A Tale of Two Piscos: Pisco Portón and La Caravedo

Imagine you’ve taken a seat at your friendly neighborhood craft cocktail bar. As you scan the bottles, you see all manner of gins, tequilas, rums, brandies, but only a single bottle labeled “whiskey” – no Scotch, no bourbon, and no rye – just “whiskey.” You opt for a classic Manhattan, made with, of course, whiskey. Your first sip is filled with smoke and brine – it seems it’s a smoky Scotch whiskey, rather than a vanilla forward bourbon or a spicy rye like you’d expect.  Suddenly that classic Manhattan is not such a classic anymore.

You might think it’s ridiculous for a bar to have only one type of “whiskey” when there’s such a broad range of flavor profiles, but something akin to this happens with pisco, the wonderful grape-based brandy from Peru. If a bar has pisco at all, it’s likely to be a single bottle, which is a shame because the range of piscos available have quite a range of flavors. I was vividly reminded of this recently when I sampled two piscos from the same producer side-by-side.

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Vermouth: A Wonky Primer on What It Is and How to Care for It

There’s an old trope about ordering a “dry” martini so devoid of vermouth that the bottle was merely opened in an adjoining room, or that the word “vermouth” was merely whispered nearby. People who think this is clever not only exhibit a huge misunderstanding of what “dry” means, but are also missing out on experiencing a vibrant cocktail the way it’s supposed to taste. Sure, go drink asi watered down, chilled glass of gin, or worse yet, vodka, if that’s your version of a good martini. Vermouth gets a bad rap from people who don’t understand it and why it’s a frequent player in both classic and modern cocktails. With several vermouth reviews coming up on the blog, it’s worth outlining the essentials to set a baseline to build on.

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Grape Escape: Peru’s Pisco Varietals at Tales of the Cocktail 2015

Pisco is a spirit that’s taken me a while to wrap my head around. A clear, grape-based spirt from South America, I’ve been enchanted by it since my first sip, and later making my first pisco punch at home. But once you seek to move beyond the Pisco Sour, its many styles and terminology are daunting. In exchange for gaining this awareness, you’ll discover a world-class spirit that’s a joy both neat and in cocktails, and yet is a bargain when compared to tequila, cachaça, brandy, and so on.

Much like bourbon has specific rules (at least 51% corn, aged in new American oak barrels, etc.), the production of Peruvian Pisco also has very specific regulations, which make it equally worthy of attention as French Cognac (also a grape-based brandy) or single-malt Scotch. I have explicitly specified “Peruvian” pisco here because both Chile and Peru claim it as their own and have intense national rivalries about who makes the “real” Pisco. From an outsider’s perspective, the Peruvian regulations are more stringent and, based on price, are more highly valued. For our purposes here, “pisco” means Peruvian Pisco.

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A Wonk’s First Trip to Tales of the Cocktail

It’s 11 PM, and after a long day, Mrs. Wonk and I are bone-tired. Yet we’re standing in a large courtyard in New Orleans where despite the late time, it’s still approximately 1000 degrees. On a raised platform some twenty feet above us, a Star Wars storm trooper DJs away. Behind him is an actual, honest-to-goodness World War II-era bomber, suspended in mid-air. Nearby a dystopian Thunderdome scene plays out as sporadic giant belches of flames erupt into the (already way too hot) night. Yet a few hours earlier, I was sipping a magnificent selection of Guyanese rums, pulled straight from the cask, not available anywhere else.  At Tales of the Cocktail, this is just another day as usual.
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Cocktail Obsession: The Starboard (Pisco, Suze, and Apricot)

One of the benefits of getting to know your local bartender is figuring out what they’re passionate about and then letting them run loose with that desire. At a recent pisco throwdown at Damn the Weather in Seattle, I learned that Canon’s Dustin Haarstad is a bit of a Pisco freak. Fast forward a few months and I found myself on a slow evening at Canon with Dustin and Chris Goad at the bar. Canon is a place that has an exceptional menu (Tales of the Cocktail nominatedagain for 2015), but is also a bonanza of great mixology when you let the staff run wild. On this particular night, I remembered that Dustin has an affinity for pisco, so I went dealer’s choice, aka “Shrouded Roulette” in Canon parlance. The result was the Starboard – Pisco, Salers and Apricot Liqueur. I completely dig this drink – it’s light yet complex, and not particularly difficult to make. Dustin graciously provided me with the recipe and the okay to publish it.
Conceptually, the Starboard falls into the way-out Negroni category. Wait, what? None of the classic Negroni ingredients (gin, Campari, vermouth) are in the Starboard. However, it’s commonplace to swap out gin in a Negroni for other base spirits: Use bourbon instead of gin in a Negroni and you have a Boulevardier. Using rum instead of gin yields a Right Hand, a particular favorite of mine, especially when it’s a pungent Jamaican rum.
While a classic Negroni is 1:1:1 with its ingredient ratios, a growing trend in Negroni variations is to bump up the base spirit and reduce the bitter Campari and sweet vermouth components accordingly. This helps keep the more delicate, floral base spirits like pisco from being overwhelmed by the bitter component, e.g. Campari. Pisco, in case you’re wondering, is made in Peru and Chile from grapes, making it technically a brandy. Peruvian and Chilean piscos are quite different when examined with more than a casual glance; in general, Peruvian pisco is better suited for a cocktail like the Starboard.
The Starboard trades the firetruck-red Campari component of a Negroni for a slightly more subtle but still powerful bitter French amaro. Salers, which is strongly flavored with gentiane root and offers a bold greenish-yellow hue. (Truthfully, I prefer it to Campari in my drinks.) While Dustin’s recipe calls for Salers, I successfully reproduced this at home with Suze, another gentiane-based liqueur from France with a similar color and flavor profile.
Lastly, the Starboard cocktail replaces the sweet vermouth with apricot liqueur. You’ll want a sweet liqueur here, not a dry apricot brandy or eau de vie. While apricot liqueur is generally sweeter than a sweet vermouth, the overall sweetness is tempered by the larger ratio of pisco to liqueur. Dustin and I both used Giffard Abricot du Roussillon. (Giffard, also from France, makes an outstanding lineup of liqueurs and syrups. The Giffard orgeat is my go-to almond syrup when mixing Tiki drinks.
The Starboard Cocktail
  • 1.5 oz Peruvian Pisco
  • 0.75 Gentiane aperitif, e.g. Salers or Suze
  • 0.5 Apricot liqueur, e.g. Giffard Abricot du Roussillon
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express a lemon twist over the top, then drop in.

The Starboard Cocktail, as prepared by Dustin Haarstad at Canon, Seattle.

Checking out Amaro Lucano

 Several years ago, when I was a less-experienced cocktail wonk just starting with my spirits collection, I quickly ran head-first into the confusing category of amaros (aka amari), Italian for “bitter.” Amari are liqueurs created by infusing dozens of herbs and spices in alcohol, then sweetened and diluted to make them consumable neat–assuming you have a moderately adventurous palate. So many strange names– Campari, Ramazzotti, Gran Classico! So many unusual ingredients – gentian, cinchona bark, citrus peels, rhubarb, saffron! Where to begin? I quickly learned that collecting amaris, especially with so many hard-to-find bottles, can be an addicting and expensive habit. It’s a  bit like baseball cards were when I was a kid – once I had a few, I wanted the whole set which makes for a lot of bottles to track down. In this post we’ll take a close look at Amaro Lucano, a mainstream Italian amaro with a long history.

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Bar Notes: Black Angel’s (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8.5/10

Black Angel’s has three great things going for it: A clever menu, fairly well executed cocktails, and fabulous atmosphere! Easily in the top 10 percent of the coolest bar spaces I have visited. It’s actually a hotel bar, although with its subterranean stone cellar vibe, it doesn’t feel like it.
To get to Black Angel’s, enter the Hotel U Prince in the Old Town Square and descend two flights of solid wooden stairs. (Note the decades of wear on those suckers—and watch your step.) Within the hotel’s stone foundation you’ll find several rooms on multiple levels, dimly lit with lots of candles, giving the overall feel of a medieval castle. Although not obvious at first, there are two bars – the first one you see at the foot of the stairs is the service bar; the main seating bar is in the room to the right.
The hard-bound cocktail menu offers a fairly large set of options and divides the drinks into categories, with lots of house originals in addition to the expected classics. Best section: The “No Comment… :)” – See the photos.  (Though Mrs. Wonk in particular was dismayed to note the inclusion of the Negroni on the “no comment” list, alongside offerings like Sex on the Beach or a Tequila Sunrise.  Since when is a Negroni an embarrassing thing to order?) I noticed a few house made ingredients but not the same cornucopia as other bars.
Drink execution was precise; bartenders sported white dress shirts and ties. I particularly enjoyed the Becher Mai-Tai (Becherovka, Cuban rums, amaretto, lemon juice and maracuja, aka passion fruit syrup). Mrs. Wonk was enamored with the Black Angel’s Old Fashioned (Saffron and Beefeater 24 gins, simple syrup, Rhubarb and Peychaud’s bitters), with the highlight being the many-faceted and perfectly clear “jewel” ice cube, presented alongside the drink on a silver tray.  It attracted the attention of other drinkers, for sure.

The bar is steps from the Old Town Square and a totally fun experience, especially on a cold Christmas night after a four hour train ride from Vienna. Recommended.

Imbibe Magazine / Aviation Gin Late Night Italian Supper at Trick Dog

Prepping the pre-dinner cocktail. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

Last week I was in San Francisco for a tech conference, accompanied by Mrs. Wonk. San Francisco is a hotbed of well-regarded bars and at the forefront of a lot of today’s mixology, so when I saw an announcement that Imbibe magazine, Aviation Gin and locally renowned bar Trick Dog were presenting a cocktail dinner while we were in town, I was elated. Three of my favorite things! I even woke up Mrs. Wonk to tell her the good news.  (Good thing she was excited too.)

Aviation Gin is one of the better known products from Portland’s House Spirits, which I’ve written about previously in my Bridgetown Rum review. Both House Spirits and Imbibe magazine (which needs no introduction in cocktail circles) are from Portland, so I was surprised to see they chose San Francisco for the event. Within the city’s cocktail scene, Trick Dog is consistently ranked among the top bars. On our second visit to Trick Dog (as with my earlier visit), we came away impressed by the caliber of what they do there.

Although many San Francisco bars don’t serve food (and really, sometimes making a bowl of nuts available would go a long way), Trick Dog is complemented by a fully functional restaurant, with new chef Michael Logan manning the kitchen. The dinner’s theme was “North Beach Italian Supper,” celebrating San Francisco’s Italian-influenced North Beach neighborhood. Each of the three courses were served with cocktail pairings featuring a liquor from the House Spirits lineup.

Photo credit: Allison Webber.

Trick Dog had closed early on this Sunday night to prepare for the 9 pm event. The restaurant was empty and quiet except for the bustle of service staff, busily preparing food and prepping cocktails. As the evening’s attendees filtered in, we were greeted by an off-menu but delicious opening cocktail (a sherry cobbler over crushed ice in a short metal tumbler—always a Wonk favorite) and prior to the formal start I had the opportunity to chat for a while with representatives of both Imbibe and Aviation Gin.

Welcome toast. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

Eventually it came time to take our places for dinner. While most of the guests ascended the stairs to the upper dining room, perched above the kitchen and bar, about ten lucky folks, Mrs. Wonk and myself included, were seated at the bar. While we could hear a great time being had upstairs, we bar-sitters enjoyed our front-row seats and chatting with Trick Dog’s friendly staff as they worked through their cocktail preparation and food service. The other advantage of being at the bar was the more than occasional extra pour of leftover cocktails. The food was well executed and served family style, with plenty to go around – so much that I eventually cried uncle, but a satisfied cry at that.

Fritto misto. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

The courses began with fritto misto and bagna cauda, essentially Italian tempura with an olive-oil dipping sauce, along with misticanza, a chopped salad of mixed Little Gem lettuce, salami, mozzarella, and olives, with a lemon-oregano vinaigrette. This starter set was paired with the Pizza Negroni, a twist on the traditional Negroni using mozzarella-washed Aviation gin, Campari, Martini & Rossi Gran Lusso, and tomato water. Mozzarella-washing, or more generally “fat washing,” is simply infusing a spirit with a flavorful fat, relying on the natural solvent properties of ethanol to extract flavors. (Typically a short time in a freezer is enough to solidify the fat for easy separation from the infused spirit.)

Here come the pizza negronis! Photo credit: Allison Webber.

I was honestly a little apprehensive about what the Pizza Negroni would taste like, but it pleasantly surprised me. It’s rare that a drink’s intensity increases with time, and the Pizza Negroni certainly did. At first the mozzarella influence was mild, but by the time I finished the pour it was mozzarella overload in the best possible way. I might not drink it every night, but it was certainly a fun and interesting taste experience that I’d absolutely recommend.

The second course was ricotta and eggplant cannelloni and chicken cacciatore over housemade pasta. It was paired with IGT Punch, made with Aviation gin, verjus (the pressed juice from unripe grapes—it has a subtle vinegar-like quality), Concord grape juice, House Spirits Coffee Liqueur, lemon thyme, and peppercorn. Grape was the primary character of the IGT Punch, but there was also something else I couldn’t identify. I mentioned to the bartender that it had a smoky element, almost mezcal-like, and she surprised me by admitting there was in fact a bit of “secret mezcal” in it. Win!

Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

The final course was dessert: House-made Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches, paired with a sweet cocktail made of grappa, Krogstad Aquavit (courtesy of House Spirits, naturally), peach, and amaro (though we were enjoying it too much to ask which one…). By this time I’d had more than my share of the IGT Punch, so my recollections on this drink are a bit hazy, though Mrs.  Wonk says it was her favorite drink of the night, a balanced, slightly savory counterpoint to the sweet dessert.

Dessert cocktail. Photo credit: Allison Webber.

As the event was winding down, Morgan Schick, the creative director of the Bon Vivants (the team behind Trick Dog), came over to chat. We talked for quite a while about international travel (including his recent trip to Bogota, Colombia—definitely on the Wonks’ top-ten travel list), spirits and bars, his recommendations for other food and drink stops in San Francisco (including Bar Tartine and State Bird Provisions—both of which were on the week’s itinerary, and well worth a visit when you hit the city), and a few stories behind the ever-creative Trick Dog menu designs—both current and past. A genuinely nice guy.

Trick Dog’s current “tourist map” menu.

If you find yourself in San Francisco and are adventurous cocktail-wise, please do yourself a favor and seek out Trick Dog. Cocktail Wonk’s orders! Grab a seat at the bar and take your time perusing their ever-changing, whimsical menus. I’ve personally experienced the “Pantone color fan” and current “tourist map” menus. Not only are they clever in and of themselves, but the cocktails are worthy of the effort put into the design.

We visited lots of bars in the San Francisco Bay Area – stay tuned for future posts reviewing these other cocktail dens. A big thanks to Imbibe Magazine for letting me use some of their photos taken by Allison Webber in this post. For more photos from this dinner, check out the full set on Facebook.

The Hampden Negroni, featuring Smith & Cross rum

The Hampden Negroni (yeah yeah, I did this one over ice)

Next week (June 2-8, 2014) is National Negroni Week, but being impatient, I’m sharing my favorite Negroni variation now. The Negroni is a very common and simple cocktail pattern, but one that offers a near infinite variety of combinations of ingredients that sing together. To quickly recap:

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The Incomplete Sentence – A new spin on the Last Word



The “Last Word” cocktail has a certain cachet among the cocktail cognoscenti. Originally a pre-prohibition era cocktail, it came back into mainstream awareness thanks to Murray Stenson during his time at Zig Zag in Seattle. The Last Word is one of those rare cocktails, along with the Negroni and Blood and Sand, that use equal amounts of all ingredients, making it easier to mix, especially in batches. Speaking of batches, a friend went to Burning Man last year and made up single serving batches of Last Words in sealed pouches that he kept chilled till ready to serve. But that’s a story for another time.


Anyhow, the classic Last Word goes like this: 
  • 1 part Green Chartreuse
  • 1 part dry gin 
  • 1 part lime juice 
  • 1 part Maraschino 

Now, I’m a big fan of a classic Last Word. However, to a generation raised on Cosmos and other “non-challenging” cocktails, the Chartreuse can be bracing. A few years ago, Murray was on the Today Show with Kathy Lee and Hoda, and he prepared Last Words for them. On the air they fawned over it, however when I asked Murray about it later, he indicated that it was a very different story once the cameras weren’t rolling.

At some point I had the idea to tone the Last Word down a bit, but without losing the essential character. I dubbed it the “Incomplete Sentence” as a play on the Last Word theme. 

The Incomplete Sentence
  • 1 part Yellow Chartreuse
  • 1 part Old Tom-style gin 
  • 1 part Meyer Lemon juice (use lime juice if not available)
  • 1 part Maraschino
  • Shake with ice, strain into a chilled coupe
In addition to its strong taste, at 55% ABV the Chartreuse adds an extra element of alcohol to a drink that already has two other spirits, so toning that down is a good place to start. A lot of folks don’t realize that there’s both green and yellow version of Chartreuse. The yellow version is a bit milder and sweeter in flavor, specifically to make it more accessible. At 40% ABV it reduces the overall kick of the drink 

The other changes beside the Chartreuse are switching to Meyer Lemon, which is a bit lighter, and using an Old Tom style gin. Old Tom gins are typically sweeter than a London Dry style gin, thus helping the bringing the overall flavor profile into a happier state. As is often the case with improvisational cocktails, knowing patterns and good alternatives is key to creating something amazing that you can call your own and amaze your friends with.