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.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Riley's Moon for Marian Palaia and The Given World

April isn't the cruelest month, not when you can look forward to Marian Palaia's The Given World.

Since you have to wait two more weeks for the novel - The Given World comes out on April 14th - you can bide your time with this cocktail.  Feel free to read about it in our newsletter or just stop by the store (give me a heads-up and I'll be sure to have the fixin's on hand).

I wrote last month about three wonderful authors that I met in Berkeley and their three wonderful soon-to-be-published books.  Although, actually, I guess I didn't mention that I had met the authors because I hadn't - not yet.  That was still to come.  But I had read the books and mixed the drinks.  Then came the introductions, at Revival Bar & Kitchen.

One of our terrific book reps was throwing the party, and since Cheri Hickman knows how to do that, and knows a thing or two about selling books, she always makes us - the booksellers - feel welcomed and comfortable.  Joining her from New York was Richard Rhorer, Simon and Schuster's Vice President and Associate Publisher - but he was so charming I kept forgetting how important he was and so I'm sure I spoke out of turn any number of times and embarrassed myself mightily.

Such is life.

They both introduced us to this trio of authors - and to paraphrase Frankie Valli, oh what a night.

(Did you know that song was originally called December 5th, 1933?  And that it was about the repeal of Prohibition?  No?  Well, you're welcome.)

While we drank wine, Laura Dave talked to us about her intoxicating wine-country novel, Eight Hundred Grapes; Jessica Knoll assured us that she has a very active imagination and that we shouldn't confuse authors with narrators, especially not her narrator in Luckiest Girl Alive; and Marian Palaia gave us The Given World.

I wrote then that Ms. Palaia had provided us with a road map through one woman's grief - so to help that woman out, fictional though she was, I wanted to make sure that Riley always had the moon shining above.  To do that, I first needed to provide her with the cover of night, so I started with a little black vodka.  I couldn't add mescaline to it - one of her intoxicants of choice - but I had access to mezcal.  Then I'd smooth any rough edges with a little mint, a little sugar.

And of course I wanted to give her the moon, I said that, right?  So I did: 

Riley's Moon: 

2 oz. Blavod Black Vodka
1 oz. mezcal
.25 oz. mint-infused simple syrup 
Cocktail onion for garnish 

Stir all with ice.  Strain into chilled glass.  Garnish with the moon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Three Books, Three Drinks, 800 Grapes


Three soon-to-be books beget three cocktails.  Laura Dave's Eight Hundred Grapes is first because I went alphabetical (I run a bookstore, it's ingrained).

Eight Hundred Grapes (that's the number it takes to make a bottle of wine) was also the easiest of the books for which to create a drink.  I'm always looking for the hook in the book that will translate to the glass, and with Ms. Dave's novel, I was handed the wine region of Sonoma County where Georgia Ford flees after discovering her fiancé’s not-very-well-kept secret.  A secret both serious and significant.

Once back home in Sonoma, Georgia will hit the local bar where she orders whiskey - because she thinks she should - only to end up drinking wine because her father's a wine-maker and the solace of the grape has always been intoxicating.

So, for Georgia, I just put them both together.  Her favorite wine is Pinot noir, and Sonoma produces some magical Pinot, heavy on the cherry.  New Yorkers have their Manhattan, but now I have a Californian.


2 oz. Breaking and Entering Bourbon
1 oz. Acacia Pinot Noir
.5 oz. simple syrup
10 drops Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters

Combine all and stir with ice.  Strain into chilled cocktail glass.  Garnish with bourbon-soaked maraschino cherry.

* * *

Then we have Luckiest Girl Alive, Jessica Knoll's wicked tale of TifAni FaNelli - and if you thought Tina Fey's script for Mean Girls was the last word on that subject, wow.  Think again.

Ms. FaNelli, Tif, Finny - no matter what she's called, she always has a razor-edged riposte ready to cut.  She can be mean, yes, but the well of her venom is fed by a deep spring.

For her, I decided to create a cousin to the Martini because a vodka Martini, straight up, is her glossy editor drink.  But even while she's ordering it, she's dreaming about chocolate - these cravings for food being constant throughout her life.

Instead of vermouth, I used Cointreau, because the orange Cointreau is going to pair well with the chocolate bitters that round out the cocktail - meaning she can have her chocolate and drink it, too.  Oh, and this one comes with the biggest olive you can find - have I mentioned TifAni likes to eat?

Vodka Finny:

2 oz. vodka
.5 oz. Cointreau
2 dashes Scrappy's Chocolate Bitters 

Stir all with ice.  Strain into chilled martini glass.  Garnish with olive.

* * *

Finally, The Given World, by Marian Palaia.  Here, Ms. Palaia has provided us with a road map through one woman's grief.  When Riley’s brother goes missing in Vietnam, the loss she experiences is overwhelming.  Like an amputee who keeps reaching for a phantom limb, she must somehow learn to manage her pain when drugs, drink and sex lose their numbing qualities.  One of the saddest lines in the book is when Riley abandons her baby, leaving him in her parent's care.

And the baby, well.  I couldn't see him.  Dad could have had a mess of those boney cats in that carriage.  With their eyes closed, meowing and growling like they do.  Bye kittens.  Good night moon.

That line - Good night moon, showing that Riley had read the book to her child . . . just kills me.  So the drink would be Riley's Moon.

There was a period of time when she was fond of mescaline, but since the powers-that-be frown on that, I used mezcal instead.  A little black vodka for effect, some mint-infused simple syrup for smoothness - and a cocktail onion playing the role of the moon.  Goodnight, indeed.

Riley's Moon: 

2 oz. Blavod Black Vodka
1 oz. mezcal
.25 oz. mint-infused simple syrup
Cocktail onion for garnish

Stir all with ice.  Strain into chilled glass.  Garnish with the moon.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Blind Bear for a Christian

I first met Christian Kiefer a year ago when he came to the store for D. Foy's book signing.  D. Foy had just come out with his first novel, Made to Break, and since I'd known him for twenty years it was fitting that he read in the bookstore I manage.

His reading was fabulous.  We would sell a ton of books and members of our writing group from near and far came out to support him.  And then there was Christian - a friend of D. Foy's, a fellow author, local (kind of) - who would be interviewing D. Foy that night.  They had a terrific camaraderie - their exchanges were relaxed and funny with touches of the serious tossed in for good measure.

A great night that ended at the Hob Nob, the bar down the street from the bookstore.

Except Christian had to cut out.  He had a long drive back - past Sacramento.  But I'd see him again at the annual trade show put on by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.  He swears he kept calling my name during the mad scrum that is the author bash at the end of the show - I maintain I didn't hear him over the din.  Maybe I was distracted by the chocolate.

Christian was there promoting his not-yet-released novel, The Animals, that you can pre-order from us.

It's a helter-skelter story about identities lost and found, about violence in Reno, about wildlife sanctuaries being shut down for no good reason, about moose being shot in the back of the head when they're too wounded to save - written by this maestro who was introduced to me by a happy coincidence.

Segue to - I had just met Mandy Aftel, herself the author of Fragrant.  If ever there was a book that could be described as redolent, this was it.

Fragrant details the wondrous history of scent, the most evocative of the senses.  I'd been lucky enough to visit Mandy at her home studio where she delighted a handful of booksellers before Fragrant was released.  Although she's a terrific writer, her real passion is creating fragrances.  (You can learn more here.)  Her perfumes bewitched one portion of her audience that day - but for me, it was her Chef's Essences that were even more intriguing.

Edible scent?  A spritz that could be added to, say, a cocktail?  Ginger, maybe?  Peach or sarsaparilla?  Now you're talking.

I was especially hooked with one of the more esoteric flavors - fir.  Mandy swore it was like keeping a forest in a bottle and the possibilities for its use in an adult beverage began tick-tocking.

But that tick-tock reminds me that this was supposed to be about Christian, and here I am waxing rhapsodic about Mandy and her wondrous craft - which is of course easy to do.  Next time you eat vanilla ice cream, hit it with a little spray of her Pink Pepper Chef's Essence and you'll know what I mean.

Still - we began with my friend D. Foy, in conversation with his friend, Christian Kiefer.  A year ago last March.

Then we jumped forward to Christian.  His novel, The Animals.  The NCIBA trade show last October.  Christian was calling to me across the crowded floor, remember?  Was he wearing his hat that day like he had for D. Foy's reading?  I think so.  We talked - he about his book, me about the show.  I asked if he'd had one of the chocolate truffles.  Melt in your mouth deliciousness.

I told him about Mandy and her perfumes, her Chef's Essences - and that I was already thinking about some concoction to celebrate The Animals.

Like what? he asked.

And I told him about Fir and how I thought it would be perfect - since so much of the book takes place in or near the forests of Idaho, where the Animals live in a sanctuary-cum-zoo.  Those Animals include one of my favorite characters in the novel - Majer, the blind bear.  An animal who maintains majesty even without sight, even while its existence depends on the solicitude of Bill Reed, Majer's problematical caretaker.

Fir? Christian said.  That sounds disgusting.

It of course was only later that I realized Christian had heard the word 'Fur,' not 'Fir.'  And yeah, who wants that in their drink?

But Fir?  Pine needles and evergreen?  That I'd like.  So, in honor of Majer, tonight we'll be drinking a Blind Bear.  We'll use a little absinthe mixed with a little soda to get that wonderful louche effect that will turn the drink cloudy white - like the snowstorm that hits at the end of the book, or like Majer's cataracted eyes.  A little gin, too, because it's clear and because it'll play nice with the Fir Essence.

You can read all about it here in our March Newsletter, or down below.  Either way, after you mix it, close your eyes and breathe it deep - the forests will be all around.  And Majer?  You might here him snuffling, too.

This version is meant to be served in a coupe - but I'm thinking next time I'm going to serve it in a Collins glass over ice.  You decide how you want it and I'll accommodate.

Blind Bear:

1.5 oz. Plymouth Gin
.75 oz. absinthe
Soda water
Aftelier Perfumes Fir Needle Chef's Essence® Spray.

Stir gin and absinthe with ice.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Top with cold soda water and stir.  Spritz once with the Fir.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Wisdom From the Bottom of the Glass: Our 16th President

While living in Illinois in the early 1830's, Abraham Lincoln and his business partner, William Berry, owned a general store.  Like any general stores, they sold a variety of items including bacon, guns, and honey.

And booze, of course.  And booze.

Any proprietor could sell liquor without being licensed as long as he sold more than a quart and as long as it was not imbibed in the establishment.  The serving of libations was reserved for those industrious souls who received a liquor license, so, in order to make the Berry-Lincoln Store more profitable, William Berry applied for and received such a license in 1833 - making our 16th President the only person to hold that office who was also a tavern-keeper.

Cheers, Honest Abe, cheers.