How to Stock Your Bar

Aside from booze blogs, web comics, regular comics, and as many books as we can get our hands on, we (specifically Matt) like to read certain menswear blogs. In particular we recommend An Affordable Wardrobe and Put This On, which inspired our video segments. One of the common questions addressed on menswear blogs is how to build a wardrobe and not surprisingly, the process is very similar to stocking your bar.

This is our collection a year ago. Much like a child, it has only gotten larger and more expensive since then.

Continue reading

Restaurant Review: Salt of the Earth

We don’t often do restaurant reviews here at IPTB. In fact, the only booze-serving establishments we’ve ever reviewed were bars. (Pittsburgh Bars 2011 edition) But after enjoying an early dinner at Salt of the Earth in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, we knew we had to write about them. And sure, we sat at the bar and chatted with the super-friendly and knowledgeable bartenders during our meal, and sure, the cocktail, beer, and wine lists comprise about half of the menu which covers an entire wall, but the emphasis is still on the food, which makes Salt of the Earth (or NACL for short, clever) one of the best places in Pittsburgh to get dinner and a drink.

Photo compliments of Salt of the Earth's blog

Continue reading

The Boozehound’s Library: The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris

There’s a fair amount of discussion here on IPTB about “classic” cocktails as opposed to more modern concoctions. This discussion revolves around two main points, the first being modern cocktails’ complexity of construction (more ingredients and more often artificially flavored), and the second is the notion that a cocktail’s history, or pedigree if we want to sound snooty about it, has value. While the former point is debatable, the snooty side of that debate will find plenty of ammunition in The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris. Continue reading

Cirrus Ice Press

A while back we posted an article about the ice you mix and serve your delightful cocktails with. (Boozehound Basics: Ice) In the comments, faithful reader and fellow booze blogger G-LO posted a video in which a Japanese bartender carved a ball of ice. Turns out he could save a bunch of time (and probably a few stab wounds) with the Cirrus Ice Press. As you can see in the video below, this ingeniously simple device will create a perfect sphere of ice in one minute flat. At $800 a pop though, I might stick with a knife and a box of Band-Aids.

Boozehound Basics: Ice

In the past few years, a new renaissance of classic cocktail culture (say that after three or four Sidecars) has sprung up on the net and in homes and bars around the country.  And though mixologists, writers in style magazines, and, yes, bloggers are quick to harp on the importance of freshly squeezed fruit juices and top shelf liquors, another very basic ingredient is too often taken for granted: ice.

It’s an important part of mixing almost any drink, but it’s generally glossed over in drink recipes.  If you’ve ever hosted a party and run out of ice halfway through the night, you have an idea of how important ice can be, so we’re going to amend this deficit.

We’ll start with the very basics.  Those cubes that you get from the plastic tray in your freezer.  This is what you want to use in a cocktail shaker, to fill a highball glass, and as your general default. When hosting a party, a five-pound bag of that weird donut shaped ice works fine as well.  As a general note though, when making your own ice, better water makes better ice.  If you have a filter pitcher or even a filter right on your tap, that’s the water you want to use for your ice.  Also, be sure to wash your trays from time to time.

Tovolo King Cubes

Now, on to some more specialized territory.  Regular cubes are fine, and even appropriate for most shaken drinks.  They help to mix your ingredients thoroughly, especially where fruit juices, dairy, or even raw egg are involved, but they’re not best for every drink.  Some stirred drinks need to be treated with a gentler hand and may be overly diluted by smaller cubes.  This is where you want King Cubes.  A company called Tovolo manufactures these jumbo silicone trays and lately you can find them just about anywhere kitchen or barware is sold.  Because of their large size (two inches across), King Cubes don’t melt as quickly as smaller cubes.  Therefore, they get your drink colder without diluting it as much.  This can be critical in a delicate drink like, say, a Martini, or when drinking whiskey or other spirits straight on the rocks.

For those whiskey aficionados who won’t tolerate a drop of water in their favorite spirit, there’s another option.  Whiskey stones will cool your drink without a hint of dilution.  Exactly as you’d suspect, these are actual stones, usually carved into cubes.  Simply keep these in the freezer until needed, and best of all, they’re reusable.

On the other end of the spectrum, some drinks, generally originating in warmer climes, call for crushed ice.  Most notably, the Daiquiri is traditionally served over crushed ice.  Now if you happen to have a refrigerator that will dispense crushed ice at your every whim, feel free to sit back and sip your Daiquiri smugly for the next few lines.  For the rest of us, making our own crushed ice can be a necessity especially in the summer time.  There are two favored methods.  For speed and volume, tossing a few ice cubes into a blender will certainly do the trick.  A few short bursts should be all you need though.  Keep in mind you’re just breaking up the cubes.  You don’t want to end up with a slushie.  The other method is a bit more time-consuming, but a lot more fun.  Just place your ice cubes in a plastic zip-lock bag and smash the crap out of them with a big ‘ol mallet.

That about covers the practical and traditional options, but there’s nothing to say you can’t have a bit of fun while you keep your drinks cool.  Perpetual Kid, a refreshingly fun online retailer, offers a vast array of whimsical and nostalgic ice cube trays. With options ranging from snowflakes to sinking Titanics, there are options here to tickle any tippler’s fancy.  Shanna and I have our own wide-ranging collection including hearts, ninja stars, fish, Legos, Space Invaders, and skull & bones.

Legendary bartender David A. Embury famously wrote that a cocktail is only as good as its lowest-quality ingredient.  This adage is generally applied to quality of spirits, but there’s no doubt that dirty or overly melted ice can harm an otherwise superior drink. And I’m not saying that you should be freezing Perrier to shake a Whiskey Sour, but a little bit of consideration for the ice you’re going to use to mix and serve your booze can go a long way.

A Boozehound Wedding or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bar

It has been nearly a full year since either Shanna or I posted here on I Prefer the Term Boozehound, though in that time we’ve been anything but idle. Here’s a list of things that have kept us from the blog we swore we wouldn’t allow to die over the past 11 months.

1)   Shanna finished grad school with a shiny new MBA.

2)   Shanna got a new job.

3)   Matt got a second job.

4)   Matt and Shanna hunted, found, and moved into a new apartment.

5)   Shanna got an even newer job!

6)   But most importantly, Matt and Shanna quit procrastinating and finally tied the knot.

Now older, wiser, more educated, more employed, and happily married, we finally find ourselves with some spare time and free weekends. Not only that, but thanks to the miracle of wedding presents and the generosity of friends and family, we now have a brand new home bar that is positively brimming with delicious spirits and liqueurs.

So we decided that for our re-inaugural post we’d discuss one of the most important aspects of wedding planning, the bar. Being the avid cocktail enthusiasts that we are, I’ll admit to a bit of uneasiness, knowing that we had some fairly lofty expectations to live up to. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but of everything that went on that day, the bar was what I worried over the most.

Right from the beginning though, I was given reason to worry. Though Shanna and I live in Pittsburgh, for a number of reasons we decided to hold the wedding at my parent’s home in the suburbs surrounding Reading, Pennsylvania. While the Reading area has some very nice suburban towns of varying affluence and character, “cosmopolitan” is not a word that comes to mind.

We were, however, extremely lucky to find an excellent caterer. If you ever find yourself hosting an event in Berks County, Mayo’s Classic Catering has our full and enthusiastic recommendation. Among Chef Phil Mayo’s services: providing a bartender from his staff. Chef Mayo himself is nothing if not competent, so initially I was unconcerned.

I did, however, want to speak with this bartender, whom we will call Bartender A. In the course of a single phone call, and without intentionally quizzing her, Bartender A had fallen short of every standard that Shanna and I use to rate bars and bartenders. Horrible visions ran through my head. Manhattans garnished with olives, flavored vodkas, bottled sour mix, and a host of other abominations plagued my nerves.

In order to avoid such atrocities, I resorted to meddling. I put together a cocktail menu that would be both suggestions for our guests and a guide for our bartender. More importantly, I provided Bartender A with recipes and instructions for each drink on the menu.  This may have been overkill, and I certainly risked becoming a micromanaging, asshole client. But after learning that in 20 years behind the bar, Bartender A had never once been called upon to mix a SidecarOur Unity Cocktail? Whiskey and soda. (one of our featured drinks, and the bride’s favorite), I was concerned.

Perhaps I was a tad overbearing, because the big day arrived and Bartender A did not. Instead the caterer sent Bartender B.  Now even more worried, I printed another copy of the drink recipes and had a quick discussion with Bartender B. It must have been a wedding day miracle, but Bartender B was tremendous. Not only did he know how to mix a drink, but he was also quick, neat, and patient with a groom who stopped by every half hour or so to make sure things were going smoothly.

Like a lot of things that day, the bar worked out better than we had hoped. Though at the time we stumbled through it, we did pick up some tips to help anyone hiring a bartender for a large event.

First and foremost, know what you want. Do you want the focus to be on cocktails? Beer? Wine? Is it a Martinis and stemware kind of party, or Margaritas and tiny umbrellas?

Second, talk to your bartender ahead of time. Once you’ve figured out what you want, make sure the bartender knows it. He or she can help you figure out what’s feasible and how much booze to buy. And of course make sure your bartender knows how to mix and serve the drinks you want.

Third, and this was a tough one for me, be flexible. More than likely you’ll have guests at your event who won’t want classic cocktails or alcohol at all. It’s important to make sure that these people don’t feel neglected. This doesn’t mean you have to compromise your plans for the bar, but make sure there are other options available.

And finally, make sure you have everything the bartender will need. This may seem obvious, but it’s more involved than you might think. Are you renting stemware or buying disposables? Do you have stirrers, toothpicks, garnishes, mixers, ice, etc? Find out what the bartender will and will not be bringing, and don’t make any assumptions. We assumed the bartender would bring his own shakers, bar spoons, and strainers. We were wrong.

The most important thing to remember though is to enjoy yourself. Planning events, and especially weddings, can be stressful. But the point of boozehoundery is to enjoy yourself and to share that enjoyment with friends and family.

ADDED BONUS: We included a Unity Cocktail as part of our ceremony. Read more about it at Offbeat Bride.

If you have your own tips, tricks, or horror stories, post a comment!

Layered Drinks

There are a lot of different drinks out there and a bunch of different ways to build them. There are drinks that should be shaken, there are drinks that should be stirred, punches prepared en masse, and highballs that are mixed right in the serving glass. But perhaps the most uniquely prepared and presented drinks are layered drinks.

When a bartender or home boozehound makes a complicated drink, it’s often referred to as “building” a drink, and here this term seems most apt. Layered drinks are assembled directly in the serving glass, generally a Pousse-Cafe glass or other small vertical glass. Ingredients are added in descending order of density, so that (if successfully executed) each new liquid floats in a clearly defined layer on top of the last.

The technique to achieve this effect is fairly simple, but could take some practice. Once the first, densest ingredient has been poured in the glass, take a small spoon (bartenders generally use a bar spoon) and holding it at an angle, just break the surface of the liquid with the edge of the spoon, convex side up. Then, pour your next ingredient over the back of the spoon. The idea is that the spoon breaks the liquid’s momentum and keeps it from mixing with the previous ingredient. For the sake of accuracy in pouring, a pour spout is highly recommended. In this way you add each new layer on top of the last until your drink is built.

If that description wasn’t quite clear, it helps tremendously to see the process performed before you try it yourself. There are an incredible number of videos on YouTube that can help you master various bar skills. Here’s a good one for layering drinks.

Once your drink is built, the next question becomes how to drink it. Many layered drinks are shots, so there’s little technique involved. On the other hand, the Mind Eraser is supposed to be drunk through a straw so that you get one layer at a time from the bottom up. True to its name, the Mind Eraser is also supposed to be taken in one swift gulp. Though you might want to relax the pace a bit, a similar technique works well for most other layered drinks as well.

We’ll post recipes (and pictures) for the Mind Eraser and Pousse-Cafe, and feel free to submit your own favorite layered drink recipes.

The Method

It’s certainly no surprise that Shanna and I visit our fair share of bars. However, Pittsburgh being a college town (in parts) and a blue-collar town (in other parts), it’s sometimes difficult to find a bartender who’s accustomed to preparing drinks more complicated than 1) open beer 2) hand to customer. Shanna’s Note: Our friends Emily and Hawkeye would also suggest only “AND” drinks for these bars as well, i.e. rum and coke. UPDATE: The bar scene in Pittsburgh has improved dramatically since original publishing. For more info, see here.

But when we do come across a joint that fancies itself somewhat of a cocktail lounge, we have a bit of a preliminary test that we use to judge the bartender and the establishment. This test has (just now for the purposes of this article) been dubbed The Method.

The first step of The Method is to consult the menu. It’s not uncommon, even in the most reputable of establishments, to find a “Martini List” rather than a “Cocktail List.” There is only one Martini (gin and vermouth) with very few acceptable variations, more on this next. Everything else is a cocktail. However, since this is such a widespread error, it’s considered a minor infringement.

The next step is ordering, and the waiter/waitress/bartender’s reaction is what’s being watched. I order a Martini, my drink of choice and the gold standard for judging any bar. This order will invariably be followed by one or more of the following questions which I have categorized as acceptable or unacceptable. (Read more about what makes a Martini a Martini at our creatively titled article On Martinis.)

Acceptable:

1)      What brand of gin/vermouth?

2)      Up or on the rocks?

3)      Would you like olive, twist, or both (known as greedy)?

Unacceptable:

1)      What kind of Martini? (Usually accompanied by a puzzled look, this generally means they think you’ve just walked in and said “Give me a cocktail.”)

2)      Vodka or gin?

3)      Occasionally a server will start to describe the items on their cocktail list. This again means they’ve confused the term “Martini” with “cocktail.”

Shanna, on the other hand, generally orders her drink of choice, The Sidecar. More often than not, a request for this classic cocktail is met with a pause followed by the question, “What’s in that?” The Sidecar is one of the great standby cocktails for the discerning boozehound and any bartender worth their tips should know how to make one. Extra points if they make it with Cointreau, and if the bartender uses fresh squeezed lemon juice, that alone is worth double tip and a pat on the back.

Once you’ve ordered, it’s time to go back to that cocktail list and begin the real scrutiny. For every classic cocktail present (French 75, Firefly, Peg O’ My Heart, etc.) the bar earns one point. For every cocktail that’s based on some variety of commercial flavored vodka (Cranberry-Sour-Apple-Why-Doesn’t-Daddy-Love-Me-tini) deduct one point. Points can be awarded at your discretion for tasty concoctions of the bartender’s own invention, assuming they don’t fall into the previous category. (The Harris Grill in Shadyside, while a bit pricey, is particularly noteworthy in this category with drinks that include homemade bacon-infused vodka. The distinction between over-sweetened commercial flavored vodkas and homemade infused spirits cannot be stressed enough.)

From here, the usual considerations can be applied such as price, quality of service, food, etc. Everyone has their own little pet peeves that should be taken into account. One of mine is that most bartenders will shake a drink, regardless of how it’s supposed to be prepared. It looks cooler and puts on a show, but for any drink without fruit juice or dairy it’s just diluting the spirits.

But by far the most egregious violation I have ever witnessed by an alcohol-serving establishment was at Tusca, a tapas restaurant at the Southside Works. Upon reviewing the “Martini List” I was slightly miffed at the absence of an actual Martini, though this is sadly not uncommon. And then I saw it. Bombay Sapphire Gin with Martini & Rossi Dry Vermouth and three stuffed olives, listed in the menu as a “Stuffed Up.” Someone had decided that to put a Martini on their “Martini List” would run the risk of confusing their customers, and had therefore taken it upon themselves to rename the most classic and iconic of all alcoholic beverages. I was dumbfounded. I wanted to order it, but I didn’t know how. Eventually, when the waitress returned, I held the menu up to her, pointed to the offending cocktail and said, “I want a Martini.” She looked confused. I repeated, “I want a Martini. Dry.” If I ever return to that establishment, it will be to make a toast to their “going out of business” sign. Update: After being shut down in mid-2011 for a disturbingly extensive rodent infestation, Tusca briefly re-opened before the owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and shut down permanently. I’ll drink to that. 

So there you have it, the official boozehound’s guide to judging a bar. Use it in good health (make sure to eat your veggies, many of them come in the form of garnishes), good spirits (top-shelf preferred), and good company. It may just inspire you to drink at home more often.