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From Crémant to Cava to…Champagne. Sparkling Wines to Ring in the New Year!

Can you believe it? We are just days away from the year coming to a close and a fresh new one beginning. Such a great time to create a clean slate! Begin anew! And mix things up a little! I thought this New Year’s post should follow suit!

While I love, love, LOVE creating sparkling cocktails for a New Year’s celebration, and I’ve made a few in the past for this here blog, we all know that when the clock strikes midnight, most people turn to the bubbly stuff all on its own. This year I decided to focus on those bottles that will be the most bang for your buck – those that look festive and taste special, but won’t break the bank, especially if you want to get multiple bottles for you and your guests.

My picks range from the number one selling Prosecco in Italy priced around $15, to an award-winning Blanc de Blanc Champagne priced under $50, to a Spanish Cava made in the traditional Champagne style that you won’t believe is under $15.

The sparkling wine category has grown steadily year after year, especially in the U.S. almost primarily due to the Prosecco trend. It has nearly eclipsed Champagne in recent years. Clever marketing and the lower price point has been key, of course. And while there has been a glut of questionable quality Proseccos that have flooded the market, there are still many brands that have been able to rival Champagne in taste.

Out of the five featured sparklers featured here, I’ve included two Proseccos. They are both from the same producer – Valdo, crafted in the heart of Prosecco–Valdobbiadene, are both made from 100% Glera grapes, and are priced similarly – around $15. But each one has a slightly different appeal. The Valdo Brut Prosecco DOC is the number one Prosecco consumed in Italy and it is pretty clear why. It goes down incredibly easy; It is slightly drier and has a touch higher alcohol content than the Valdo Oro Puro Prosecco DOCG – the fruitier and toastier of the two. The Oro Puro is aged a bit longer in the bottle and delivers a more complex profile than its modest price might suggest. The fat, elegant shape of the bottle also gives it a little more gravitas than the Brut. Spring for both and serve the Brut with food and then graduate to the Oro Puro to toast afterwards.

If you want to go French but would like to explore something other than traditional Champagne, a good quality Crémant may be just what you’re looking for. It is made using a second fermentation method like Champagne, but is not from the Champagne region. There is more freedom in terms of what grapes to use for Crémant, but they still adhere to fairly strict guidelines during production. The “Côté Mas” Crémant de Limoux Brut St. Hilaire from Languedoc in southwest France is the kind of bottle that Champagne producers don’t want you to know about. In fact, the Limoux appellation has been producing sparkling wines even longer than the Champagne region, having produced the first sparkling wine on record. The Côté Mas has silkier and more delicate bubbles than a traditional Champagne. Citrus, honey and stone fruit come through reflecting the dominant grapes of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. This delicious sparkler is just under $15 a bottle and your guests will never be the wiser.

Spanish Cava has long been known as the poor man’s Champagne substitute. (Prosecco has since taken that title but they somehow have made it sexier!) While Cava production has increased over the years, it still does not get the love it deserves. This is by far the most bang for your buck that you’re going to get. The Paul Cheneau line, produced in the Penedès region, takes a lot of influence from the French style and is made in a classic Champagne method but using Spanish grape varietals. The result is a lively and fresh, almost floral quality. The lengthy age comes through in a silky mouthfeel and a nice round finish. At about $14 a bottle this may be one of the best deals in the bunch.

Of course a list of sparklers to ring in the new year would not be complete without mentioning a Champers. Almost all Champagnes are made with a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, but Blanc de Blancs are made entirely from white grapes. It may not be traditional exactly, but it happens to be my Champagne of choice!

Because Blanc de Blanc is made with only white grapes, it tends to be a little more austere and crisp and have a little more minerality than most other Champagnes. But André Jacquart Champagne Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Brut Experience goes in a different direction. It is lush and rich, heavier than you’d think when just using 100% Chardonnay grapes. The minerality is still there and it even has a touch of green apple but the depth of flavor and complexity in this Blanc de Blanc belies its single grape. Consistently rated in the top percentage of wines in the world, the $50 per bottle price tag seems like a steal.

Whatever you pick to toast the new year, I hope you get your hands on some if not all of these bottles at some point. With these prices, you can do your own taste test and see which ones are your faves. Because there is always an excuse to pop open a bottle of bubbly!

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Traveling to Armenia with ARARAT Brandy

I’ve hiked the Rockies, danced all night in Spanish ruins, and soaked in secret lagoons in Iceland surrounded by wild horses and bubbling earth; I’ve toured swamps deep in the bayou, broken bread with the locals in the mountains of Galicia, and kayaked the bioluminescent waters of Puerto Rico. I count myself lucky to have visited the places I’ve been – much of it through my role as a blogger for Bit by a Fox. With each new adventure I realize how much of the planet I have yet to see, and it leaves me wanting to discover more. After a trip I remain on a high for weeks, if not months, continuing to summon up the food and drink and people and culture that I was just immersed in.

My recent trip to Armenia was an especially extraordinary one that continues to sustain me. I was there to visit the 130-year-old ARARAT Brandy company with four other writers.

This trip was as much about experiencing the ancient city of Yerevan and the Armenian culture as it was about familiarizing ourselves with a spirit that is so intrinsic to its home country.

Having never been to that part of the world, I was a little nervous about what to expect. But, once there, I was surprised by how quickly I’d fallen for it. I found myself trying to compare Armenia to other places I’d been…

There was something familiar about the massive European-like plazas and bustling sidewalk cafes, the vineyards akin to Southern Spain, the dramatic mountain ranges much like the Pacific Northwest, and the Mediterranean-style olives and cheeses and spreads.

But so much was unlike anywhere else I’d ever been. As the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, the Armenian capital of Yerevan wears its political history in its architecture, like layers of clothing in different states of repair; A mix of ultra modern structures all built within the last 20 years is juxtaposed against buildings dating back to the Russian Empire through the Soviet Era.

Yerevan is known as “The Pink City” because many of the buildings were constructed from pink stones taken from lava rock found in the surrounding area, giving the impression of a rose-colored city set aglow at that magic hour before sunset.

It’s only been 26 years since Armenia was granted independence from the Soviet Union, and Yerevan feels very much like a city that is going through an exciting metamorphosis, still undiscovered by American tourists.

Despite this cosmopolitan transformation, the soul of ancient Armenia remains – modern art sits alongside sacred structures, sophisticated boutiques share space with traditional rug vendors, and while acapella voices fill ancient temples with classical music during the day, jazz clubs light up the night.

Ok, so Armenia is beautiful and special and this trip was an exciting one and all but…how is the brandy?! The thing is, I can’t talk about the brandy until I talk about Armenia. ARARAT Brandy claims to be the “Symbol of Armenia” and if ever there was a spirit that represented a culture, this is it. Ask any Armenian, it is the pride and jewel of the nation.

From the moment you land in the Zvartnots International Airport, you are inundated with billboards, and banners above the gates, and sexy videos of slow-mo brandy flowing into snifters playing on loop hovering just above each ticket line. Upon entering the city of Yerevan, some of the first buildings you see clustered high on a hill, looming large over the capital city and the Hrazdan river, will most likely be The Yerevan Brandy Company. This is where the parent company of ARARAT Brandy has its headquarters, distillery and ARARAT Museum and Visitor Center. It made sense that this was our first stop on what would be an epic, brandy-filled visit.

The ARARAT Museum and Visitor Center is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Armenia. Guides conduct tours 7 days a week in Armenian, Russian, English, French and German.

People from all over the world leave their mark here.

Including us!

Now, about that brandy…

While ARARAT’S brandy range spans 3 years to over 30, a tasting at the visitor center will most likely include three of their most popular: Akhtamar (10 years), Nairi (20 years) and Dvin (Collection Reserve) – said to be Winston Churchill’s favorite brandy.

ARARAT is made in a Cognac style, double distilled and matured in oak barrels made in Yerevan Brandy Company’s workshop from trees over 70 years old. Each expression has its own personality, but I’ve found ARARAT in general to be slightly softer and floral than a lot of Cognacs. The ten-year old Akhtamar is rich, with dried fruit and big exotic spices coming through. The Nairi is my personal favorite. It is voluptuous and complex and intense with delicate oak lingering. Winston Churchill’s favorite brandy is said to have been the exclusive ARARAT Dvin. Aged longer in oak casks, it has a heavy tobacco quality, not unlike Churchill’s other favorite vice, cigars! Nutty, coffee notes and rich cooking spices come through.

The day after our distillery visit and tasting, we spent an afternoon in a vineyard under the commanding presence of Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia, said to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark.

Only Armenian grapes can be used in the production of ARARAT Brandy.

We had the opportunity to get acquainted with these native grapes fed by 300 days of Armenian sunshine that thrive in high altitude and their dry climate.

Our visit was just after harvest season and we were able to witness truckloads of these small, sweet white grapes get pressed. Exciting stuff!

After familiarizing ourselves with everything that goes into the production of ARARAT Brandy, we were led on a comprehensive tour of Yerevan and its countryside, with stops at historic monuments and ancient temples.

Each meal better than the next. With plenty of ARARAT Brandy involved.

Our last night culminated in a dinner with the international ARARAT team and Russian media celebrating ARARAT’S 130 year anniversary, and an unveiling of its Single Cask bottle. A special end to a trip for the ages.

I’ll be carrying this visit to Armenia and my experience with ARARAT Brandy with me as I do all of the places that have touched me and changed me so profoundly. The people, the culture and the heart of its nation, their brandy, will forever stay with me.

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#FlashbackFriday: Louisiana Adventures With Bayou Rum

It was exactly a year ago this week that I had the opportunity to visit the heart of Cajun Country, Southwest Louisiana’s beautiful Lake Charles area, and the Bayou Rum distillery. If you paid attention to my social media at that time, then you know what an incredible adventure that was. It has had me thinking about that wonderful trip last fall and how I’ve been wanting to share the experience on this here blog ever since! Let’s go back, shall we…

First of all, I can’t think of a better time to visit Louisiana than in the fall. The intense heat of summer has subsided, but it’s still warm enough to wander the streets sans jacket and eat an al fresco meal under some Spanish moss. Also, those Louisiana sunsets are as spectacular as ever. Lake Charles, a historic waterfront town that once held a special allure for pirates and privateers, located 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, is especially charming.

While the kind folks behind the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau took care of every last detail while we were there, you too can recreate this entire experience! In fact, I highly suggest it!

To kick off our visit, we were treated to a horse-drawn carriage ride from the Lakefront Promenade through the Charpentier Historic District, known for its Victorian architecture dating back to the late 1800s.

All the while getting spooked with ghost stories about the town care of our very knowledgable tour guide, author and historian Adley Cormier. It WAS nearly Halloween, after all!

We were then treated to my favorite meal of the trip, at one of Lake Charles’ newest restaurants, Restaurant Calla. Chef David Sorrells, formerly with The French Laundry, and his team source all local ingredients for seasonal small dishes in a farm to table style that highlights the region’s specialties.

The specialty cocktail for the night was a play on the Halloween season, “REDЯUM”, with Bayou Select, Benedictine, honey, lemon juice, mint leaves, and El Guapo Polynesian Kiss Bitters.

Did I mention those Louisiana sunsets?

The next day, our ragtag group of journalists and bloggers got down to business and visited Louisiana Spirits in Lacassine, Louisiana, for a tour and tasting. This is the distillery that produces what locals like to call “The Spirit of Louisiana”, and why we were all there: Bayou Rum!

Louisiana Spirits was founded in 2011 by brothers Tim and Trey Litel and their longtime friend and business partner, Skip Cortese. In July, 2013, they launched Bayou Rum, and it quickly became Louisiana’s best-selling craft rum brand in the state.

At +36,000 square feet (including the visitor center and gift shop) Louisiana Spirits is the largest private label rum distillery in the U.S.

Louisiana has a long history of producing cane sugar dating back to the 1700s when early Jesuits grew it for their own form of rum which the French called “tafia.”  But through the years and due to the Civil War, Prohibition and the Great Depression, rum distillation in the region completely died out. Louisiana Spirits wanted to bring back the tradition of local rum production while sourcing 100% of their sugarcane from the state.

Using Louisiana cane sugar and molasses, Bayou Rum distills in traditional copper pot stills.

Our tour guide was co-owner, Skip Cortese who gave us a peek into the production process of Bayou Rum and all the work that goes into bringing this spirit to market.

It’s always fascinating to see the inner workings of a distillery, especially those that distill, bottle, label, box and age all under one roof!

You know what the best part of a distillery tour is? The tasting! All of that walking around sweet-smelling rum and handling unopened bottles of booze can make a gal thirsty!

Luckily we had some knowledgable fellows to relieve us of our thirst! Our tasting was led by Master Distiller, Jeff Murphy and Master Blender, Reiniel Vicente Diaz.

We tasted all of the Bayou Rum expressions – Silver, Spiced, Select and a special liqueur made from local citrus, Satsuma.

Having tried them all on their own and in various cocktails, I found the Silver to be the most versatile in cocktails, but the Spiced was surprisingly good in a simple highball with soda. The Select is their higher end release and works well in a rum Old Fashioned. One of their best sellers is their Satsuma Liqueur, to be drunk on its own or (how I preferred), used as a modifier in a cocktail.

Oh, and did I mention we got to hang out with a baby alligator named Gumbeaux?! Uh, yeah. And I’m not posting any pics of me and him because I was not the most gracious of alligator handlers (I freaked out more than an adult woman should). But I fell in love with him in the end!

Our Louisiana adventures didn’t end there! After a lunch of Crawfish Jambalaya, Fried Catfish and Green beans with red potatoes…we were off to the next spot!

You can’t say that you’ve done Louisiana until you’ve had a proper swamp tour and we were led by the best – Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours. We saw so many ‘gators over the course of our mini boat ride, that I actually started to feel somewhat comfortable around them!

After cozying up to the ‘gators, we hit the bling-iest place in town, the Mardi Gras Museum, which houses the largest costume display in the world! It’s truly spectacular.There may or may not be some creepy animatronic action in there. Again, a perfect place to visit around Halloween.

This epic day was, of course, topped off with another fabulous dinner and cocktails at The Country Club at Golden Nugget – the fabulous gargantuan casino/hotel we stayed at while we were in Lake Charles. My hotel room had a view of the Vegas style pool and what I assumed was THE Lake Charles, AND had a soaking tub in the middle of the suite. ’nuff said.

We got so much in during those few days we were there and I would totally do it all over again. Louisiana has fast become one of my favorite places to visit and Cajun Country is at the top of my list. Luckily, if you live in the states, you don’t need to be in Louisiana to get Bayou Rum. Since Louisiana Spirit signed a national distribution deal with Stoli Group USA you can find their cajun kissed rum near you!

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

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The Myths & Mysteries of Absinthe: Ten Years Legal in the U.S.

Let me be mad, then, by all means! Mad with the madness of Absinthe, the wildest, most luxurious madness in the world! Vive la folie! Vive l’amour! Vive l’animalisme! Vive le Diable!”
Marie Corelli, Wormwood: A Drama of Paris

Absinthe at Hotel Delmano March 2009

Listen to Bit by a Fox Podcast Episode 5: Absinthe with Ted Breaux” – me

The Green Fairy, La Fée Verte, Absinthe – One of the most misunderstood elixirs ever created and consumed. Made all the more mysterious by a worldwide ban of the stuff for nearly 100 years. After the ban was finally lifted in the states ten years ago now, some myths are still perpetuated by a few brands capitalizing on its mystique.

Absinthe photos by Rose Callahan Aug 2015Most likely, you’ve heard the dark stories…about how “real” absinthe will make you hallucinate, turn you violent and drive you mad if you have too much. Well known writers and artists such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe were all said to have benefited creatively and yet suffered negatively from the effects of their consumption of absinthe. But what is the real story of absinthe? Can we get an authentic version in the states? And why was it banned for so long if it is truly harmless?

Absinthe photos by Rose Callahan Aug 2015

Absinthe, for those of you unfamiliar, is a highly alcoholic distilled spirit, (not a liqueur as it is often mistaken for, because it is not traditionally sweetened with added sugar) made with macerated herbs – primarily aniseed, sweet fennel and wormwood – the main flavor components in the spirit. The various botanicals is what also gives absinthe its famous natural green color, inspiring the nicknames “Green Fairy” and “Green Goddess”. At its height in popularity, towards the end of the 19th century, when the French were drinking up to 36 million litres of absinthe per year, the nearly 30,000 cafés in Paris were transformed every day at 5:00 p.m. into l’Heure Verte, the Green Hour.

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Absinthe’s rise in popularity coincided with a rise in alcohol consumption in general. Cheap, poorly made “bathtub” versions were being produced, and alcohol-related injuries and crimes were being blamed on the popular spirit, leading the way to a prohibition of absinthe internationally. The temperance movement as well as the wine industry, threatened by the massive popularity of the drink, leveraged the moral panic against absinthe in Europe at the time, and pushed the idea that it was especially dangerous and led to violent behavior.

Green Fairy party sponsored by Vieux Carre photographed by Rose Callahan at the Red Room in NYC on Oct 6, 2016

Is there any truth to the dangers, the highs, the hallucinogenic qualities that have been rumored and written about and spread throughout the centuries? The truth is, absinthe is indeed potent. It is not to be taken straight as it is so concentrated. It is traditionally bottled at a high alcohol by volume – usually 110-144 proof versus whiskey which is about 80 proof. This is because it is to be diluted with ice-cold water prior to being consumed.

Absinthe photos by Rose Callahan Aug 2015

Ted A. Breaux, a scientist, researcher and leading authority on absinthe, had a major role in overturning the ban in America ten years ago. Lucid Absinthe, his creation and the first absinthe in the U.S. market, is still considered one of the top brands in the world. According to Breaux, “pre-ban absinthes contained no hallucinogens, opiates or other psychoactive substances”. The only drug in absinthe is alcohol.

Absinthe photos by Rose Callahan

Thujone, a compound found in wormwood, is often referred to as the hallucinogenic component in “real” absinthe. But according to the experts and extensive studies, there just isn’t any truth to this. In extremely high doses, thujone is known to be a dangerous neurotoxin, but pre-ban absinthe and the nearly identical recipes made today have always only had trace amounts.  The truth is, there may very well be more wormwood in the vermouth you’re having in your next martini than a glass of absinthe. Aside from being its hallmark ingredient, the name “vermouth” is in fact the French pronunciation of the German word Wermut, meaning…wormwood.

Absinthe photos by Rose Callahan Aug 2015

How come, even after ten years of it being legal in the states, there are still so many misconceptions about this botanical beverage? Perhaps we prefer holding onto these romantic notions of madness and drug-induced achievements from some of our most notable creative geniuses. It surely doesn’t help when certain brands market themselves in a way that takes advantage of their naughty past, advertising thujone or wormwood on their bottles in an inauthentic way.

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That’s not to say we haven’t come a long way since that 95 year ban. There are a lot of really wonderful brands that are making quality absinthe, each one, with their specific recipe, slightly different from the next. So, what brands should you be buying?

Green Fairy party sponsored by Vieux Carre photographed by Rose Callahan at the Red Room in NYC on Oct 6, 2016

Absinthe educator Kellfire Bray, seen here at the monthly Green Fairy Party produced by Don Spiro in NYC, recommends these bottles to get you started:

Meadow of Love Absinthe from Delaware Phoenix Distillery –  American Hidden Gem
Made in the Catskills in upstate New York, Meadow of Love has a floral aroma and flavor interacting with the anise. This absinthe has a powerful louche of rolling, milky cloud banks, and it coats the tongue with flavor.

Lucid Absinthe Superieure  – Traditional, Easy to Find
Lucid is the first genuine absinthe made with real Grande Wormwood to be legally available in the United States in over 95 years. Lucid is prepared in accordance with the same standards as pre-ban absinthes. It is historically accurate in EVERY detail.

“Vieux Pontarlier” Absinthe Francais SuperieureMid-range, Workhorse
Very anise forward and fairly sweet, this absinthe is made in small batches using alambic stills that were specifically designed to make absinthe. Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe evolved from the research and experience of professional Absintheur Peter Schaf, using historic protocols, distilling techniques and equipment from the 19th Century.

Kubler Absinthe SuperieureMid-range, Swiss style
Clear and colorless in the Swiss style. Along with Lucid, was crucial in petitioning the government to lift the absinthe ban. Anise and fennel dominate but get more complex post louche.

Jade 1901 Absinthe SuperieureTop Pick, Harder to Find
From Ted A. Breaux’s high-end absinthe line, Jade Liqueurs, this bottle was recreated as a tribute to a widely studied pre-ban absinthe, as it appeared circa 1901. A classic vintage-style absinthe, balanced and crisp, with a stimulating herbal aroma and a smooth, lingering aftertaste.

Absinthe photos by Rose Callahan Aug 2015

The preparation to drink absinthe may seem intimidating. Do you need the correct tools? Is there sugar AND fire involved? How much is the right amount? It is all pretty simple, really. In fact, according to Bray, you don’t even really need the sugar. You’ll just need to slowly dilute 1 part absinthe to 3-5 parts iced water from a specially made absinthe fountain or even by hand with a carafe. As the water dilutes the spirit, the botanical oils are released, herbal aromas “bloom” and the clear green liquid turns cloudy, a result that is called the “louche”.

Absinthe photos by Rose Callahan Aug 2015

The traditional French Method, however, does involve placing a sugar cube on top of a slotted spoon over a glass of absinthe and pouring iced water over the sugar in order to slowly dissolve it and mix with the absinthe. Since absinthe is not made with added sugar, some people prefer to sweeten it up this way. But according to nearly all authorities on absinthe, DO NOT soak that sugar cube with liquor and then light it on fire. This “Czech Method” is not traditional and was actually started in the late 90s as a spectacle for tourists and to mask inferior spirits. We’re all better than that!

Absinthe photos by Rose Callahan Aug 2015

So, go ahead and celebrate the progress we’ve made in the last ten years, and get acquainted with the Green Fairy! Raise a glass to the magical, herbal delights of this cloudy wonder…without going completely mad! Vive la absinthe!


All photos provided by Rose Callahan, of the Dandy Portrait fame, and our photography partner on the Bartender Style series.

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Cointreau’s The Art of La Soirée Curated by Design Star Jeremiah Brent

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Last Saturday night, Cointreau, the iconic French orange liqueur, partnered with Jeremiah Brent, TV personality, interior designer and handsome hubs to Oprah bestie Nate Berkus, on a beautiful, travel-inspired evening as part of their “The Art of La Soirée” tour of events.

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The fête, set inside the stunning Big Daddy’s Antiques in Los Angeles, is part of a series of events set in five different cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas and New York City – each one curated by a different artist with a slightly different inspired entertaining theme. Last Saturday’s soirée showcased Jeremiah’s passion for travel and global discovery – the Collection de Voyages Soirée.

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The immersive experience was a Moroccan summer’s night meets Croatian holiday crossed with a Mayan Riviera getaway. And the cocktails, curated by Jeremiah, also drew inspiration from those cities that made the most impact on him through his travels – Tulum, Mexico; Marrakech, Morocco; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Split, Croatia. Los Angeles, of course, played a role in the night as well. Despite feeling transported, the beautiful guests, unusual, dual-purpose event space, and the hip DJ, electric guitarist entertainment for the night helped to remind us that we were still in La La Land!

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Oh, and, look who I ran into?! The lovely powerhouse mixology couple, Kyle and Rachel Ford, profiled on this here blog last year in our Bartender Style series. This event actually marked Kyle’s last as Cocktail & Spirits Expert for Rémy Cointreau. And with the decision to focus primarily on their revamped consulting firm, Ford Marketing Lab, Kyle has officially passed the Cointreau torch. I have no doubt the Rémy Cointreau family will miss him!

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It was an enchanting night! And I sort of felt like I went on a mini 3-hour vacation to some exotic locale with elegant natives, citrusy cocktails and dazzling light fixtures everywhere. Jeremiah Brent, can you curate my life, please?

If you are interested in attending one of  The Art of La Soirée events, check back in to Cointreau’s site to see about a soirée near you!

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All photos courtesy of Shannon Carpenter from This Aperture.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015 Recap

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Tales of the Cocktail is the largest cocktail conference in the world, so it makes sense that it takes place in the booziest town in the world, New Orleans, Louisiana.

french quarter

Tales (as it’s affectionately referred to by those in-the-know) attracts the top bartenders, brands, industry leaders, media and influencers – a collection of who’s who of the cocktail world – as well as enthusiasts, from as far away as Spain, Australia and Peru. So, it’s basically 25,000 international booze nerds crammed into the French Quarter for 5 days straight, during the steamiest, sweatiest, and stinkiest time of year in the deep south – smack dab in the middle of July. I’ve been equally terrified and desperate to go to Tales ever since I got involved in this spirited industry. This past July marked the 13th year for the cocktail fest and it marked my lucky 1st! It was pretty special, you guys. Want to hear about it? Oh, good, because it’s been almost exactly a month and I’m DYING to tell you!

Did I mention that it was hot? Like, HOTTT. Think about the hottest you’ve ever been in the elements and then double that and then add a few more degrees of HOT, subtract half the oxygen in the air, and then add a permanent veneer of sweat over everything. Oh, and Nola just happened to be going through a heat wave during Tales week, so it was even more of a human crawfish boil than normal! Luckily, we were staying in a lovely ice box, high above the chaos of Bourbon Street!

lafitte guest house

Ok, now try to imagine driiinking in that atmosphere. There are bottles of water everywhere, branded fans are given out alongside marketing materials and whenever and wherever possible, the AC is cranking. A lot of effort goes into keeping the crowds hydrated and chilled. Despite all that, you’re still sweating 100% of the time. Luckily there are cocktails to distract you from all of this. Soooo many cocktails.

pr julep

There are seminars starting at 9am that come equipped with generous samplings, brand luncheons with multiple cocktail pairings served by noon at the latest, and floor upon floor of tasting rooms occupying much of the official Tales headquarters at the Hotel Monteleone, home of the famed Carousel Bar, happening ALL DAY LONG.

ZT4A1593-Edit_watermarked for social mediaNot to mention, there are huge, conceptual brand parties that cap off each day, stretching into the wee hours, and as you can imagine, drinking is encouraged!

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Snapshots from the William Grant & Sons Yonderyear Party

Despite everyone’s enthusiasm to try errrrthang, it’s just not physically possible. Frequent attendees and Tales workers are fond of telling you to pace yourself. You’ll hear a variation of “Tales of the Cocktail is a marathon, not a sprint” multiple times before the week is out. But, it’s a great reminder because 1. you want to TRY to remember everything you’re tasting 2. you don’t want to be THAT PERSON and 3. you do not, repeat DO NOT want to be hungover in that heat. It’s probably the meanest thing you can do to yourself.

Despite the insane heat, the struggle to stay sober, and the constant FOMO because I couldn’t be everywhere at once, I had an amazing time! I brought some foxy friends along with me for the journey who also helped document the experience. Here are my highlights!

This band in Jackson Square.

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This view over coffee every morning:

lafitte guest houseThis wise ass at The Grill who was kind enough to let me have grits past noon:

thegrillThis sunset taken right before our flawless backyard dinner at Bacchanal:

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And, this – the magical Beam Suntory Jul(e)p Hour House…

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Imagine, it’s a 95+ degree day in Nola, and you walk into the most genteel French Colonial home, where you are greeted with a cool, damp cloth for your forehead, live ragtime music coming from a dapper gentleman at the baby grand, and all the whisk(e)ys in the world served to you in ice cold julep form. Well, all the whiskys in the Beam Suntory portfolio, that is. Which is quite impressive. It is NOT a dream. You have arrived at Jul(e)p Hour and you may never want to leave. At least I didn’t! 

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Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky made one of my favorite juleps!

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The impressive Beam Suntory whisky line-up.

With Simon Brooking, Master Ambassador for Laphroaig

With Simon Brooking, Master Ambassador for Laphroaig

Every room in this French Quarter oasis was dedicated to a different whisky and their own signature juleps for the occasion. We also had the advantage of having the ambassadors and master experts on hand to answer any questions and taste the good stuff on its own. From sampling traditional juleps made with Maker’s Mark to sipping on a pineapple and peat version made with Laphroaig, and a top shelf julep with newly launched Japanese whisky, Hibiki Japanese Harmony, we were able to get our julep on, and then some!

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The House of Suntory Whisky introduced a new expression from the Hibiki Range: Hibiki Japanese Harmony.

The very first tasting I attended when I arrived to Tales was actually one of my favorites. It was held at “Café Torino”, a beautiful, very Italian pop up installation from Martini & Rossi. The tasting was a kick off to a week of them hosting a (much appreciated) coffee shop during the day with vermouth cocktails at night. At the tasting, I was able to try two new expressions in their Martini Riserva Speciale line – Ambrato and Rubino (amber and ruby).

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Martini’s Master Herbalist, Ivano Tonutti and Master Blender, Beppe Musso led the tasting

The Ambrato, made from Moscato d’Asti and golden in color is floral and aromatic, slightly bitter, with a touch of honey. In other words, totally my jam. The Rubino is true to its name and is a stunning ruby red color. The addition of full bodied Nebbiolo and Central African Red Sandalwood makes for a rich and complex vermouth that is really wonderful on its own but I could also see it making a spectacular Manhattan. At the end of the tasting Giuseppe Gallo, Martini’s Global Brand Ambassador asked us which expression was our favorite. And it was truly difficult to pick! All I know is vermouth is having a major moment right now. And it’s exciting that a classic brand like Martini & Rossi is continuing to be innovative, pushing superior products to the forefront. Speaking of which, I was also able to taste their limited edition Gran Lusso Vermouth, released for the company’s 150th anniversary a few years ago, but not yet sampled by me! Holy smokes, that’s a vermouth! A Barbera base that is then fortified with oak-aged Moscato must extract and a botanical blend based on a recipe from 1904, this is truly a sipping vermouth, meant to be appreciated neat or with a few cubes of ice.

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Another highlight of the week was getting my very own TinType portrait taken by Legendary photographer Victoria Will for StGermain Elderflower Liqueur’s French Embassy Cocktail Party. TinTypes, popular at fairs and festivals in the 19th century, are created by having the photographer shoot a picture and then develop it quickly by hand onto a thin sheet of lacquered metal. As you can imagine, it was also VERY popular at this festival! I felt extremely lucky to have been able to squeeze into this shoot!

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My Victoria Will TinType portrait:

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I was also excited to meet Camille Vidal, StGermain Global Brand Ambassador, aka Madam St-Germain in person finally! This French beauty is such a perfect representation of the brand and I’ve admired everything she’s been doing to get this wonderful product out to the masses. She lives and breathes the French aperitif life!

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What’s so wonderful about Tales of the Cocktail is that there are experts on hand at every tasting and event. Everywhere you look there is a legend in the spirits industry. From an intimate, exclusive sneak peek and tasting of Wild Turkey Master’s Keep and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye (both to be released later this year!) with Jimmy and Eddie Russell, themselves…

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Three generations of Wild Turkey: Jimmy Russell, Eddie Russell and Bruce Russell

…to a personal tasting and bonding sesh over all things gin related with Beefeater Master Distiller, Desmond Payne – Tales is a booze nerd’s fantasy.

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If you haven’t yet had a chance to try Burrough’s Reserve Barrel Finished Gin, do yourself a favor and treat yourself. Distilled in small batches and rested in French oak Lillet aperitif wine barrels, the result is less gin-like and more…like an aperitif, actually! It’s on the slightly sweeter side, with floral hints, is incredibly smooth and the botanicals are subtle. One of my favorite products I tried at Tales.

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Another fantastic thing about Tales is that you have the opportunity to connect with so many of the other writers, bloggers, influencers and cocktail geeks out there that you only really know from their work online. I’ve developed a lot of amazing virtual relationships these last couple of years and it was amazing to finally be able to put real life faces to names and websites. I had the great pleasure of meeting Greg Mays and his wife Lisa Mays, the dynamic duo behind Simple Cocktails out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Not only do they run a really solid website, but they do a fun boozy podcast as well! On my fourth day into Tales, we sat next to each other at a fantastic Jägermeister luncheon and then, afterwards shared a car back to the Hotel Monteleone. In between that, I participated in one of their podcasts! I was so honored that they asked me to be a part of it and psyched to be among such top cocktail talent. Check out this special Tales Podcast that also features Camper English, Tanya Cohn, Ivy Mix (this year’s American Bartender of the Year!), Dale Degroff (King Cocktail!), and Philip Dobard.

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Lisa and Greg Mays from Simple Cocktails

So, these are just SOME of the highlights of Tales of the Cocktail 2015 for me. While this is an epic post, I could go even more in depth on almost ALL of these experiences, New Orleans and the incredible people I was able to meet and spend time with last month. But I will save your scrolling finger for now and wrap it up right here!

However, you will hear more from me on Tales. Some posts in particular will detail two Spirited Dinners I was lucky enough to participate in – one with Maker’s Mark at the legendary Commander’s Palace with some truly spectacular company, and the other with the founder of Tres Agave Tequila at Nola hot spot Johnny Sanchez. Look out for more Tales recaps to come!

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Special thanks to my foxy friend entourage who accompanied me on this sweaty, boozy journey and helped document the amazingness along the way! In particular, the very talented Shannon Carpenter from This Aperture.

Bartender Style – Maison Premiere

Bartender Style is a collaboration between Bit by a Fox and photographer Rose Callahan. This new, monthly series, exclusively on the Bit by a Fox blog, will explore and document the personal style of some of the best bartenders in New York City and beyond. Kicking off this series, and right on the heels of their James Beard nomination for Outstanding Bar Program, we have chosen to profile the beyond dapper gents behind one of the most stylish bars around, Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, New York.

The bar is a stage. And all of us imbibers merely players. But the bartender? The bartender is the star of the show.

BarStyle Maxwell tie

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BarStyle Maxwell Tools

There is something extremely theatrical about cocktail slinging. It’s no wonder performers of all kinds have always gravitated to the business and craft of cocktails. The renaissance of classic cocktails in recent years, has had people embracing quality made, hand crafted drinks, which in turn, has brought much more attention to the bartenders as expert craftsmen (and women).

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The bartender is being called upon to be more creative than ever, at times eclipsing the celebrity chef in innovation as well as press mentions. We are now living in the age of “Startenders” – celebrity drink slingers, mixologists and personalities. And, as anyone who has ever sidled up to a craft cocktail bar can attest, the creativity and flair that produces inventive and aesthetically pleasing cocktails, is very often translated sartorially.

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This self-expression extends to twisty mustaches, pin curls and colorful tattoos, yes, but style is more than all that. It’s the tools involved, techniques used and all around ceremony and performance: a service style. Most of the women and men who have risen in the ranks of this cocktail revolution, and are at the top of their game, no matter what their style, would probably all agree on one thing; It’s all about the guest.

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The best bartenders already know that the style adopted and cultivated behind the bar is as much a part of the customer’s experience as the feel of that bar stool they’re perched upon, or the level and tone of light that flickers from the candles and wall sconces and bounces off the prettied faces all gathered under one roof. Every piece of the equation is experiential.

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Sometimes the style behind the bar is refined by the environment itself. This can be said with certainty when it comes to the spectacularly romantic Maison Premiere in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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Owners Joshua Boissy and Krystof Zizka opened their absinthe and oyster bar in 2011, designing it to feel like the lobby of an old hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter. But the marble-topped horseshoe bar that dominates the front room, and the first thing you see upon walking through the doors, has a distinct Parisian quality. They’ve since expanded their menu to include more food items, and the cocktail list, while still favoring the green fairy, has expanded as well, and changes with the seasons. The spare, elegantly worn space is fairly light and bright for a cocktail bar and is actually absinthe-toned in places. It lends itself to a particular kind of style. One with a nod to the past, a by-gone era where ladies painted their lips in jewel tones and wore flowers in their hair and gentlemen suited up with pocket squares and sported tie bars…and upheld a sense of etiquette and decorum.

For our very first Bartender Style profile, Rose and I knew that we had to feature the exquisite Maison Premiere and the extremely well dressed gents who help to make walking into that place feel otherworldly.

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Meet Head Bartender and Beverage Director Maxwell Britten, Head Bartender William Elliot and Service Director, Ben Crispin.

Maxwell, Will and Ben are perfect representatives of Maison Premiere and the style that goes along with it. They might all get their haircuts from an equally vintage-influenced bloke down the street, Russell Manley of Ludlow Blunt, inspiring clients to ask for the Maison Premiere haircut, but they each have their own distinct style.

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Will has been a bartender for 11 years, four of them have been at Maison since it opened. He primarily shops in thrift stores like Beacon’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange, but gravitates towards a more modern aesthetic. He doesn’t like to be too time specific and ends up favoring neutral pieces. Hermés is Will’s preferred tie designer and he brings bags of them to work. Like many of the men at Maison, tie bars and vintage collar bars are always in rotation. Some of his work style is primarily utilitarian – like using arm bands to adjust cuff length on a shirt, rolling up the right sleeve for cleaning purposes and tucking his tie into a shirt or vest so it does not dip into the sink when washing glasses.  On his off days, Will wears mostly black since Maison is “all about color”.

Maxwell brought Will on board to help open Maison four years ago, and had only started bartending four years before that. But the cocktail program he’s developed at Maison belies his years. Just ask the James Beard Foundation.

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All you really need to know about Maxwell is that he wears a suit jacket for most of the service. He’s that committed. When developing the aesthetic behind the bar, he gravitated towards classic mid-century tailored suits. He favors bright, flashy colors when it comes to his socks and ties. And while his style has evolved since he’s been at Maison, he has always been known for his suspenders.

The stakes were raised, however, when Ben came on board…

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As Maison Premiere’s Service Director, Ben is truly the face of the bar, and often one of the first faces guests will see. And, he takes his job very seriously. He has never been a bartender, however he is their ambassador. Ben is the bartender’s representative when they have nary a moment for a chat. A liaison between the bartender and guest, he lovingly collects the stories and history of the bar, and is a font of knowledge when it comes to the eras in which many of the cocktails on the menu originate from. He is also a sort of style curator for Maison Premiere.

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There has been a culture that has developed within Maison Premiere, stylistically. And much of this is due to Ben’s presence. When Ben came on board three years ago, his elevated everyday dress choices and attention to detail style-wise, created a certain level of friendly competition among the men. This one-upmanship pushed them all to hone their own personal style further. But that hasn’t kept them from looking out for one another. Ben prefers Ferragamo ties and the other guys will keep a look out for him. And if Ben finds a Hermés tie, he knows it’s going to Will.

Ben describes his style as Vintage Americana and takes his cues from the Japanese and their fascination in American made products. He’s into well crafted, handmade boots, and finds vintage Allen Edmonds shoes off eBay. Ben says that he often discovers gems like a Savile Rowe dress suit at Goodwill because other people are not looking for men’s items from the 20s, 30s and 40s.

In the hiring and training of staff over the years, Ben notes that they have developed a lot of “style rules” at Maison. And they are specific!

Maison Premiere Style Uniform
For the female hosts and servers – high contrast patterned tights with a black pencil skirt, off white blouse in a vintage style and a black blazer. They should wear bright red lipstick and a flower in their hair. For the gentlemen – dark slacks and vintage wingtips, simple light-colored dress shirt, a patterned tie and a dark vest.  A tie bar and a part in their hair is the last part of the uniform. That is the basics of what they ask the staff to wear. There are times when they have to ask someone to change some elements of their uniform. Most of the time it is a blouse that looks too modern or a tie that is not right with the pattern. They don’t let the staff wear solid tights, plaid or solid ties and dark-colored dress shirts. These rules exist so everyone looks similar but not identical.

One of the questions we’ll always ask for this Bartender Style column will have to do with a favorite cocktail that represents the bar, and its recipe. We’ll leave you with Will’s favorite, á la Louisiane, a complex, Manhattan-style rye and absinthe concoction created in New Orleans in the 1930s. It has been on the menu since they opened their doors. And we see why.

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á la Louisiane
4 dashes of Absinthe Verte
4 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
1/2 ounce Benedictine
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica vermouth
1 3/4 ounce Rittenhouse rye whiskey

Pour ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake several times. Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

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New York’s Mad Men Dining Week Recap!

Mad Men Season 7Photo by Getty Images for AMC

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Men World! The countdown has begun on the final seven episodes of one of the most acclaimed and stylish television shows of all time, Mad Men. And, in anticipation of the final season, there has been a number of initiatives around New York City to help us immerse ourselves in the sexy, glamorous, and boozy world of Don Draper, and the men and women of Madison Avenue. The Museum of Moving Image is hosting creator Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men Exhibit through June, and there has been an installation of a Don Draper bench as well as a change in street signs (Mad Men Ave/Don Draper Way) right outside the Time & Life Building, the home of fictional advertising firm Sterling Cooper & Partners.

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Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for AMC

But, to really get all of our senses prepared for next Sunday’s premiere episode, this past week New York City has been in the throes of Mad Men Dining Week, where many of us ate and drank our way through the 1960s. From last Monday, March 23rd up until yesterday, the 29th, 34 New York City restaurants participated in this lunchtime promotion that featured 60s style menu items and “liquid lunches” for a cool $19.69.

Since I am a HUGE fan of the show and I have always been aesthetically drawn to the 1960s, AND I also happen to work in the Time & Life Building…I’m pretty sure all of these festivities leading up to the finale were designed JUST FOR ME. In case you haven’t been following me on social media, I DID in fact, partake in many a liquid lunch last week. Let’s talk about it!

Last Monday, my introduction to Mad Men Dining Week was at the classic seafood restaurant, Blue Water Grill in Union Square…

…where I parked myself at the bar for a good hour and a half while, Jason, my skilled and attentive bartender, treated me to my very own Joan Holloway experience. Pardon my fuzzy iPhone pics while I take you on this boozy journey…

Staying within the theme of 1960s style cocktails, Blue Water Grill’s “Liquid Lunch” offerings were two tipples inspired by the era: a Whisky Sour type cocktail and a Vesper:

Mad Vesper
1 oz Gin
1 oz Vodka
1 oz Lillet

Stirred. Strained into a Martini glass. Onion garnish.

Mad Sour
2 oz Canadian Whisky
1 oz Blood OJ
1/2 oz fresh lemon
1/2 oz simple syrup

Shake all ingredients and strain over a large cube in a rocks glass. Brandied cherry garnish.

While both cocktails were delicious, I was partial to the Mad Sour. You can’t go wrong with whisky and blood orange juice. And, you could make a meal out of those brandied cherries! After one Vesper and very little lunch, however, you’d be behaving as inappropriately as Roger Sterling in no time!

The next day, I headed to PJ Clarke’s, the historic saloon on East 55th street that can be seen in episode 8 of the first season Mad Men, “Hobo Code.”

The upstairs dining area, Sidecar, was serving a lunch and drink special. I thought it wise, since I had to go back to work, to keep the cocktails to a minimum this time.

By filling my belly with their signature cheeseburger, famously dubbed “The Cadillac of burgers” by Nat King Cole in the late 1950s, I guaranteed my ability to handle my one boozy indulgence…

While their drink specials included an Old Fashioned and a delicious sounding whiskey, rum and brandy cocktail, I knew I had to get a Sidecar…while I was at Sidecar!

I’m so glad I did! Emily, behind the bar, lovingly prepared this drink like she was making it for Peggy Olsen herself!

Sidecar
1 1/2 oz Cognac
1 oz Cointreau
1/2 oz lemon juice

Add the ingredients to an ice-filled shaker. Shake 8 to 10 seconds, until the outside of the shaker is well chilled. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass.
Garnish with a lemon twist. Sugared rim optional.

While the 21 Club has never actually made an appearance in Mad Men…

…the place is an New York institution, synonymous with classic cocktails, well-heeled patrons and power lunches. It’s no wonder they participated in Mad Men Dining Week! I knew exactly where I wanted to sit – on one of the newly appointed stools at the bar in the back Bar Room.

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Apparently, the bar stools were such new additions to the back bar, that I had the honor of being bartender Mark’s first lunch patron! Perched up on one of the best seats in the house, overlooking the entire dining room, I felt even closer to the toys and artifacts dangling from the former speakeasy’s ceiling, that dated back to the 30s, including a toy torpedo boat from John F. Kennedy and a baseball bat from Willie Mays.

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21 club shortrib

I went for the lunch special with a traditional Caesar salad and melt in your mouth braised short ribs over whipped parsnips. And, a Manhattan, of course! Don Draper, eat your heart out!

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Manhattan
2 oz Rye Whiskey
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
4-5 dashes bitters

Add ingredients to an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir well, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

For my final Mad Men Dining Week experience, I decided to go all out, and headed to famed French restaurant, Le Cirque.

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I’m not kidding around when I say we went all out…

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Escargot á la Bourguignonne!

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“Ile Flottante – floating island”! (a delicious meringue, cream and berry delight!)

We went for the lunch AND drink special, because…Friday. So, we each started with a Champagne cocktail and then ordered the heavy-duty cocktails second.

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Look at that gorgeous Stinger! That cocktail doesn’t look so bad, either! Zing! I ordered a Sidecar for my second drink, but I couldn’t help capturing my lovely lunch date with her perfect Stinger. It’s also a cocktail that has been out of fashion for so long, it was a fun one to be able to try off of the menu. This cocktail, composed of just Cognac and Créme de Menthe, tastes exactly like a grown up after dinner mint. And it was a perfect one to cap off our Mad Men Dining Week.

Stinger
2 Cognac
1 oz Créme de Menthe

Add ingredients to an ice-filled shaker. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

What a great idea to introduce new clientele to these time-honored restaurants, and such a fun excuse to dress up, explore some classic New York establishments and indulge in some liquid lunches! I don’t know how those ad men and women did it back in the day! But I’m willing to bring back the boozy tradition every now and again!

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Mardi Gras & The Sazerac

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Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday in French, starts on or right after Kings Day and right before Ash Wednesday and represents the last chance to feast before the fasting that occurs during the many weeks of Lent. But for many people, especially those in New Orleans, this time of year, also referred to as Carnival Season, is an excuse to PAR-TAY! The crazy, naked, boozy, bedazzled, gold, purple & green encrusted, bead & boob covered event that we know as Mardi Gras, arrived in the states in the late 1600s care of a couple of French Catholic brothers sent by King Louis XIV to defend the territory now known as Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In 1703, fifteen years before New Orleans was even founded, early French settlers of Mobile, Alabama – the first capital of French Louisiana, organized the very first Mardi Gras celebration. And the rest is histoire!

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The very sweet, fruity Hurricane cocktail is probably the drink most associated with Mardi Gras. But the classic Sazerac is THE official cocktail of New Orleans and one of my all-time favorites. So, if you are Carnival-ing it up next week, this is the cocktail you should be mixing up. It’s also one that you can make a large batch of and have on hand if you are entertaining.

I’ve covered the Sazerac once before on this blog, using a coffee syrup and Van Brunt American Whiskey. I’ve included here a more traditional recipe. For the rinse of absinthe, you can splash a little and pour it out, but make sure to coat the inside of the glass for the full flavor before discarding the liquid. Or you can leave it in for a more intense flavor. You can also use an atomizer to just lightly mist the inside of the glass to really ensure that you don’t overdo it! In any case, Let the Good Times Roll!

The Sazerac - Bit By a Fox

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