Monday, February 1, 2016

A High Mountain for Yann Martel

Yann Martel has written an exquisite novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, that called out for an exquisite concoction that would begin and end in Portugal in much the same way that the novel does.  While you can find the book in the finest shops, you can find the book and the drink in the Books Inc. newsletter and online.

Port would have been the easy choice for his drink, but it didn't make the cocktail sing like it should, so I used Madeira instead and the Portuguese fortified wine proved robust enough to play in a glass with the whiskey.  I used rye instead of sweeter bourbon because the Madeira is plenty sweet.

Martel's novel begins with a 1904 Renault that's packed to the gunnels for a trip into the title's High Mountains, so I wanted to pack his drink as full of flavors as the Renault was.  Chocolate and orange bitters mingled easily with the Madeira, and a cinnamon-stick garnish added a wonderful bouquet.

I wrapped the cinnamon stick with an orange twist to echo the orange bitters - and because it looked pretty.  Pretty never hurt a drink.  Cheers!

A High Mountain

2 oz. Rye Whiskey
1 oz. Madeira
1 dash orange bitters
1 dash chocolate bitters
Cinnamon stick and orange twist for garnish

Stir all drink ingredients with ice. Strain into an ice-filled glass. Twist orange peel around cinnamon stick for garnish.

Friday, January 1, 2016

For American Housewives, All That Glitters Is Not Gold

To say that a book made me laugh out loud is a cliché ‎ - and I hate clichés.  I hit them with shovels when I find them, then I bury them after using the shovels a second time to dig their graves.

But guess what?  Put your shovels down because Helen Ellis' collection of stories, American Housewife, made me laugh out loud.

After I was done laughing, I knew these stories would lead off 2016's selections of Drinks With Nick in the Books Inc. newsletter.

The wives in American Housewife won't be confused with Mrs. Cleaver or Shirley Partridge.  Although, after reading Shirley Jones' memoir, maybe she and Keith (David Cassidy) would be at home in Ellis' pages.


The book is funny and caustic and a little bit jaded - just the thing to go with a nice strong drink.

I'm always looking for a hook for the drinks I make, and in the case of American Housewife, the hook came when I read about one woman who weeps because she's lucky enough to have an entire drawer devoted to glitter.  For that unnamed narrator I created this.

Happy New Year - now get to reading!

All That Glitters is Not Gold

1.5 oz Campari
1 oz Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom vodka
.5 oz Cointreau
2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
Soda water
Glittery sprinkles - silver or gold - for garnish

Rim a tall glass with sprinkles.  Fill with crushed ice.  Stir all ingredients - except the soda water - with ice until chilled. Pour into the glass.  Top with soda water.  Drink with a fancy straw.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Twelve Books of Christmas

Drinks With Nick?  Twelve months, twelve books, twelve drinks, all in 2015.  So those books aren't on this list - though of course they could be.  This list, then, shows the other Best Books of 2015 according to, you know, me.

It's all fiction except for one.  If I put a wonderful explanation of why these are the best - for each of the books - I'd never get it done.  So it's here, abbreviated.  Just know - if it's here, you should read it.

If you have any questions, please, just ask. 

Sellout, Paul Beatty

A Manual For Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

Did You Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg

Between the World and Me,  Ta-Nehisi Coates
And this one makes it a baker's dozen,

Fates and Furies, Lauren Goff

City on Fire, Garth Rish Hallberg

Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson

The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra

Hotels of North America, Rick Moody

The Whites, Richard Price

Book of Aron, Jim Shepard

Dragonfish, Vu Tran

Friday, November 13, 2015

Europe is mad. The world is mad.

One of the things I enjoy about drinking is the ritual of it all.  How do you make your Manhattan?  How do you craft your perfect Old Fashioned?  When you concoct your Martini, is it always stirred, never shaken?  Forever an olive, or sometimes a twist?  We each create our own process for particular drinks - and following the process lends it familiarity.  Even if you mix it up sometimes, you'd recognize it anywhere.  Hello, old friend.  You look great tonight.

I can find solace there in the comforting ritual, and it's nights like these when solace is fleeting - so if there's something I can do to create it, to conjure it out of a cupboard, I will.

First I pick which absinthe for the drink.  Tonight we'll go French - Absente, Absinthe Refined - and I hold the cool, dark bottle in my hand, then pop the stopper and breathe in its heady, anise aroma.

Sir Ernest Shackleton had set off on his Antarctic Expedition before the war broke out.  But when it did, he knew the Expedition would have to be put on hold.  His duty was to his country, to his King.  But his King surprised him by urging him to carry on.  The King's command was given in the simplest way, with a simple word - just one - in a return telegram.  Proceed, his King said.  He and his men, he and his ship, would better serve his God and his Country by going forward, ever forward.  So.  Proceed.

The Green Fairy gets poured into the beautiful absinthe glass that Josette presented to me.  My friend had just returned from two months in France, and before she had left I had asked her - oh so politely - if she could track down a pre-ban glass for me.  Absinthe was outlawed in France in 1915 during the height of the anti-absinthe hysteria that had convulsed Europe and then the world.

There was a lot convulsing the world then.

For anyone with a stemware addiction - me, for example - absinthe would naturally taste better in a glass that had slid across many a bistro table in the 19th or very early 20th Century.  So an ounce of the Green Fairy gets poured into the glass that Josette brought back for me, the glass she found in the same shop in Paris where, two years ago, she had procured an absinthe spoon - also for me.

Unfortunately for Shackleton and his crew, their ship, the Endurance, would get caught in the pack ice of the Antarctic.  Slowly, inevitably, the ice would crush their ship, leaving the explorers stranded in the most hostile place on earth.  With what supplies they had saved, they would camp on the ice, drifting on the floe until it, too, would crack and splinter under their feet, forcing them to enter their lifeboats for a journey that had never before been attempted.

The glass is beautiful, and when you place the spoon across the top you realize that though you've done this dozens of times before, it feels right for the first time.  A real absinthe spoon laying across a real absinthe glass creates the opening notes to this symphony you're going to conduct.  In your mind, you decide that this isn't the first meeting of this spoon and this glass.  They both hail from Paris, from the same antique shop - you're certain the one had lain atop the other more than a hundred years ago.

Before the First World War had started, before Ernest Shackleton would embark on his doomed voyage, this spoon and this glass had come together - clink - to begin a symphony that would end tonight.  Absinthe in glass, spoon across, sugar on the spoon - the cube placed there with the tongs Josette had brought back together with the spoon.  Oh, Josette, thank you, Josette, you beautiful enabler, you.

After five days at sea, Shackleton and his men reached Elephant Island, and though it was the first time in 500 days that any of them had stood on solid ground, Elephant Island was as inhospitable as the floes of ice that had carried them more than 300 miles from the spot where the sea had claimed the Endurance.  Shackleton decided that their only option for survival was to take one of the lifeboats on a journey for which it was ill-prepared.  700 miles away was South Georgia Island, and on the Island was a whaling station.  That station was their only hope.

There the glass stands, holding the absinthe, the spoon holding sugar, both ready to create music that can silence, for a moment at least, the voices that are strident tonight.

Voices rejoicing in the spilling of blood; other voices calling for more, blood for blood, since they cut us, we must cut them; still others blaming the madness on climate change, on poverty, on religion; on them, not us, on us, not them.

Can we not for one day simply mourn?  Can we not feel sorrow for those massacred before we start scoring points for our side?  And that's why I'll turn to the music in the glass.  The beautiful music in the glass.  The glass rescued from Paris, where today bombs detonate and bullets are fired and innocents are slaughtered.

For what?  For idiocy.  Animal idiocy.

Doing everything they could to make the sturdiest of the lifeboats more seaworthy - adding height to its sides, sealing the new work with a mixture of paint and seal blood - Shackleton and five set sail with provisions enough only for a few weeks.  Shackleton knew that if they were adrift for any longer, the mission would have failed and they would be lost at sea.  So they set sail and for more than two weeks these six fought the stormy Southern Ocean until sighting South Georgia Island.  The whaling station.  Rescue.

The glass holds its ounce of absinthe, so now you pour cold cold water over the sugar, over the spoon, and the absinthe immediately begins to louche, turning milky, but tinted fairy green.  It happens in an instant, and the music in the glass swells as you add more water, an ounce, then two, as the sugar-cube begins to dissolve, three ounces of cold water, now four--

--and the music stops.  The symphony ends.  A century on, and it's done.

One last trek awaited Shackleton.  They had been forced ashore on the uninhabited side of South Georgia Island.  More than thirty miles of rough, mountainous ground separated him from the rescue he had sought for more than a year, so three left three behind and scrambled for a day and a half until arriving at the station.  Unwashed, matted of hair, wearing the clothes they had each worn for a year without change, the men must have presented a terrifying sight for those they first encountered.  The manager of the station looked warily at the three until Shackleton asked if he did not remember him from their previous meeting years before.  The manager thrust out his hand, "I remember your voice.  Come in, come in!"  The men of course had had no news of the world for more than a year, and scant news of the war for the six months before that, and because God and Country would be foremost in his mind, the next thing Shackleton said to the manager concerned the troubles that had just been starting when his voyage began.  "When was the war over?" he asked.  The manager was aghast.  "The war is not over," he said.  "Millions are being killed.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad."

Europe is mad.  The world is mad.  And so I take communion with the drink, use the ritual it provides, the music it makes, to silence the madness for a while.  If the mixing of the drink is the symphony, the coda, naturally, is the drinking.  You'd silenced the madness with the music you created in the glass, so you revel in that silence in the time it takes to sip, and sip.  For the time it takes to swirl the spoon inside the glass, making the rest of the sugar melt into the drink - clink clink - for the time it takes to finish the cold cocktail, with another sip, and another.

For that time, at least, you can hold the madness at bay.  Can not listen to the cacophonous voices adding to the din.  Can put off seeing if any of the people you know in France have marked themselves safe from the terror.  For that time, at least.

At least for that time.

Absinthe Drip Cocktail
(from The Savoy Cocktail Book, by Harry Craddock, 1930)

1 Liqueur Glass Absinthe 

Dissolve 1 lump of Sugar, using the French drip spoon, and fill glass with cold water. 

Image from The Savoy Cocktail Book

Monday, September 14, 2015

Twain's End for Lynn Cullen

I do these things, right?  I read and I drink.  I do other stuff, obviously, but for our purposes today it's the reading and the drinking; specifically, the creation of an individual cocktail for an individual novel.

You may have heard of San Francisco's reading program, One City One Book?  For me it's One Book One Drink.

The cocktail for Lynn Cullen's Mrs. Poe was hatched during a dinner in San Francisco held for the author.  Imagine my delight when Lynn inquired if her new book, Twain's End, might also inspire its own drink.

Three guesses what my answer was.

First things first.  A month from now, when Twain's End is published?  Get yourself to an Indie bookseller and buy yourself a copy.  Lynn breathes life into the relationship between that greatest of American greats, Mark Twain, and his young secretary, Isabel Lyon.  No spoilers here - just know that Lynn has done it again and you deserve to read a good book so do that.  Buy Twain's End on October 13th.

So, the drink.

If you exclude the words - which of course is ridiculous because this is the definitive example of the words making the man - but if you do put the words aside for just a moment, the thing people remember most about Twain is what he looked like.  The white suit.  The stern look.  Those eyebrows, that hair.  That simply wonderful hair.

I wanted to make a drink that was as recognizable as the author.  When someone said - You're drinking Twain's End - I wanted you to look at the cocktail in your hand and say - Of course I am.

So what I came up with was this.

Bascially, it's a Whiskey Cocktail with a great head on its shoulders.  A Whiskey Cocktail because that's one of the oldest cocktails we know about (thank you Jerry Thomas).  It's a drink that our Mr. Twain would have consumed, often.  It's just whiskey, bitters, and a little sugar.  If you think it sounds like an Old Fashioned, that's because it is. 

I'm using two types of bitters - Abbott's Original Bitters, sourced out of Canada by Darcy O'Neil.  Mr. O'Neil tried to recreate some of the oldest and most popular bitters there ever were - Abbott's have sadly been defunct for decades.  These were the bitters, though, that Mr. Twain would have enjoyed with his tipples, so kudos to Mr. O'Neil.  I also added Sarsaparilla Dry Bitters by Bad Dog Bar Craft because sarsparilla smells like the 19th Century (so says me).

But it's the foam that makes the Twain's End its own - and I added the sarspailla bitters to this, too, because, when you raise that glass up, the fragrance of the sarparilla is going to wash over you.  It's a lovely experience (if he says so himself).

Will you like it?  If you don't, you're un-American and probably don't like Mr. Twain anyway so off with you.  Find yourself another barstool.

One last thing - normally, you wouldn't shake a whiskey drink like this one, you'd stir it.  But because we don't have a nice cube of ice to set in the middle of the drink, to mellow the whiskey as it melts, we're going to shake it to release ice chips into the drink - and we'll mellow it that way.

Now, go read some Mark Twain to help pass the time beween now and next month.  Seriously.

Twain's End:

2 oz Bourbon
.25 oz simple syrup
1 dash Abbott's Original Bitters
1 dash Sarsaparilla bitters

Shake all vigorously with ice.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Top with Twain's Foam.

For Twain's Foam:

1 egg white
.5 oz lemon juice
2-3 teaspoons sugar
1 bar spoon Bad Dog Sarsaparilla Dry Bitters

Beat the egg white on low speed until the air bubbles decrease in size and turn white.  Add lemon juice.  Increase speed to medium and slowly add the sugar.  Continue whipping until everything is fluffy, glossy, and firm.  Add the bitters and whip just a bit more.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Hot Dudes Reading Sara Nović

First, happy birthday to me.  I just wanted to get that out of the way.  Yes, it was yesterday, and yes, this was supposed to have been posted then - but celebrations interrupted.  Forgive me?


Second, and more importantly - Sara Nović and her debut, Girl at War.  It's May's selection for Drinks With Nick.  You can see that here and buy the book there.

And trust me, you will want to buy the book.  It's harrowing and beautiful and shows the Yugoslav Wars first through the eyes of 10-year-old Ana and then the repercussions of that tragedy - again through Ana's eyes once she has become a young woman.

The book - and the drink - came to me in the most ridiculous of online ways.  It began with David Ebershoff, the acclaimed author and editor.

I've had the pleasure of meeting him on a few occasions and am friends with him online.  It was there that he introduced me - through one of his posts - to the hilarious Instagram feed Hot Dudes Reading.  It's exactly what it says - with randy captions.  Like the one posted yesterday - on my birthday.  Did I mention my birthday?

That post was par for the course.  Imagine a young man - gorgeous - sitting on the subway, reading.  He's wearing a cashmere scarf and the caption reads - this perfectly groomed gentleman is made just for me. That cashmere scarf has me thinking he appreciates the finer things in life. Weekly hot razor shaves at the Barber Shop, a 5 pm scotch, and if I were to take a gamble - I’d bet his sheets are at least 1,300 thread count. Can’t wait to take them for a test drive.

I don't just love HDR because one of their hashtags is #NoKindles.  I don't just love it because they mention a 5 pm scotch.  I don't just love it because it's an irreverent celebration of reading - books - when reading books is under fire by Kanye and Amazon and any number of other misguided souls or soulless entities.  I love it for all those reasons and because it's fun.  

We.  Need.  More.  Fun.

So David brought it to my attention, and to have a bit of fun - see sentence above - I finagled a colleague to snap some pictures of me, reading, that I would then post on David's wall.  The intention being that I would look ridiculous and David might laugh because #WNMF.

The result was stupid.  Try as he might, my coworker, Tom, who was doing the photography - poor guy, he had me to work with.  This was the result:

Stupid.  Not funny.  I should have been wearing boxers and long socks.  But it was the middle of the workday, ok?  Perhaps if we had it captioned by one of the people captioning Hot Dudes Reading it would have been funny.  Alas, it's just me, being uncomfortable, looking like an uptight white guy in Alameda (there are many of us).  

At least David had a sense of humor about it.  He commented that I should call Vogue - so maybe my attempt at the ridiculous wasn't a total failure.

The book, though.  Girl at War.  We're talking about Girl at War.  I had asked David for a copy because he'd written so highly of it.  The novel's author, Sara Nović, had been tagged in that first post of David's.  Are you following all this?  There's going to be a test.

So David secured me a copy of the book and it arrived right when I was reading possibilities for this month's Drinks With Nick - and Girl at War immediately became my selection.  Did I mention that you'll want to buy this when it's available in a few weeks?  Because you will.  Often, our histories aren't written by our historians, but by our novelists.  I know more about WWI and WWII because of Erich Maria Remarque and Dalton Trumbo and James Jones and Norman Mailer than I do from the histories I've read.  And while I was aware of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia - I'm Greek Orthodox, so the fighting resonated because of the battles between Orthodox Christians and Muslims - the war never took root in my mind.

Thanks to Sara Nović, the war has now taken root.

There's a scene near the end of the first part of the book that is so devastating, so breathtakingly horrible and at the same time life-affirming that I had to stop and put the book down.  I had to stop and put the book down and sneak upstairs where my daughters were sleeping - and while they slept I had to put my hands on them, I had to put my hands on my daughters and wait for the gentle rise and fall of their bodies while they breathed, safe and quiet, and while they slept I wept, me standing over one and then the other.

After I was certain all was well I went back downstairs and poured myself a shot of bourbon and sipped.

Just sipped quiet there in the night.

Buy Girl at War.  Ok?  Just do that when you have the chance.

To commemorate the work and to celebrate the rich history of Croatia, I updated a classic cocktail, the Flip.  These drinks that I make, though, they always rise out of the novel.  There wasn't much I knew about alcohol in that part of the Balkans other than that slivovitz - plum brandy - was popular.

I hoped Ms. Nović would mention it - and she did when Ana journeyed home and much rakia (slivovitz) was poured   So I had my start.

Flips usually are made of a spirit, egg, sugar and spice.  The spirit is often rum, brandy or whiskey - I'd substitute the slivovitz for that.  What I really wanted was to add bitters to the cocktail in addition to the spice, and plum bitters would really make the drink sing - but my usual suspects for supplying bitters came up dry when I asked for plum bitters.  That's when Facebook came into play again.

I sent out a plea for plum bitters in the East Bay and soon after I made the request my coworker Josette texted me that the Alchemy Bottle Shop in Oakland had what I needed.

Sometimes I really love the web.

Using an entire raw egg made the drink too heavy - the slivovitz couldn't stand up to it.  So I improvised and made a sliver flip using just egg white.  Živjeli!

Ana’s Silver Flip 

2 oz. Slivovitz
1 oz. simple syrup
White of one egg
3 dashes plum bitters

Shake the first four ingredients without ice.  Add ice and shake again to ensure the egg-white is emulsified.  Strain into a chilled flip glass.  Dust with nutmeg.