From Seattle to Prague to New York and Back Again
I keep saying that I am going to post about my recent travels, so here it be:
It started several weeks ago when I hopped aboard a plane heading to Prague. I had been invited to present seminars for the first ever Czech Bar Awards and was stoked to see a city that I had heard so much about.
Arriving at the airport with next to no sleep (I had worked the night/morning before) I looked forward to taking a couple of sleeping pills and waking up in another country at the exact same time that I boarded the plane: albeit one day later. Getting settled in my seat I noted with some dismay that I was surrounded by babies: I think every baby on the plane was sitting in the row in front of me. Sleep seemed less and less likely as the flight went on and the harmony of babies ensured that there wasn’t a moment of quiet or non-airborne toys headed in my vicinity.
Landing in Prague I was greeted by Martin Batha, the young bartender who had organized the seminars that I was to present in two days: but first, Prague!
After getting settled in to the hotel and exploring the immediate area while Martin gathered the last of the ingredients needed for the seminars, Martin picked me up and we began touring the old city. Driving to the old town square we got out of the car and walked through the historic city as we meandered by the opera, the Astronomical Clock, several beautiful churches, across the river via Charles Bridge and up a hill until we finally reached Prague Castle, which, according to Guinness, is the world’s largest ancient castle.
Having done the tourist thing, we decided that it was high time for a drink. We first stopped off for a well-crafted Manhattan at U Prince, before we headed to La Bodeguita Del Medio for a Hemingway Daiquiri made with an unusual tasting maraschino liqueur that I had not seen before. After wetting the whistle we decided to head to Bugsy’s Bar, a superb bar specializing in the classics as well as their own creations, which would go on to win Best Cocktail Bar at the awards ceremony the next day. The two highlights at this bar were the drink menu (an eighty page, bound, illustrated, hardcover opus) and the washrooms (check out the picture of their urinals). Our bartender, Martin, was kind enough to supply me with a signed edition of their bar menu: the hospitality here was exceptional! The standout drink at Bugsy’s had to be the Arkansas Gent, a well crafted libation consisting of Bourbon, Benedictine and Angostura bitters.
Next stop was Tretter’s Bar, another American bar with a cocktail menu similar to Bugsy’s (in that it was huge and hardbound). They were kind enough to give me a copy of their tome here as well, and it made for good reading on the plane back to New York. (While they had a healthy supply of classic cocktails, I feel that Tretter’s’ specialty is “food cocktails”, utilizing ingredients such as rosemary, basil, jasmine, tamarillo, marmalade, lavender and cigar leaves with their spirits.)
We then wandered over to Bar and Books (yes, just like the one in New York) for a nightcap. This was hidden down one of the labyrinthian streets that constitute Prague, and I was extremely grateful to have Mr. Batha as my guide as I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been able to find any of these great watering holes without his assistance. As the wee hours of the morning approached, we decided to call it a day and headed home.
The next day arrived all too early and we headed down to the Awards venue to get set up for my quick presentation. This, the first ever Czech Bar Awards, was held in an old abandoned warehouse that was filled with tents, lights and music. It was indeed a fun space to have a party. I was not the only one doing a presentation today, Philip Duff of Bols and now door74 fame, was present to do a presentation for the Czech speaking audience as well. Philip was lucky enough to play with Havana Club’s Maximo (an insanely expensive, extra añejo rum: think more expensive than Louis XIII) to make a darn tasty Rum Old-Fashioned (utilizing my Boker’s bitters in the process) of which I had not one, but two during the course of the night. Yes I am a glutton for all things boozy and free. My presentation entailed my mixing of a drink that utilized foam and fire. In other words: good for TV.
Here’s the recipe (you may have seen this on Evening Magazine recently if you live in the Pacific Northwest):
1 ½ oz tequila blanco
1 oz pomegranate juice
dash of rhubarb bitters
dash of simple syrup
stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
top with elderflower foam
brûlée with green Chartreuse flame
After the awards ceremony we then proceeded to the venue that the seminars were to be held the following morning in order to do prep. I won’t bore you with the details other than to say that I appreciated the help offered me that night and that I didn’t get back to the hotel until 4am. We had to be back at the venue for 7:30am. ‘Nuf said.
Realizing that there was no point to sleeping, I stayed awake that night (morning?) to watch the U.S. election, all the while wishing that the timing of my trip was just two days different as I would’ve loved being in New York for the election. It looked like a fun, up-lifting time was had by all. As John Stewart said, even in New York people were actually looking you in the eye with a smile on their face.
7:30 came all too early and I was whisked off to the venue for the seminar. TV screens were set up with video cameras, press and bartenders from Czech, Slovakia, Poland, Germany and who knows where else present. Four hours of talk on US trends and molecular mixology were presented after which I was thoroughly exhausted and ready for some shut-eye (I had only slept one of the last three days after all). This was not to be however, as the plan was to travel 3 ½ hours by car with Stanislav Vadrna to Slovakia to check out his bars: UFO and Paparazzi. As exhausted as I was, and how unappealing 7 hours in a car sounded at that moment, I acquiesced and am glad that I did: UFO was a beautiful venue, extending far above a bridge that splits Bratislava in half (and the Truffle Shine: Yamazaki 12 yr, truffle honey, orange bitters and hand carved ice ball was divine), while Paparazzi was quite simply one of the best bars that I’ve ever been too. I do have to say that the hospitality presented by the people in both Czech Republic and Slovakia was outstanding, a trait that I feel more of us here in the States could pick up on.
We got back in almost enough time to catch my 7:30 am flight (a long story that is too depressing to tell) back to New York for the next leg of my trip: the Martin Miller’s Masters Gin Competition.
By the time I arrived at my hotel in NY I was exhausted and beginning to feel quite ill (I wonder why, what with all of the airplane travel and one day of sleep in the last four?). To sum up the Martin Miller’s event in a nutshell let’s just say: drink, drink, drink, eat, drink, sleep, drink, drink, compete, eat, and collapse from exhaustion, strep throat and god knows what else.
For a little more detail, the competition was loosely a US vs UK competition where several US bartending “masters” went up against their UK counterparts.
- Daniel Shoemaker -Daniel is a 14-year bartending veteran from San Francisco who now owns the Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon. Daniel’s passion for mixology showcases what Teardrop is all about – creating innovative cocktails with local spirits which draws almost as much attention in foodie circles as the city’s top chefs.
- Vincenzo Marianella – Vincenzo is often referred to as the “Cocktailian Deity of Los Angeles”. Vincenzo has been named Best Bar Chef in 2006 by Starchefs.com and LA’s Best Bartender in 2006 by Anthony Dias Blue of The Tasting Panel Magazine. Vincenzo is currently behind the stick at Gordon Ramsey’s recently opened London in Los Angeles.
- Giuseppe Gonzalez – Giuseppe is currently the head bartender of Clover Club in Brooklyn, the newest venture from Julie Reiner of New York’s Flatiron Lounge. Giuseppe’s approach is simple – he brings awesome drinks, trains awesome bartenders and make sure everyone leaves that bar with an amazing feeling. Giuseppe is a second generation bartender, who has lived in Europe and the Caribbean before coming to New York City. Giuseppe provides a cocktail menu that educates the guest while still making it easy for them to order off menu.
- Thad Vogler – Thad has been bartending for almost 20 years and has worked in the spirits industry in Paris, Ireland, Tokyo, Guatemala, Cuba, Belize and of course San Francisco. Thad has helped design, open and then manage the bars at the Slanted Door in the Ferry Building, Coco 500, the Presidio Social Club, and the Lounge at the newly remodeled Jardinière. Quite recently, Thad helped to design the bar at Camino restaurant in Oakland.
- Jamie Boudreau – If you’re here, I’ll assume you know who I am.
- Erik Adkins – Erik is bar consultant to Flora restaurant in Oakland and the beverage manager at the Slanted Door restaurant on the pier in San Francisco. Erik’s cocktail technique highlights the use of the freshest herbs and spices from the kitchen at the Slanted Door which has established Erik as a bay area standout behind the bar.
- Sam Ross – Recently nominated for global “Bartender of the Year” at the 2008 for Tales of the Cocktail, Sam is now behind the bar at the famed Milk & Honey. Sam’s cocktail journey began when he helped his mother and sister open a cocktail bar in Melbourne, Australia called Ginger in 2001. Ginger was very successful in Australia and was/is considered one of the front-runners for cocktail culture in Australia. Upon arrival in New York City, Sam teamed with Sasha Petraske and was part of the opening bar teams at both Little Branch and East Side Company Bar.
- Jake Burger – “Johnny Cash meets rugby league” Jake is one of the most respected bartenders in the UK and has held court in Leeds for well over a decade. His bar, Jake’s, has won multiple awards for its incredible cocktails and peerless spirit selection. As well as being a shrewd operator and top bartender, his, is always the warmest welcome. Beware you might not get out alive!
- Ben Reed – Ben opened and tended bar in some of London’s most infamous nightspots including Mezzo and the Met bar before forming IPbartenders with Tai Altman and Angus Winchester. As well as training thousands of bartenders over the past 7 years, Ben also has a range of bestselling cocktail books and starred in the BBC’s ‘Shakermaker’ TV show.
- Jason Scott – Jason comes from Edinburgh, Scotland where he is the head Superhero at Bramble Bar & Lounge where he was recently named “Top Mixologist” by the Drambuie Chef’s Association. In addition (we have been told), Jason has spider like abilities including superhuman strength and the ability to cling to most surfaces (including bars). Jason is also extremely agile and has amazing reflexes – we are also told he also has a, “spider sense,” that warns him of impending danger (and bad cocktails).
- Sean Muldoon – For 15 years Sean has overseen the bar at Belfast’s beautiful Merchant hotel, home of the $750 original Wray & Nephew 17 y.o Mai Tai. Without doubt, it is one of the slickest and most well run bars in the UK; Sean’s encyclopedic cocktail list is both ambitious and brilliant.
- Giles Looker – Giles has been bartending in London for the past 13 years working alongside the likes of Dick Bradsell, Dale DeGroff and Sasha Petraske. Six years ago, Giles established a company alongside Michael Butt by the name of Soul Shakers Ltd. Since that time, Giles has set up numerous award winning bars including, Trailer Happiness, Mahiki, The Player, Lace Market Hotel, Quo Vadis, Whiskey Mist, Kukui , 30/7 (Moscow), Myhotel, Coco club (Switzerland) and Cantaloupe group. In addition, Giles has worked with Virgin Atlantic Airlines in developing the world’s first onboard mixology service, designing service systems and signature cocktails for the airline’s Lounges and Upper class bar service.
And the judges were:
- Dave Wondrich – Dave Wondrich is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on cocktails and their history. The New York Times has labeled him “A living iPod of drink lore and recipes”. Dave also helped to found the Beverage Alcohol Resource, America’s first serious training program in spirits and mixology. In 2003, his first book, Esquire Drinks: An Opinionated and Irreverent Guide to Drinking (Hearst Books, 2002), was awarded a Silver Ladle at Australia’s biennial Jacob’s Creek World Food Media Awards. In 2005, Wondrich published his second cocktail book, Killer Cocktails: An Intoxicating Guide to Sophisticated Drinking (HarperCollins), which Glamour named the “Year’s Best Drinks Guide.” His most recent book, Imbibe!, about the life and drinks of “Professor” Jerry Thomas, was published by Perigee books in November 2007, and was an instant success among cocktail aficionados and mixologists across the country.
- Gary Regan – Gary Regan writes The Cocktailian, a bi-weekly column, for The San Francisco Chronicle. In the past he has written regular columns in The Malt Advocate, Nation’s Restaurant News, Cheers Magazine, and The Wine Enthusiast, concentrating on cocktails, bartenders, and the cocktailian craft. His work is also published in magazines in the U.K., Australia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Gray is also the author of many books, including “The Joy of Mixology: The Consummate Guide to the Bartender’s Craft.” Together with his wife Mardee, Gary hosts http://www.ardentspirits.com, publish a free e-mail newsletter, Ardent Spirits, and maintain a Worldwide Bartender Database that serves to put spirits companies in touch with their most important ambassadors: The men and women who hold forth from behind slabs of mahogany all over the globe.
- LeNell Smothers – LeNell Smothers owns LeNell’s Ltd, a wine and spirit boutique in Red Hook that specializes in American whiskey, cocktail education, bitters, and small family wineries from around the globe. Her background includes work in many aspects of the beverage industry such as bartending, managing a restaurant, retail liquor sales, and even wholesale wine sales. LeNell’s Ltd has been recognized by numerous publications including GQ Magazine as one of the “Best 50 Stores in America”, and also by New York Magazine as “Best Liquor Store” in New York City.
- Paul Clarke – Paul Clarke is a Seattle-based writer specializing in spirits and cocktails. He is a contributing editor to Imbibe magazine; the spirits and cocktails columnist for the online food journal Serious Eats; and contributes articles on spirits and cocktails to the San Francisco Chronicle. Since May 2005, Paul has documented his exploration of fine spirits and mixology on The Cocktail Chronicles (www.cocktailchronicles.com), one of the first exclusively cocktail-related blogs on the Internet. Over the past three years he has written in-depth essays covering nearly 200 drinks, along with details of his exploration and home-brew of classic and sometimes obscure cocktail ingredients. Clarke is also the founder and moderator of Mixology Monday, a monthly online cocktail party that has attracted scores of participants from around the globe.
- Sasha Petraske – In 2000 Sasha Petraske made his mark by opening the now legendary Milk & Honey in Manhattan’s lower east side. He helped to revive the lost art of classic 19th century style mixology. Since then, Sasha has opened Little Branch in the west village, further solidifying his place amongst the cocktail millieu. Milk & Honey and Little Branch are recognized internationally for being on the cutting edge of the cocktail industry. Sasha has been written about in major publications around the world for his contributions to cocktail culture. New York Magazine named him one of the most influential New Yorkers of 2006.
- Ann Rogers – Ann is the founder of Tales of the Cocktail, an annual spirits and culinary event celebrating the history of the cocktail in New Orleans. She has planned, implemented and promoted the event since its inception in 2003. Now in its sixth year, Tales of the Cocktail, through Ann’s leadership, has attracted countless culinary and cocktail celebrities as presenters and hosts of the event and several top liquor brands and national magazines as sponsors for Tales of the Cocktail. Tales of the Cocktail is now considered by many to be the premier cocktail event in America.
Essentially we all arrived in New York and went bar hopping for three days. On the fourth day we had to come up with a concoction using Martin Miller’s gin and then create a classic that was picked at random by our good Master of Ceremonies, Jon Santer. I wish that I could tell you more of this wonderful event that was held at Death & Co. (thanks again Alex), but quite honestly by the end of it I was so sick I don’t recall much. I do remember having no sense of taste at the time and realizing 15 minutes after it was my turn that I forgot a rather important ingredient, but this was an event that seemed less about competition and more about camaraderie. At least that was my addled perception.
In the end of it, it was a great time had by all, and I have even more respect for all of my brethren across the pond than I had one week previously (with the exception of that bastard Ben Reed-he knows why).
As for the winner? Sam Ross of Milk and Honey fame won with a fantastic punch (dubbed the Palin Punch) that had what appeared to be half of a Xmas tree frozen in a huge block of ice in a punch bowl.
Congrats Sam, congrats all those that competed and congrats to Martin Miller’s gin for putting on one heck of an event!
Drink and Pictures by: