balanced. The kind of drink you could curl up with and forget the chase. Forget the chase.

I had the sudden sensation of falling. My body jolted. I looked around, eyes throbbing. More laughter. A shaker tortured ice across the room. The acrid smell of bitters was trapped in my nose.

I was getting in too deep.  I finished my drink in a swallow and left. For the moment, I’d completely forgotten the Periodista.

To be continued…

Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 2 — Clues at Cure

Continued from Part 1…

I knew Adam Lantheaume as the owner and operator of The Boston Shaker, a cocktail supply shop in Davis Square. He was at Tales of the Cocktail hosting a coming-out party for a new product line.  Bittermens bitters, made by a husband and wife team based in Somerville. The party was at Cure, New Orleans’s hottest new cocktail bar, located five minutes from absolutely nothing.

When I arrived I made nice with the Bostonians then went to the bar for a drink. Before I could order, somebody handed me a glass of punch. In the corner, Lantheaume was placing a drop of bitters on the back of a woman’s hand with an eye dropper. She licked her hand and her eyes scrunched up, then widened. Call that a sale.

It was early but the place was packed. The back bar at Cure is floor-to-ceiling bottles. Death’s Door white whiskey. Chartreuse VEP, yellow and green. Rums from countries I’d never heard of.  A man in a pinstripe suit asked for a single-village Mezcal, neat. The order sent a barback scaling the wall. I drank my punch.

From the slurry of nearby conversations I picked out the name Angus Winchester and connected it to a man in a dark suit with a starched white shirt opened two buttons down from his throat. Winchester is the brand ambassador for Tanqueray gin and a friend of Brother Cleve’s. He’d been helping me chase a lead I’d gotten from Beach Bum BerryCharles Schumann’s Tropical Bar Book, published in Germany in 1986. So far, it was the earliest printed reference to the Periodista anyone had been able to find. Schumann is based out of Munich. Winchester knew him—he’s based out of everywhere.

I introduced myself. Winchester had something new for me.

“Have you ever heard of The Bartender’s Sixth Sense?” he asked. “It’s a sort of Cuban-y bartending book. I mentioned the Periodista to Michael Menegos. He’s Havana Club. Global ambassador kind of guy. He said that would be the book that he’d go to first, because it’s filled with a lot of Cuban recipes. It’s difficult to find, but Michael has it in his library. So Michael is sort of on the case.”

A shock of white hair announced the appearance of Wayne Curtis. Curtis writes on travel and spirits for The Atlantic. He’d also written a book called And A Bottle Of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. Guess which drink didn’t make the shortlist.

I excused myself from Winchester and approached Curtis for an introduction. Apparently I didn’t need one.

“While I was working on the rum book,” he said, “I collated all my facts and names and dates into one big hundred-thousand-word volume so I could keyword search it. I looked for the Periodista, but couldn’t find anything.”


“I think you’re right,” he said, “that it probably appeared in connection with the Sandanistas in the 1980s. If you can’t find reference to the drink before then, that seems like a good theory to me.”

A good theory, maybe, but not mine.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, someone suggested that to me in connection with the Periodista.”

I felt suddenly as if eyes were boring into the back of my head. Who else out there was on the trail of the Periodista?

“I like this crew of people,” Curtis said. He was taking in the room. “I’ve done a lot of travel writing for the past twenty years, and I’ve never really liked travel writers. I find them a disagreeable group. But the drinks people, they’re just really a lot of fun. They all seem to carry with them some form of passion. It’s interesting. They all seem to focus on one thing. It might be a bitters, it might be a bourbon, it might be an era—you know, drinks of the 1910s or something—and they just get obsessed about that.”

He didn’t give me a pointed look. He didn’t have to. I finished my punch as a man approached and held out his hand to Curtis. He had a weathered face, long gray hair hanging loose around his shoulders, and stood a head taller than the rest of the room.

“You hookey-playing sonovabitch,” the tall man said to Curtis.

“Speaking of which,” Curtis said, “this is Ed Hamilton. He’s a rum expert. He’s put out a few books on rum. Ed, have you ever heard of the Periodista?”

“I do know the cocktail,” Hamilton said, turning to me. “But, I’m not a cocktail guy. I spent twenty years on a sailboat in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean a cocktail is, ‘Well, what do we got? Squeeze that, put some rum in it. Oh, it needs some sugar, okay. Oh, it needs more lime, okay.’ And away you go.”

I thought about a world where a cocktail was so simple. No obscure ingredients. No specialized tools. No origins. No histories. Just a cold drink on a hot day that steels the spirit. Then I remembered that most people live in that world. I had, too, not so long ago.

Hamilton mentioned the Bacardis. In Cuba, the Bacardi name was synonymous with rum before Castro. “There’s a guy who’s written a book about it,” he said. “That might be a place to look. He’s part of the Bacardi family. I can’t think of his fuckin’ name. Little short sonovabitch. They’re still family-owned, but they really control any information that goes out about the company.”

Them and everyone else. That added up to a few solid leads—a few not so solid.  Someone handed me another glass of punch. What did a guy have to do to pay for a drink in this town?

I drank punch until my head began to feel like something hanging in a butcher shop window, then got into a cab with Lantheaume. We rode across the city. Outside the cab, the residential blocks of New Orleans glided past. Stately old homes with painted shutters and wide porches, raised galleries with wrought iron railings. I thought about Katrina. I thought about BP. But it all just looked like a fairy tale.

To be continued…

Bonus recipe!

Charles Schumann’s Periodista

1 ½ oz white rum
2 splashes apricot brandy
2 splashes triple sec
Juice of ½ lime
1 tsp sugar
1 scoop crushed ice

Mix in a shaker.  Serve in a Cocktail glass, with a lime twist.

From Charles Schumann’s Tropical Bar Book (1986, 1989).

Tasting notes: The most salient thing to notice here is the similarity between this recipe and the first Chez Henri recipe that Joe McGuirk adapted from his original source (note the addition of a small amount of sugar in both). Joe acknowledged that the recipe he discovered in that long-forgotten drinks pamphlet called for white Cuban rum, as does Schumann’s. It was only after McGuirk tinkered with it that he arrived at the current, dark rum version of the drink so popular throughout Boston. Joe claims that the recipe he adapted called for Rose’s lime juice rather than fresh, which may be an indicator of when that pamphlet might have been published.

Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 1 — The Monteleone

I was wrenched from sleep by my iPhone alarm clock. For a second I just lay there, my head throbbing in time with the electronic marimba beeping on the bedside table. My mind ached with alcohol and half-forgotten names. It was 9:30 a.m., I’d just gone to bed three hours earlier, and I was going to be late for my first seminar.

I’d arrived in New Orleans the day before. The Crescent City was playing host to Tales of the Cocktail, an annual conference celebrating all things drink. All the big shots were there—authors, celebrity bartenders, liquor company and brand representatives. It was the largest gathering of cocktail intelligentsia I could hope to find in a single place.

I was there for one reason. For the past two months I’d been trying to track down the origins of the Periodista cocktail. I’d traced its route through Boston, from its discovery in a long-forgotten cocktail pamphlet, to its reinvention by a French-Cuban bistro, to its appearance on the menu of the city’s most influential cocktail bar. From obscurity to ubiquity in fifteen years. Then I’d hit a wall.

I needed to widen my search beyond Boston, and Tales of the Cocktail was the place to start. Brother Cleve, my man on the inside, had helped me compile a list of key players. The big guns were Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich. DeGroff is the elder statesman of the bar world—he was squeezing fresh juices when the current generation was playing peek-a-boo. Wondrich is the beverage writer for Esquire magazine and a walking encyclopedia of cocktail lore. Then there was Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry, Wayne Curtis, and Ted Haigh, all authors of books on cocktails, all friends of Cleve’s. The man knows everyone.

I arrived at Louis Armstrong International Airport early and sober. New Orleans was a furnace. My cab was a sauna. I needed a drink.

The home base for Tales of the Cocktail is the Hotel Monteleone, a grand old edifice that towers over the squat townhouses of the French Quarter. I stepped into the lobby and the smell of gin hit me. Someone handed me a drink in a plastic cup.

The cocktail people seemed to gather together in packs. There was the tiki set, mostly older men in straw hats and Hawaiian shirts. The hipster bartenders, younger folks coated in tattoos and skinny jeans. There were the Europeans—Brits and Continentals sweating in their expensive suits. Mixed in was a smattering of tourists who hadn’t been told about the conference. Most of them were already drunk.

Before I could empty my plastic cup I had seen three bartenders I knew from Boston, two famous authors, three bloggers, the head of a cross-continental speakeasy empire, and myself in a mirror, looking wrinkled and limp from the humidity. I escaped into the hotel bookstore.

They were pushing the typical selection. Imbibe! was there, alongside a reprint of the Savoy. But a new one caught my eye. Cuba: A History of Rum, by Anistatia Miller & Jared Brown. The story around Boston was that the Periodista was a classic Cuban cocktail. One of the ones Hemingway drank at El Floridita. But so far, no one had been able to prove it.

I reached for the book and a woman carrying a stack of the same bumped into me and began laying them out. She had long salt-and-pepper hair, a floppy hat, and a name tag that said Anistatia Miller.

I asked her about the Periodista.

“Oh yeah, the Periodista,” she said. “I’m sure there’s a recipe in El Arte Del Cantinero. That’s a bar guide that was put out by the Havana Bartender’s Guild in 1948. I’ve got most of that scanned on my computer back in England. Give me your card and I’ll send you the pages when I get home from the tour.”

I gave her one of my cards. I’d made cards. She took it and went back into the lobby. Not a bad lead for the first five minutes on the scene.

The bar at the Monteleone is called the Carousel. I walked inside and almost fell down. A huge, slowly rotating carousel dominates the room, with a few tables scattered around it. The gradual motion seems designed to make the sober feel drunk and the drunk feel sober. There’s a large room behind the bar, where a local radio station was interviewing a gray-haired man wearing headphones.  It might have been Dale DeGroff, but I didn’t stick around to find out.

I drank Pimm’s Cups and ate Muffaletta at the Napoleon House down the street until I felt almost human. Then I got on a red streetcar heading up Canal. An old man listening to a Sony Cassette Walkman played ghost bass on an umbrella. It didn’t sound bad. I got off the streetcar at South Lopez. I was two miles from the French Quarter and there were purple Mardi Gras beads in the gutter.

The Monteleone was a scene, but the India House Hostel had it beat for price. The place was lousy with Australians, but the AC worked and the sheets were clean. I dropped my bag and got back on a streetcar heading east, toward the Garden District and Cure.

To be continued…

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