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:

Continue reading “The Hampden Negroni, featuring Smith & Cross rum”

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.

A bartender’s notebook for the 21st century

A well-established maxim in mixology circles is that bartenders should keep a notebook of recipes they’ve made, experiments in progress, and so on. Usually this is the form of a small spiral notebook or index cards. I completely agree that if you’re passionate about mixology, a good repository for your experiences and ideas is essential. What I disagree with is the archaic method of writing down by hand every worthwhile recipe or scrap of information. Notebooks can easily be misplaced, spilled on or any number of other calamities. Plus hunting for that one recipe with that one ingredient is tedious at best.

Being a technology focused guy, and having worked for Microsoft, I immediately saw the benefit of using OneNote. Before you think “Ugh…. too much work”, or “Ugh…. Microsoft…”  and stop reading, consider this:

  • It’s a free on the web, and runs in your browser – All you need is a free live.com account.
  • It has free mobile apps for IOS, Android and Windows Phone.
  • Any addition or change you make in one location seamlessly appears everywhere else.
  • Searching for anything (cocktail names, ingredients, etc..) is trivial.
  • The desktop version of OneNote rocks and is included in the Office suite – You may already have it.

Although I’ve never used EverNote, I believe it has similar functionality so you can probably substitute Evernote for what follows.

My main use of OneNote is recording each new cocktail recipe the first time I make it. It’s then really easy to look up later, perhaps when a friend is over and I want to show off the drink. Each cocktail typically gets its own page. The exception is when I’m working on a recipe and have multiple iterations.

Here’s what a typical page in my OneNote notebook looks like:

Entering recipes is really simple. If it’s my own recipe I just type in the ingredients. If it’s a recipe on the web, a simple copy/paste does the trick, and as a bonus I get the original page URL automatically. I usually include my impressions, and suggestions for what I might do differently next time.

It might seem like a lot of work to enter recipes, but you’d be doing more work writing by hand in a notebook. If you just enter one recipe at a time, you’ll probably spend 30 seconds total. Just get in the groove of doing it and not making a big deal out of it. Thanks to the magic of the cloud you now have your notebook backed up – You can’t lose it like a physical notebook. And once you’ve built up your collection, here’s a few ways that having your notebook online is awesome:

I have X. What can I do with it? Recently we had fresh grapefruits that needed to be used soon. What had I made with grapefruit previously? A quick search turned up every recipe I’ve made that uses grapefruit. The same goes for ingredients. Maybe you just got a new Old Tom gin, for instance. What can you do with it?

Suddenly you’re the bartender! At gatherings, people sometimes recall that I’m pretty good with a shaker and I’m now facing a random collection of spirits and mixers and expected to produce magic. What can I make? With OneNote on my iPhone I have a fighting change of finding a trusted recipe using the ingredients at hand.

The right device in the right place. Adding text on a phone is slow and error prone. I usually add recipes on my laptop upstairs, or sometimes on the iPad. But when I need the recipe I’m usually at my bar downstairs. Rather than running back and forth to the computer or trying to find space for my iPad on my bar, I just grab my iPhone knowing that the recipe is synced to it.

Even the simple page-per-recipe usage is worlds better than a handwritten notebook. But I go a step further, using sub-pages to loosely categorize drinks, e.g Tiki, Negroni Variations, and so on. I also make separate sections for things like:

  • “Best spirits” lists
  • Party planning
  • Recipes for shrubs
  • Bars I want to visit while travelling

Long story short, a notebook is an incredibly useful tool, but even though you enjoy pre-prohibition era cocktails doesn’t mean you have to suffer with pre-prohibition era tools. A little effort here pays big dividends.

Rums for the Aspiring Cocktail Wonk

I love all my spirit friends – There are multiple fine specimens of Whiskey, Bourbon, Tequila, Gin, and Brandy in my home bar, but the spirit I’m truly wonky for is Rum.  Rum continues to have a bad reputation among many with only a glancing familiarity of the spirit. A common refrain I hear is “It’s too sweet”, which confounds me because I find commonly used rums to be no more or less sweet than other base spirits. While rum is made from sugar or molasses, the distillation process removes nearly all of the sugar content. No, I believe people think rum is sweet because of crappy drinks made with too much day-glow syrup. 

Something that surprises people is just how diverse a category rum is. The difference between Bacardi Silver (unfortunately many people’s only reference point) and a sipper like Ron Zacapa 23, or the extremely funky Smith And Cross is many times greater than the diversity found in Gins or Bourbons. Once you’re past the idea that rum means Captain Morgan and “Rum and Coke”, you’re ready to assemble a stable of rums that span the wide gamut of cocktail styles. Nearly every non-rum cocktail you can think of can have its base spirit substituted with a rum that makes the resulting drink equal to or better than the original – Think rum Negronis, Rum Old-fashioneds , and rum Manhattans, just for example.
There’s a ton of good resources on the web that break down rum into different styles, and in great detail, and I won’t attempt to replicate them here. The worst categorization I see is along the lines of  
  • Light 

  • Medium 

  • Dark 

Lumping dark rums together is like lumping Fiats and Ferraris together because they’re both from Italy. When a drink recipe calls for a “dark rum”, I know to keep it as a safe distance.  A slightly better categorization, but one that still is confusing unless you’re a serious rum-wonk is regional. Examples of this include: 
  • Virgin Island 

  • Barbados (Bajan) 

  • Rhum Agricole 

  • Demerara 

  • Jamaican 

The problem here is that there’s still a enormous difference between rums in the same geographical category.  The agricole designation encompasses both relatively young versions that you’d mix with and aged sippers like Clement Grande Reserve. Likewise with Jamaican rums – Appleton V/X is a fine rum, but enormously different than my beloved Wray and Nephew overproof, full of funk and fire. The upshot is that imposing any sort of coherent taxonomy on rums is difficult at best – The ingredients, distillation and aging processes are far more important than regional designations. 

That said, here’s how I mentally organize my rum collection, including actual brands and labels. The categories are roughly ordered by how important I consider them in assembling a collection that covers the bases for making a broad set of cocktails. That is, I’d start with the “switch hitter” style before diving into the “White Agricole” style.  

Switch hitters – Solid, middle of the road rums that don’t veer too far into any  eccentricity. Good enough to sip straight, but not so expensive that you will cringe when using two ounces in a cocktail. They’re equally at home in a Palmetto (a rum Manhattan) as they’d be in a tiki fantasy. 
  • Bacardi 8 

  • Plantation 5 

  • Plantation Original Dark (80 proof) 

  • El Dorado 12 

  • Appleton 12 

Silver – These are  rums you’d use in daiquiris, mojitos and drinks where a silver tequila or vodka is used. 
The one I use consistently is Cana Brava. It’s flavor profile is night and day different than Bacardi Silver. Although I don’t have either at the moment, I like everything I’ve had from both Plantation and El Dorado, so you might consider the “3 Stars” and “3 year” respectively. 
  • Cana Brava
Funky – These are primarily useful for tiki or “island style” drinks. The “funk” comes from a relatively high amount of esters which are organic compounds with a fruity essence. Generally these rums are from Jamaica. When I think of swashbuckling pirates and rum, these funky rums are what I’m dreaming of. Much like people have strong aversions to smoky scotch or mezcal, you tend to either love or hate rum funk.

Smith and Cross is my benchmark funky rum. I’m seriously in love with its fruity essence, and at 114 proof so a little goes a long way. A Negroni made with Smith and Cross transports me to a higher plane of happiness. Wray and Nephew is even higher octane at 126 proof and the esters are quite different than Smith and Cross, and I find they complement each other.  I think of Coruba as the little brother of Smith and Cross, despite being from the Wray and Nephew portfolio. A little less Jamaican funk, but at about half the price of Smith and Cross I mix Coruba freely in my tiki drinks. 
  • Smith and Cross 

  • Wrap and Nephew White Overproof 

  • Coruba 
Luxury Sipping – I primarily sip these neat rather than mixing. Put ‘em in a snifter like a good whisky or brandy. These rums are aged for longer time periods, typically 10+ years either in a single barrel or using the Solera method. They’re sweeter, and some people call them “dessert rums.” There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how much of the sugar comes from barrel aging versus sugar added by the distiller, which the distillers frequently deny. 

This category represents a good part of my collection. Here are just a few in my bar that anybody could be confident making as their first or second purchase in this category: 
  • Zacapa 23 

  • Zaya 

  • Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva 

  • Santa Theresa 1796 

  • Plantation 20 

  • Dos Maderas P.X. 5+5 

The Zaya is a steal at around $25. It’s a good “gateway” rum to get people used to the idea of sipping rum neat rather than pouring it in a glass with Coke. 

Dark Rums – Despite my protestation earlier about using the color of a rum as a category, there are a few rums useful both for their color and the heavy body they give to tropical drinks. 
  • Lemon Hart (80 and 151) 

  • Gosling’s Black Seal 

  • Pusser’s 

  • Bacardi Select 

  • Cruzan Blackstrap 

The Cruzan Blackstrap has a particularly strong molasses flavor. A little goes a long way. 

White Agricole Style – While most rums are made from a molasses base, agricole rums are made from cane sugar juice, which is a predecessor to molasses. The taste is described as “grassy” or “vegetal”. These rums are easily used in place of rums in the Silver category above to give cocktails a different flavor element.

Although there’s a fancy official government definition for what can be called “Rhum Agricole“, including being made in Martinique, the style is made elsewhere, including Haiti and Oregon. Brazilian cachaca is very similar to an agricole style rum, the primary difference being the alcohol content it’s distilled to. 
  • La Favorite Rhum Blanc 

  • Bull Run Distillery Pacific Rum 
Spiced Rums This is a fairly wide category, as the amount and types of spices used varies widely. I don’t use spiced rums much, as I’d rather do my own infusions. However, if you must have something in this category, I’ve had good experiences with these rums: 
  • Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum 

  • Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum


Disclaimer – There are plenty of rums that I’d solidly recommend but aren’t included above because they don’t fit  well into my broad categories. Also, the list is filtered by the rums that are reasonably available to me in the United States. Much as I love my Doorly’s 12 and St. Nicholas Abbey 15 rums, it took a trip to Barbados to acquire them, and at $150/bottle for the St. Nicholas Abbey, it’s not a starter rum.