Thursday, December 24, 2009

The price is right

Restaurant wine pricing often puzzles the average consumer, no more so than today; everyone knows wine sales are soft, especially at the higher end, but prices seem to be staying stubbornly unchanged. 

The issue is always a fraught one; restaurants have long discounted wines for special events and holidays, yet never without fear of lost profits. But given today’s economic concerns, operators who cling to mark-ups of 300% in the face of plummeting sales shouldn’t wonder why their check averages are dropping. That’s especially true as distributors consider price cuts to get stock moving and make room for new vintages. Similar moves by operators offer opportunities to build traffic, profits or both.

Some operators have been particularly aggressive about selling wine in the current economy. At the two-unit Rizzuto’s Wood Fired Kitchen and Bar operation in Bethel and West Hartford, Conn., Monday night for the past year has meant half price on all bottles on their 15 wine list. (Rizzuto’s management expects to introduce the program at a new unit set to open shortly in Westport, even as they expand to 30 bottles.)

The list is impressively price conscious even before the discount, until recently topping out at about $45, with the lowest price $24 for a white zinfandel (The recent expansion brought in wines priced up to $70). With the half-off discount, that means Monday’s customers routinely walk away feeling they’ve enjoyed quite a bargain.

“Wine sales are pretty good that night, but we don’t think about it in terms of sales figures or profits, because we’re selling them for barely above cost,” says Paul Mannion, general manager of the Bethel unit. “It’s more about getting people in and giving our regular customers an opportunity to buy something a little special for them at a bargain price.”

Mannion hits on something key; in troubled times, patrons are less likely to splurge or make adventurous dining and drinking decisions. Rather, given the opportunity, they’ll opt to return to a familiar restaurant, especially one that treats them well and offers bargains. Rebuilding wine sales through well promoted periodic or across the board price cuts can build the same comfort level.

Mannion says traffic has ticked up on Mondays, and notes hand selling a wine-timid guest is easier for staff when they see familiar faces. The days of rewarding customers with free drinks or happy hours may be gone, but cutting wine prices in half goes along way toward building traffic on slow nights and rewarding regular customers.

Even in Manhattan, turning customers into friends through considerate wine prices works. At Braeburn, a contemporary American bistro in Greenwich Village that opened just as Wall Street was imploding last year, pricing consciousness played an important role when the doors first opened, according to partner and general manager John Paul O’Neil.

“We wanted to go about this with an understanding that people were suffering,” says O’Neil. “We noticed people were going for things within their comfort level, what they know and trust.”

Before opening, O’Neil and then wine director Katherine Beto searched for high quality wines they could sell for less than competitors. They employed standard practices like buying in quantity, but keeping their mark-up low also on their minds as they tasted through hundreds of wines. Peppering the 120-bottle list with well-priced offerings from Hungary, Lebanon, Cyprus and Greece as well the Rhone, Tuscany and California, they kept about ninety percent under $100, with fifteen or so wines also sold by the glass or in small carafes. As customers gravitated toward comfort foods and safe wine decisions, the Braeburn pricing strategy worked, O’Neil says.

Staff played down trading guests up the list, allowing bargain hunters to enjoy the results of O’Neil and Beto’s search. Guests have been opting for wines around $40-50, though lately O’Neil’s noted customers moving up the list a bit. More importantly, the efforts to create customer loyalty through sensible wine pricing from the day the restaurant opened has made its mark, as traffic and sales are steadily building. Score another fan of wines priced to sell.

(A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 on -line edition of Nation's Restaurant News.)


Friday, December 18, 2009

Sherry in the mix

To me, there's something unmistakably adult about cocktails made with Sherry. The deeply savory, almost umami, quality present in all sorts of non-blended sherries can give cocktails a resonant, lip-smacking and crave-worthy piquancy. In summer, that means Martinis made with a dash of manzanilla; in winter, Manhattans tarted up with some Amontillado or Oloroso. 

So dropping by the Clover Club for the annual Vinos de Jerez Cocktail Competition this week was  a no-brainer for me. And while I couldn't hang for all the cocktails, I did get to try the winner made by Charles Joly from Chicago’s The Drawing Room, Bread & Wine. 

Usually, ingredient-based cocktail competitions draw too many recipes where the main ingredient is overwhelming; not here. In fact, for me, a few of the drinks needed more sherry and less tartness, or had an intensity from other ingredients that masked much sherry contribution. I know, I know, sometimes an ingredient is obscured in a well- balanced drink, but the same thing can happen when too much effort to craft a unique drink masks its contribution. But getting bartenders to create and customers to order drinks made with sherry is the goal, so just a whiff of Andalucia may sometimes be enough.

Here's the winning recipe:

1 oz Lustau “Don Nuño” Dry Oloroso
1 ½ oz Balvenie Scotch Doublewood 12 year
5 dashes Absinthe (preferably Sirene Absinthe)
½ oz fresh lemon juice
¼-1/3 oz maple syrup (depending on tartness of lemons)

Fill Old Fashioned glass with ice, dash with absinthe and set aside to season. Combine Sherry, Balvenie, lemon juice and maple syrup in mixing glass. Add ice and shake well. Empty Old Fashioned glass, coating sides with absinthe. Add Kold Draft or large pieces of ice. Strain cocktail into glass. Cut a strip of orange zest using a vegetable peeler. Mist top of glass with orange oil, rub rim and place decoratively in glass. No straws please.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Blending and unblending

Through a interactive hook-up held earlier this week at Astor Center in Manhattan, a dozen or two journalists watched Bob Dalgarno, the master blender at Macallan, toy with various beakers of Macallan in his sample room in Scotland. It was around midnight there, and Delgarno's voice, a crackling burr that can be hard to keep up with in person, was occasionally compressed by the digital hook up into plosive hiccups. It was a tiny bit distracting, but getting a chance to taste with him, even at some distance, was worthwhile, especially given the premise of the event: even single malts are "blended" and for good reason.

In this case, we were presented with 12 or so glasses of various 20 and 18 year old barrel samples. Some had aged in puncheons, others in butts, and one in a hogshead - the first two holding 500 liters, the puncheon squatter and made with broader staves, and the latter only 250 liters Their flavors landed all over the flavor map, except for those smokey quarters, and while some seemed unmistakably Macallan in their rich oiliness, others appeared insipid, almost, meant only for filler in a blended whisky. From these and other barrels, Delgarno derived the latest 18 Year Old Macallan, and sampling them made clear he had a lot more to do then watch the calendar, dump and bottle. My notes say "Amazing how different the casks are - while many share the expected Macallan characters of heavy, oily lusciousness, a few are indifferent malts unsuitable for the job most Macallan is charged with - as a 'top dressing' for blends." 

As Delgarno led us through the various vials, I kept thinking of an email exchange I'd had with a curious stranger about the ultimate effects of barrels on whisky. He'd been told that it was the wood itself, not the spirit or wine the barrel had once held, that was the primary agent in the aging of whisky. I've been advised by some blenders about the importance of source, quality and consistency of supply of barrels, and also the importance of the supply's ultimate effect - the emergence of an unpleasant sulphur quality in some whiskies clearly lies there. But surely some whiskies - Macallan, for the most obvious instance, but also Glenmorangie and others that hang their hats on wood-finishes - expect and receive a quality that depends on the sherry-ness of the barrel.

It was clear that some of the samples we tasted this week had better merged that oily and dense Macallan quality which comes from their squat stills with the richness and dried fruitiness of an oloroso. Even the new make spirit had a heavy and oily quality, with dried fruits and spicy, malty notes considered characteristic of Macallan.

This is a long way of explaining why I think tasting older malts poses more questions than it answers. Sure, I learned that sherry butts add more spice and sherry puncheons a creamy and cooked fruit quality. The one hogshead we tried had a lanolin quality I don't associate with Macallan, and also a lot of vanilla and bananas. But I now wonder what would happen if Macallan used some amontillado or palo cortado barrels to go along with the oloroso containers they get from Gonzalez Byass. And need to go back and try the Fine Oak range alongside the traditional Macallan to see how much of that sherried quality really comes from sherry.

Monday, December 7, 2009

First Taste: Square One Botanical

Used to be, the brown spirits had all the character and flavors, derived mostly from wood. Now, it's the tinkering of the vodka distillers, primarily, and the various flavoring methods they employ that seem to set the standard. Unfortunately, many of those spirits are poorly wrought, cheaply flavored and downright lip-curling.

Not this one. Its botanical mix (pear, rose, chamomile, lemon verbena, lavender, rosemary coriander and citrus peel) evokes aromatic images of a gin-sipping grandma herbalist, but there's something really fun going on here. In the nose, Square One Botanical offers green pear and fresh lavender right off, along with bits of dried rose, crushed coriander and orange peel. It tastes light and, well, green - perhaps green gage plums or D'Anjou pears, but with something extra - white flowers and lemon blossom, with a hint of jasmine at the finish. The finish is crisp and a bit sweet, but not sweetened, something like mixed fruit gum, but overall fresh and gentle for a 45% alcohol by volume product. Square One Botanical promises to be a super cocktail ingredient, and has the added cachet that organic certification brings.

My score: 7

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Right Onion

I always warn cocktail novices that the best way to tell whether a bar takes real Martinis seriously is how they store their olives and onions – if the jars are cooking on the back bar or have been out at room temp for five hours, nix, I say.

I know garnishes have been recently getting their proper due in many bars, but just recently, at NYC’s dell’ anima, by no means a cocktail destination, I had a Martini garnished with some crunchy and tangy house-made pearl onions. Bravo to them for setting the bar higher – courtesy of the National Onion Association, here’s the simplest method known.

Simply Pickled Pearl Onions

1.5 pounds pearl onions, peeled
2 Tablespoon pickling salt
1.5 cups white vinegar
.33 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pickling spices
4 half-pint canning jars and lids, sanitized

To peel, use a small sharp knife to cut off the root end of the onion. Make a shallow crisscross on the trimmed edge and place the onions into a saucepan. Add water to cover, bring to a boil for two minutes and drain. When cool enough to handle, squeeze onions gently to slip skins off.

Combine 2 cups water and pickling salt; pour over onions in a non-reactive bowl and let stand 12 hours. Drain and rinse thoroughly. Combine vinegar, sugar and pickling spices in a pan and bring to a boil. Pack onions in sterilized, hot half pint canning jars and cover with pickling liquid, keeping .5 inch headspace. Adjust lids and heat jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Makes 4 half-pints.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Horn Tooting

Bar managers and bartenders aspiring to the management track are invited to sign up for “Successful Beverage Management,” a program created by Barmedia’s Robert Plotkin and myself, with the Phoenician’s food and beverage director Mac Gregory and food and beverage authority Dr. Gail Bellamy. Details here - the full day seminar will take place January 12th at the Phoenecian in Scottsdale, AZ.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mix is up

The latest issue of Mix is now available - click here to read and sign up.


Information and Inspiration for Cocktail Professionals December 1, 2009


The USBG is currently in 14 markets around the country, up from five markets just three short years ago. „As a non-profit with a small national office and limited financial resources, it is amazing the way the USBG has grown over the past three years,‰ says Liz Edwards, who runs USBG‚s Las Vegas-based national office. „Interest in the USBG has spread More…

Return of “The Mixologist”
It’s been a while since the second edition — three years to be exact — but “The Mixologist” has returned, this time as a study of the European cocktail. Edited by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown and published in late November, “The Mixologist: The Journal of the European Cocktail” includes work from Gaz Regan, Sue Leckie on Peter Dorelli (former bar manager of The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel) More…
Keens Reigns Supreme
Midtown Manhattan offers a plethora of drinking options beside the modern speakeasy and classic cocktail cult bar, most of them saloons. Many of them have the age-old New York saloon feel — and smell — and that’s all right for a meet after work and a quick brew. But whenever whiskey makers are visiting New York and want to meet, they inevitably pick the same spot: Keens Steakhouse. More…
Seasonal Sensations
BiNA Osteria in Boston has rolled out two holiday-themed cocktails — the Sugar Plum Fairy (vodka, Maraschino liqueur, smoked plum juice topped with Prosecco, sugar rim) and a Pear Toddy (muddled pear, brandy, honey, clove and Rooibos tea). The Patina Group will open Igloo Bar rinkside at the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center starting this week, and it will remain open in the shadow of the enormous Christmas tree More…

Blog Spotlight

What's Shaken


Peanuty Flip, Royal Salute & Glam Shots
I ask almost every distiller I meet the same question: Have you ever thought about making a peanut liqueur? Americans are crazy about the flavor, whether in PB&J or as a satay dipper. Obviously, others have had the same thought; we now have Castries Peanut Rum Crème Liqueur, and now, the Peanut Board has put together a mixology program. They offer a peanut rum infusion recipe More…
Entrepreneurs & Winners
Arturo A. Vera-Felicie of the R Bar & Restaurant and 1924 Main was named the winner of the 2009 Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition earlier this month. His original creation for the competition was the West Bottoms Social Club, based on pickled fig syrup. Beau Williams of Manifesto and Christopher Conastor of Justus Drugstore placed and showed. Chicago bartender Adam Seger has created Hum More…

Parting Shot
Pearls of Wisdom
I always warn cocktail novices that the best way to tell whether a bar takes real Martinis seriously is how olives and onions are stored; if the jars are cooking on the back bar or have been out at room temp for five hours, nix, I say. More...


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Best Bars

Midtown Manhattan offers a plethora of drinking options beside the modern speakeasy and classic cocktail cult bar, most of them saloons. Many of them have the age-old New York saloon feel — and smell — and that’s all right for a meet after work and a quick brew. 

But whenever whiskey makers are visiting New York and want to meet, they inevitably pick the same spot: Keens Steakhouse. Founded in 1885 as Keens Chophouse, in the heart of what was then the Herald Square theater district, the dark, low-ceilinged restaurant buzzes from noon through the wee hours, with a brief respite in the mid-afternoon. 

The upstairs bar, under a ceiling hung with hundreds of clay pipes known as churchwardens from the days when patrons would fire them up on arrival, is more of an event space than hangout, but downstairs, the main barroom has a customer base that befits its location so close to Herald and Times Squares, the heart of New York’s Garment District and the so-called crossroads of the world.
Hockey fans, malt lovers, bartenders, models, clothing execs, hard hats, Macy’s-bag-laden tourists, cops — everybody goes to Keens. 

Nobody orders Aviations there; in fact, order any mixed drink beyond a Bloody Mary or a Martini and you’ll prove you don’t much about reading a bar (though they have added such drinks as Sazeracs and Last Words, along with the Omar Bradley — rye, orange marmalade and bitters). At Keens, it’s usually beer, Scotch on the rocks, a chat with one of your cheek-by-jowl neighbors and the occasional howl of disapproval as another New York team screws up on the small screen at the end of the bar. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

(Reprinted from Mix - read more and sign up there.)


Go Van Gogh

I'm not a vodka guy, though neither am I a vodkaphobe - as far as I'm concerned, whatever gets you through the night... I keep a few bottles around the house, whatever I consider really good, and pass the rest on to friends, neighbors and delivery men. I don't often hold onto flavored vodkas at all...except for Van Gogh, which, as flavored spirits go, are generally unparalleled in terms of pure, essential flavors. In fact, as the international cordial suppliers continue to miss out on the opportunity created by the cocktail revolution - that is, they continue to sell generally artificial tasting, overly sweet and just plain unpleasant liqueurs - bartenders are starting to opt for the 35% abv Van Goghs as flavoring agents. All hail master distiller Tim Voss.

I sat down last week with Norman Bonchick, head of Van Gogh Imports, and tasted all their wares. The good news - the Dutch Chocolate is back and as good as ever, a hot chocolately treat with a slight bitterness, a drying finish with spice and a balanced sweetness. A mistaken change in the formula has been righted, and this is the benchmark chocolate spirit, as far as I'm concerned.

But it's not Van Gogh's best - that nod goes to the Double Espresso, a magnificently crafted spirit that explodes with aromas of freshly ground dark roast coffee bean and tastes like finely filtered and concentrated pure espresso with a shot of spirit. The art of flavoring doesn't get any better, and with the possible exception of Illy Coffee Liqueur, there's nothing close to this Van Gogh.

I was also impressed with the Van Gogh Coconut vodka, quite against my will - "No way I'll like this," I thought and then wham! an aromatic explosion of toasted coconut and coconut cream erupted from the glass, and not a hint of the usual coconut sunscreen notes so often found in such spirits. It's compelling and seductive, and all coconut lushness - a real winner.

Given that these products depend on fresh and seasonal ingredients for their flavors, it's not surprising that some change slightly - the Pineapple was more like pineapple upside down cake than fresh grilled pineapples, which was my overwhelming impression when Van Gogh first sent samples around. I'm told the pineapple can be made twice yearly, which would explain how a particular harvest would change things. Nonetheless, it, too, is outstanding.

Oh, and the new Dutch Caramel Vodka? All I can say is I waved the open bottle under the noses of five unsuspecting friends, and they all said the same thing - "Wow."

My scores: Dutch Caramel: 7
Dutch Chocolate: 8
Double espresso: 9
Coconut: 8
Pineapple: 7