Talking About Booze: A New Series on Drinking

Thad Vogler, Erik Adkins, and Eric Johnson discuss the modern daiquiri

When I first got the job as spirits buyer for K&L, I panicked a wee bit.  There was so much I didn't know, so much I still needed to learn about booze, and yet I was in charge of an entire retail store department and its inventory.  Single malt, Bourbon, Cognac, rum, and everything else on our shelves were under my domain, but I couldn't claim any authority or expertise when it came to mixing these ingredients.  Cocktails were (and still are) a big part of Bay Area pop culture and I wanted K&L to be an integral part of that scene.  I needed a crash course to get me started, but where does one go to learn more about cocktails?  There's no real Mixology 101 for the layman, and most cocktail classes I've seen are only an hour long, hoping to jam pack a few basic recipes into the session. 

I figured it would be best to just go out and drink, which I still think is a big part of booze education.  However, you need to sit at the bar and chat with the bartenders during their down time, making sure not to bother them or distract them too much.  That's how I met Erik Adkins, the bar manager for the Slanted Door and Heaven's Dog, two of the most famous cocktail destinations in the country.  I also met Eric Johnson there, just a few months before he would open Bar Agricole with business partner Thad Vogler.  These three gentlemen, along with a few other people you'll meet later, were more than happy to chat with me, night after night, as I posted up on a barstool, peppering them with questions about their craft.  We would share stories from the business and I like to think that my perspective from the retail side was of some interest to them (although in all likelihood they were just being nice).

Over three years later, I'm still not sure where to refer people who want to learn more about making great drinks (besides quitting their job and getting a barback position).  There are a hundred websites and blogs where you can find recipes, advice, learn techniques, and all the latest info when it comes to making drinks.  However, that's like learning to take photographs by reading instructions about shutter speed and aperture.  Sure, you can center a subject and grab the right exposure, but is there any substance behind the shot?  Then, just last week, one of my best customers asked me if I could help her find a class or seminar for learning to mix cocktails.  I didn't know what to tell her.  That's why I've decided to tackle that issue myself.  There's more to making a decent drink than just dumping in the proper measurements.  If following a recipe made you a good cook, we'd all be the masters of  There's more to it, however.  Practice, experience, and a dedication to understanding each element all play a role.  Unfortunately, those three things can't be taught. However, aside from spending each waking minute with a metal shaker and ice tray, listening to a veteran bartender talk about booze is perhaps the most helpful way to supplement the stack of cocktail books you have sitting on your coffee table.  Not everyone has the time or ability to pull up a stool at Bar Agricole, however.  

That's why, starting this week, I'll be going back to all the great San Francisco bartenders who taught me about cocktails for a series of dialogues that I hope will pass that knowledge on to other interested parties.  These won't be step by step instructions on how to prepare a Manhattan, but rather just snapshots of what these guys think when they think about cocktails.  I had an appointment to meet with Thad this week at Bar Agricole, but it turned into a threesome when Erik Adkins made a surprise visit alongside Mr. Johnson.  After debating the best way to get the conversation started, we decided it would be pointless to mix drinks no one would actually taste, so I just flipped on the camera and got things rolling.  Below is the conversation in two parts:


All three men agreed that the most important aspect of a cocktail is the concept of balance.  The yin and yang of sweet and sour.  The interplay between sweet and bitter.  Thad explained that the Daiquiri is the essential sour in that it's a combination of base spirit (rum) with sugar and citrus.  The relationship of the acidity with the syrup must be in harmony for the drink to succeed.  He recommended that, rather than trying to make an entire book of various cocktails, constantly searching for something new to try, newcomers should practice the same drink over and over for a couple of weeks.  In the case of the Daiquiri, he said to try different rums, different sugars, different levels of sweetness and citrus, until you've found the combination that best works for you.  Practice and experimentation lead to an understanding of functionality and it's that experience that results in a well-crafted cocktail.  Thad, Erik, and Eric all have their own unique experiences, therefore they each have their own personal recipe for a Daiquiri.  If you want to give it a go at home, try out all three of the following:

The Erik Adkins Daiquiri (find Erik at The Slanted Door, Wo-Hing General Store, or Heaven's Dog)

- 2 oz. white Barbancourt Rum (La Favorite Agricole Blanc if you're at his house)

- 3/4 oz. simple syrup (using one to one ration of raw sugar/water stirred into cold water, not boiled)

- 1 oz. fresh lime juice

Shake with ice and strain

The Eric Johnson Daiquiri (find Eric at Bar Agricole)

- 2 oz. El Dorado 3 Year Rum (or Havana Club White if you know someone traveling abroad)

- 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

- one barspoon raw sugar

Stir the sugar into the lime juice to help it dissolve, then shake with ice and strain

The Thad Vogler Daiquiri (find Thad at Bar Agricole)

- 1 1/2 oz. El Dorado 3 Year Rum

- 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

- 1/2 oz. simple syrup (using one to one ratio raw organic sugar/water)

Shake and strain

Give these three a try and see which one works best.  Or, if none of them suit your tastebuds, then try using different rums, different sweetners, and various types of citrus.  That's the key to understanding and mastering your cocktail.

-David Driscoll


We're Back At It

This week I was back at St. George distillery in Alameda, siphoning strange and magical elixers out of beakers with the mad scientist himself, Dave Smith.  Faultline Gin Batch #2 is in the works.  Same label, different recipe!  Think smoke.  Think citrus.

-David Driscoll


Catching On Later

Sometimes a musician won't be appreciated until long after their career is over.  Often, a film or television show won't catch on until it's been released on DVD (or Netflix instant like Arrested Development).  In the case of whisky, one of our completely overlooked casks from last year has recently caught on with some of our single malt customers and it's making me very happy.  Dave Smith from St. George Distillery texted me earlier this week, "Holy S%&! that bottle of Dailuaine is amazing!"  Of course it is!  Then, just a day later, another customer emailed and told me how that bottle made his entire weekend.  We ended up selling seven bottles in a week to people who were only now getting around to drinking this whisky, and the reviews kept piling up.  I mentioned this to a customer in the store, he bought one, emailed me that night, and was head over heels for the 27 year old malt.  Why now, I wondered?

Maybe it was because with all the hype and great reviews surrounding the Ladyburn, Brora, Bladnoch, and Glendronach, no really wanted to throw down an extra $130 for an unknown Diageo blending component. Maybe it's just that we're almost out of everything else, so by process of elimination it finally got its chance.  I'm hoping that happens with the 1998 Springbank Madeira cask as well, which to me was perhaps my favorite whisky from last year's stash.  I don't think it was the best malt we bought, but to me it's a unique snapshot as to what makes that distillery so special.  Lately, the smoke seems to be taking a larger role in the profile, adding another great peated option for people who don't want the intensity of Islay.  There's been a lack of sherry-aged, peated whisky as of late, so this might scratch that itch for some people.  In any case, I feel good right now because I've learned that not every barrel we purchase needs to take off right upon arrival.  It might take six months, or it may take over a year, but eventually the word will get out. 

It's always fun when you discover something wonderful when you didn't expect to.  I'm glad we're able to do that with booze from time to time.

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2012 Update: Rachel Barrie's Selection

There's a reason why I'm showing you a small ramekin of fried oatmeal mixed with onions to start this article.  Known as "mealy" in the town of Oldmeldrum, the home of Glen Garioch distillery, it's on the menu at the local diner just down the street from the whisky legend.  It's important to understand how important grains are to this part of Scotland.  They're a big part of the diet, both solid and liquid, and the aromas of barley and sweet grain hang in the air as you walk through town.  It's terroir, so to speak.

Glen Garioch was the big shocker for us on this year's trip to Scotland.  We didn't realize how beautiful the distillery was, how nice the people were, how important the legacy was, and how good the whisky tasted.  GG is the Morrison-Bowmore distillery you forget about.  You forget that it's one of the oldest in Scotland.  You forget that there's a lot of pride in its history.  A quick trip through the distillery, however, changes that.  We left as Glen Garioch superfans.  You can read more about that here.

By the time we made it to Glasgow over a week later, we had nothing but great things to tell the people at Morrison-Bowmore headquarters.  No person was more happy to hear about our experience than Rachel Barrie, who apparently grew up nearby.  She was so pumped that she went to the back and brought out a cask sample she had hand picked for Bowmore earlier in the week.  She wanted us to have it.  We took it.  It's coming.  Read on below!

1998 Glen Garioch 14 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $87.99 (Pre-Order) - On last year's trip to Scotland, David and I stopped by Glendronach distillery on a whim, fell in love, and now it's one of the top whiskies we sell at K&L.  This year's version of that was Glen Garioch distillery in Oldmeldrum.  An old-fashioned, picturesque distillery located in the center of the quaint village, generating romanticism like you wouldn't believe.  Part of the Morrison-Bowmore portfolio, Glen Garioch's whisky creation has been put into the hands of former Ardbeg superstar Rachel Barrie, who jumped ship to Bowmore last year.  We weren't planning on selecting a cask of Glen Garioch, but after stopping by early on in our trip, we told Rachel how much we enjoyed our visit while meeting with her a week later. Being originally from the area, Rachel was so overjoyed we had connected so deeply with her own sense of youthful nostalgia, that she ran to the back to grab a cask sample she had picked out for Bowmore recently - a 1998 single cask aged in a hogshead that had previously held peated whisky.  GG had dabbled in the peated Highland style before 1994, but the whisky produced today is completely without smoke.  This very special cask, chosen by Rachel, has all the beautiful sweet grains we love about the malt with just a whisper of peat in the background.  The palate is elegant and lean, but the fruit and vanilla are concentrated in its core. The whisky tastes like the town of Oldmeldrum - old world, country, rustic, and down-home.  That's terroir in whisky.

-David Driscoll


Liqueurs You Need

In late 2011, Tempus Fugit introduced their new Creme de Menthe and Creme de Cacao liqueurs to the world of cocktail geeks.  The hype behind them was immense.  People knew they were coming and we were getting emails everyday as to when they might hit the shelf.  Bars across the Bay Area were gearing up to buy in big, knowing that they might not get a chance to reorder later.  They eventually came into stock, people went nuts, and the products lived up to the hype.  The concentration of flavor was unparalleled.  Soft cocoa flavors in the cacao and fresh spearmint shining through with the menthe.  Not too sweet, totally balanced. 

Then something terrible happened.  There was a dispute with the master distiller.  There was a supply issue with the Venezuelan cocoa.  Distributors needed to be switched.  The products disappeared from the market as fast as they had from our shelves.  It would be eight months until they would make their triumphant return.  I just talked to John Troia and he told me the supply chain looks solid for now.  That's why we're happy to announce that Petaluma's own Tempus Fugit liqueurs are back at K&L, adding another fantastic Bay Area-distilled product to the ever-expanding selection of outstanding liqueurs.

Tempus Fugit Creme de Menthe $29.99 - Another exemplary effort from Tempus Fugit.  Nothing on the market comes close to the amazing and authentic flavors exhibited here.  Even the high end French producers settle for using mint extracts rather than fresh mint and Tempus refuses to compromise.  This has fresh spearmint and peppermint as well as a host of botanicals to provide depth.  Distilled from winter wheat to a 193 proof, then macerated with the herbs for supreme concentration.

Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao $29.99 - Known for their Absinthe, Tempus Fugit has made waves over last year releasing the exceptional (albeit controversial) Gran Classico and the lovely Tempus Fugit Liqueur de Violette. Their new Creme de Cacao is out of this world. Few things have bothered me more than the subpar Creme de Cacaos I've tasted in the past, but this stuff is awesome. Based on a 19th century recipe, the Tempus Fugit folks have gone so far as to replicate the original cacao and vanilla sources from Venezuela and Mexico respectively in order to get it just right. It is SOOO rich, basically the texture of maple syrup. The nose is pure cacao beans and vanilla.  More complexity than any chocolate flavored liqueur I've ever tasted, they've managed to capture the true depth of the Cacao bean in a way that is both satisfyingly familiar and totally unprecedented. Think of mixing these two with some cream for the best Grasshopper that anybody has had in a hundred years. Leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. Try a Stinger, it might change your life.

Combier Doppelt Kummel Liqueur $36.99 - If you like cumin, then you're going to go crazy for this new liqueur from Loire Valley distiller Combier.  You really need to like cumin, however, because it's exactly what the Kummel tastes like.  Bold, intense, in-your-face cumin with a kiss of sweetness.  I can only imagine what's possible for cocktail mixing, especially with fruit drinks.

-David Driscoll