Money for ice? That's nothing new

For a cutting-edge city and a jump-on-the-fad newspaper, the latest mini-flap in New York City's drinking world is really old news.

Here's the opening salvo in a NY Daily News report:

"The case of a trendy Manhattan eatery and bar charging extra for ice is becoming a tempest in a shot glass.

"The drama began at downtown hotspot The Darby after a patron noticed a $2 surcharge added to the already hefty price tag on his $13 Grey Goose. The receipt, with the charge 'Rocks: $2' was then published on the food blog Eater, which called the tab an outrageous rip-off."

This, however, is nothing new. Way back in July 2006, I mentioned in a restaurant review of a riverside restaurant in Upstate New York:

"When we prepared to settle the bill, I noticed an oddity.

"I have enjoyed adult beverages in more than a dozen countries and in more than several dozen states, have a website and a nationally distributed weekly column all devoted to the world of alcoholic beverages, yet I have never run across the drink-pricing practices of the Lighthouse: Order a cocktail 'up'' rather than on the rocks and you're charged an extra $1 per drink.

"I consulted several colleagues, checked local sources and conducted a quickie e-mail poll of food editors in other states. Everyone involved expressed amazement at the practice. Next time I may simply order a cocktail on the rocks plus a spoon to scoop out the ice, assuming there is no spoonage surcharge."

The more I received comments from food and beverage writers, restaurateurs and mixologists around the country, the more I got into the topic. After writing about it in a column distributed nationally by the Hearst News Service and the New York Times News Service, I was interviewed by several national radio and TV shows and the topic become a mini-craze. Until, of course, it quickly dissipated as more important things caught the attention of the all-consuming media -- like war, famine and finance.

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Diageo upgrading Islay production unit

From the Press Association (UK)

Drinks giant Diageo is to invest millions of pounds boosting the production of whisky at Islay's largest distillery.

The company is to spend £3.5 million (US$5.6 million) upgrading the centuries-old Caol Ila distillery on Scotland's  Sound of Islay. It is hoped the money, to be spent on upgrading and replacing equipment at the site, will increase its production of Scotch by 700,000 litres a year.

The distillery, founded in 1846, currently produces 5.7 million litres of whisky every year, most of which is used in Diageo's blended whisky brands.

The work is expected to take six months and is due to start in June.

[Go here for the full story.]

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Report: Jose Cuervo targeted for purchase

One of the last major family-owned players in the adult beverage game reportedly is being targeted for purchase.

Diageo PLC of London, the world's largest maker of alcoholic drinks, is likely to make a $2 billion bid for Jose Cuervo, the world's biggest tequila brand, according to the Sunday Times of London, which did not cite sources in its report.

Jose Cuervo, founded more than 250 years ago, is owned by heirs of the Cuervo family, the Beckmann family, headed by Juan-Domingo Beckmann who took over the reins of the company in 2009.

The Sunday Times says the family has appointed Barclays Capital to explore a possible sale of all or part of the company. Other interested bidders could be Bacardi, Pernod Ricard and Brown-Forman. However, Diageo would appear to have the inside track since it already holds the international distribution rights to Jose Cuervo.

Diageo last month acquired Turkish spirits firm Mey Icki for $2.1 billion. It also owns such brands as Guinness, Harp and Red Stripe beers; Johnnie Walker, Bulleit, Crown Royal, Bushmills, Talisker and J&B whiskies; Smirnoff, Ketel One and Ciroc vodkas; Tanqueray and Gordon's gins; Hennessy cognac; Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur, and such champagnes as as Dom Perignon and Moët Chandon as well as numerous other brands in those and other categories.

[For a look inside the Cuervo empire, go here for my exclusive report.]

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Bulleit breaks out with a new rye whiskey

Here's some news so fresh it isn't even on the distiller's website.

The folks behind that excellent Bulleit Bourbon now have a rye whisley.

Although it has taken a century and a half to get around to it, such a product would seem inevitable, given that Bulleit Bourbon has one of the highest percentages of rye grain on the market. The straight rye whiskey is made from a mash that is 95% rye and 5% malted barley, and the finished product has been aged in charred wood for at least four years.

Bulleit Bourbon still is made following a recipe created more than 150 years ago by Augustus Bulleit. Bulleit Rye, says Tom Bulleit, the current generation distiller, is in part a response to "many Bulleit drinkers and mixologists [who] have expressed their desire for Bulleit to launch a high-quality rye. We hope they enjoy our new whiskey."

The rye, which is 45% alcohol by volume (90 proof), is available nationwide for a suggested retail price of $27.99 for a 750 ml bottle.

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P.F. Chang's expands its bar menu

New Asian pear mojito
As I recently reported when Red Robin decided to re-emphasize its bar menu, more and more casual chains are trying to capture or recapture a lucrative part of the industry.

The latest is P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. A chain that has always had a very good cocktail list and a respectable wine list, it now has expanded its happy hour special with new drink and food items.

The chain has offered a happy hour deal since June, but now is including more offerings as part of its “Triple Happiness” menu available from 3 to 6 p.m.

Drink specials range from $3 to $6 for beers, sakes and wines as well as signature cocktails, such as the new mandarin champagne cocktail and an Asian pear mojito.

Shanghai dumplings.
"Street Fare" bar food items ranging from $3 to $4.95 include:

• Tuna Tataki Crisp: Seared rare, sliced ahi tuna on a crisp wonton, topped with cucumber and scallions and a citrus-sesame soy sauce.
• Asian Street Tacos: Four varieties -- beef, spicy shrimp, pork and mahi mahi, each topped with chopped vegetables and herbs in a flour tortilla.
• Shanghai Street Dumplings: Filled with chicken, ginger, green onions and soy.

In addition to Red Robin, the Applebee’s chain push of its bar sector has seen alcoholic beverage sales jump by 14%, and Ruby Tuesday has cited its revamped bar program, which includes $5 premium cocktails, as being a big assist in its financial turnaround push. And, in another take on the topic, I recently reported that the Cheesecake Factory has begun offering reduced calorie cocktails.

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NYC bartender shatters Guinness record

NEW YORK -- There must be a limit to the number of cocktails a bartender can sling together in an hour, but as each year goes by a seemingly unsurpassable figure gets surpassed.

The challenge claim on the Guinness Book of World Records standard for such things by an individual eclipsed it this week by 381.

Sheldon Wiley, who tends bar at Riff Raff's on 26th and Park, made 1,043 cocktails in one hour during an event at the Empire Room in the Empire State Building. He shattered the record of 662 made by Chris Raph.

According to Guinness, the world record for the most cocktails made in one hour by a team is 1,541, achieved by an eight-man team from the U.S. Bartenders' Guild.

Under Guinness records, each cocktail is required to have a minimum of four ingredients, no cocktail may be repeated, and each must be prepared individually. This particular event was co-sponsored by 360 Vodka, a Missouri organic vodka distiller.

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600 hopefuls in 'Ultimate Spirits Challenge'

A judge in action.
NEW YORK -- More than 600 entries were in the field for the Ultimate Spirits Challenge 2011, held here in the Big Apple.

This was the second year for the event, a fact that in itself belies its name. If something is truly "ultimate," it cannot be repeated or topped. Oh well, the language is falling apart, so why not drink to it.

Entries were scrutinized by a diverse panel of 37 judges earlier this month, however the official results were not released until this week.

Here are the final results:

Unflavored: Finlandia Classic Vodka (Finland)
Flavored: Ketel One Citroen Flavored Vodka (Netherlands)

Gin - World
Beefeater London Dry Gin (United Kingdom)

Tequila - Mexico
Blanco: Olmeca Plata Blanco
Reposado: Cabo Wabo Reposado
Añejo: Calle 23 Añejo
Extra Añejo: Grand Mayan Extra Añejo

Mezcal - Mexico
El Tinieblo Joven Mezcal

Rum - World
Dos Maderas PX 5+5 Rum (Spain)

Whiskey - USA
Bourbon: George T. Stagg 17 Years Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Rye: Sazerac Straight 18 Years Old Rye Whiskey

Whiskey - Ireland
Blended: Michael Collins Blended Irish Whiskey
Single Malt: Tyrconnell Madeira Finish 10 Years Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey

Whisky - Scotland
Single Malt-Cask Strength: Aberlour a'bunadh Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Single Malt - Speyside: The Balvenie Peated Cask 17 Years Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Single Malt-Islands: Highland Park 18 Years Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Single Malt-Islay: Lagavulin Distillers Edition Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Blended: Dewar's 18 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky

Whisky - Canada
Canadian Mist Black Diamond Canadian Blended Whisky

Brandy - World
Aged: Cardenal Mendoza Brandy de Jerez 17 Years Old Spanish Brandy (Spain)
Unaged: Remy Martin V Grape Spirit (France)

Cognac - France
Martell XO Cognac

Armagnac - France
Delord 25 Years Old Bas-Armagnac

Calvados - France
Boulard Grand Solage VSOP Pays d'Auge Calvados

Liqueurs - World
Fruit: Merlet Creme de Cassis, Blackcurrant Liqueur (France)
Herbal: Stroh Jagertee Liqueur (Austria)

Aperitifs - World
Lillet Rose Aperitif (France)

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Oldest/most expensive Scotch released

William M. Dowd photo illustration

This is part of "Gotta Have ...", an ongoing series of occasional postings on unusual spirits products.

The world’s oldest -- and most expensive -- single malt Scotch whisky has been released under the Glenlivet name.

The 70-year-old Glenlivet is priced at £13,000 (US$21,000) for a 70cl decanter. It is part of the latest addition of six rare Glenlivets to its Generations range released by the company over the past few days.

Last year saw the release of a 70-year-old Mortlach, distilled in 1938, which, in spite of the £10,000 (US$16,200) price tag for the 70cl decanter and £2,500 ($4,000) for 20cl, sold out within two weeks.

Michael Urquhart, a director at Gordon & MacPhail whisky distributors, told The Herald newspaper, "Within minutes of Mortlach’s launch last year, inquiries from throughout the world came flooding in. Although the Mortlach yielded only 54 full-size and 162 small decanters, it wasn’t so much about the money it made. It was more about raising awareness of Gordon & MacPhail around the world and we seem to have succeeded. Export sales have increased by £1.8 million from £3.2m to £5m so an increase of just over 50%.

Urquhart’s grandfather, John, ordered the whisky to be laid down at the Glenlivet distillery in 1940.

The new additions to Gordon & MacPhail Generations range include a further five casks of Glenlivet, one from each decade between the 1950s and 1990s. In recent years a 62-year-old The Dalmore and 64-year-old Glenfiddich have been introduced, while Gordon & MacPhail previously had a 65-year-old malt, according to The Herald's report.

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Heaven Hill launching unaged whiskey line

Maybe the marketing slogan will be "Whiskey for the impatient consumer." Maybe not.

In any matter, Heaven Hill Distilleries will put its new Trybox Series of New Make Whiskeys on retail sale beginning in May. Each of the whiskeys in the series is right from the still without being aged.

The first two releases in the series will be New Make and Rye New Make. If the distiller had completed the process by aging them, New Make would have been turned into Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage bourbon and Rye New Make would have become Rittenhouse Straight Rye.

"We believe our reputation and the breadth of our American whiskey offerings will make the Trybox Series an important addition to the national whiskey scene," Susan Wahl, brand manager for the whiskey portfolio at Heaven Hill, said in a news release. "The ability to offer not only a classic new make bourbon formula, but also a rye, wheat and corn whiskey new make, will make this a significant extension of the current available whiskey offerings and highly desirable to enterprising mixologists and whiskey connoisseurs."

The Trybox Series will be available in a 750-milliliter bottle, packaged three to a case. Suggested retail price: $24.99.

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'Skinny' cocktails at The Cheesecake Factory

A typical Cheesecake Factory bar area
Usually, chain restaurants issue press releases for every new dish they put on their menus. Seldom do we hear much about new drinks. That situation, however, is beginning to change.

As I recently reported, Red Robin has begun putting new emphasis on its alcoholic drinks, with an expanded and updated menu and more drinks specials. Now, The Cheesecake Factory is following suit.

The casual dining chain launched five new "Skinny-Style Cocktails," each with 150 calories or less. They include:
  • Cosmopolitan: Skyy Citrus and Cointreau with a splash of cranberry juice
  • Margarita: Gold tequila, triple sec and lime juice
  • Mojito: Cruzan Citrus Rum with fresh mint and lime, on the rocks
  • Red Sangria: Housemade with red wine and fresh fruit, on the rocks
  • Long Island Iced Tea: Vodka, rum, gin, tequila, lemon, lime and a splash of Coca-Cola
The restaurant company said that it has taken its five signature cocktails, and developed five new recipes using a proprietary blend of both sugar substitute and natural sweeteners that make the new cocktails. They are priced the same as the original versions.

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4 fine Irish whiskies for The Holiday

In honor of that day when everyone is Irish, here are some thoughts on my favorite Irish whiskies, just in time for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day next Thursday. Don't fear that only two different distillers are represented. Unlike the U.S. and Scotland with their many, many distilleries, Ireland has only three.

These are excerpted from my Dowd’s Tasting Notes blog.


I recently found myself in McGrievey's, a classy restaurant and tavern just steps from the Hudson River in Waterford, NY, the nation's oldest incorporated village. What better whisky to order in a place with an Irish name than this Bushmill's gem I hadn't had in several years.

Standard Bushmill's, the Northern Ireland-made golden amber whisky, is a fine example of the genre. But the distiller's Black Bush takes enjoyment to a much higher plane.

Black Bush is frighteningly smooth and, thus, almost too easy to sip. It offers a slightly floral nose, quickly opening up over a couple of ice cubes or a splash of water. The initial notes of caramel, vanilla and spice blend harmoniously into a continuous treat for the palate.

Suggested retail price: $29.99 for the 750ml bottle.


Sullivan's was one of the first Irish American names I learned as a kid. The last bare-knuckle world heavyweight boxing champion who hung 'em up in 1889 after a 75-round title defense was a familiar sight in posters and illustrations that abounded in athletic clubs, saloons and meeting halls. This tribute whiskey comes from the Cooley Distillery, Ireland's only independently owned distillery.

This is a small-batch blend of single grain and single malt whiskeys, aged 4 to 10 years in used American white oak barrels that had contained bourbon. That gives Sullivan a touch that has helped so many Scotch whiskies gain extra notes of smooth maturity.

John L. was a complex man, said the sports scribes of his day, so it is only fitting that the whiskey bearing his name is likewise. I detected layers of spice, citrus and then vanilla, coupled with the light oakiness of the bourbon cask. That is followed by touches of rosewater, honey and cinnamon, with the latter clinging slighty to the long finish. I much preferred this whiskey over a cube of ice to release its notes, although I admit it wasn't at all bad in a Manhattan, a testament to its bourbon-like character.

Suggested retail price:$24 for the 750ml bottle.


In 2008, Bushmills celebrated the 400th anniversary of being awarded its license to distill by King James I, and did it with a very special whiskey. This particular commemorative was made using something known as "crystal malt." I'm admittedly partial to Bushmills and Black Bush, a pair of very easy to drink Irish whiskies from the iconic Northern Ireland distillery's line. This, the sixth style but in limited quantities, has lately been available only at the distillery store, but your favorite spirits merchant will be on sale in the U.S. only from February through December next year. After that it will be available only at the distillery store.

Bushmills 1608 is a worthy special blend. The crystal malt -- which has a crystallized appearance when germinated, and thus still moist, barleycorns are lightly toasted -- introduces a sweet, toffee note to the final product. Also in the mix are notes from the classic Bushmills malt whiskies matured in a combination of used American white oak and Spanish Oloroso sherry casks.

Bushmills whiskies in general tend toward the sweet side of the palate, and 1608 doesn't diverge from that path: vanilla, honey and toffee notes are prevalent, and the finish reminds me of a high-grade dark chocolate. All these elements work well with the slightly higher than average potency -- 46% alcohol by volume, or 92 proof.

Suggested retail price: $100 for the 750ml bottle.


Michael Collins, like John L. Sullivan from the Cooley distillery, is re-booting its image and a New York importer is helping them do it. Sidney Frank Importing Company of New Rochelle has teamed up with Cooley Distillery to launch the new look of Michael Collins whiskies in the U.S. The dark, moody label features the iconic silhouette of Collins, the renowned Irish patriot, on his bicycle, a familiar sight during the nation's struggle for independence from England. The brightness comes inside.

Cooley is considered to be the only distillery in Ireland to double distill its whiskeys and use peated malted barley. What that process has has resulted in is a wonderfully smooth, yet still kicky whiskey. There is a definite spice note to each sip, perfectly compatible with the rich, deep body of the whiskey.

I find this not as pleasing in a cocktail as I did over a single ice cube in a tasting glass. Must be the independent Collins spirit asserting itself.

Suggested retail price: $39.99 for the 750ml bottle.

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The whisk(e)y season is dear to Ireland, Scotland

An 1890s tavern poster
The portal is about to open on a season dear to the Gaelic and Celtic folk of Ireland and Scotland and, indeed, their millions of descendants all over the U.S.

March 21 brings in Alban Eiler, known elsewhere as the spring solstice or vernal equinox. Weather be damned, it means spring has arrived and will last until June 20, the longest day of the year, when we will encounter Alban Heruin, the summer solstice.

In between, we have such frolics as St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and Tartan Day in early April 6. The precise date depends on local activities.

St. Patrick’s Day honors the patron saint of Ireland who drove the snakes into the sea where they became sharks, politicians and TV reality show producers.

Tartan Day celebrates that time in A.D. 1320 when King Robert the Bruce and his Scottish Parliament sent off a letter called the "Declaration of Arbroath" to the Pope in Rome, asking him to get the English off their backs. That worked so well that England rules Scotland to this day.

Both historic events, as well as the arrival of Easter, spring and a bunch of other traditional religious and secular days, will in this span be marked in many communities with once-a-year church attendance, parades, festivals, dances, silly hats and drink specials at your favorite pub — featuring Scotch and Irish whiskies, in particular.

The line between Scotch and Irish distillations is blurry for some (although the Scots, along with Canadians, spell whiskey without the "e.") The difference comes primarily in the malting stage.

For Scotch whisky, malted barley is dried over peat fires, which allows the smoke to penetrate the grain and create its signature smokey flavor. For Irish whiskey, malted barley is dried in closed ovens and never comes in contact with smoke.

In addition, Scotch whiskies usually are distilled once or twice, Irish whiskies three times or more, thus increasing their purity and smoothness. In some instances, further aging in used bourbon or sherry casks or a bit of blending creates a crossover taste between the two categories.

As is the case with most such things, there is no right or wrong, best or worst. There is only personal preference.

Whatever your choice, happy holidays.

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The most beautiful bar in the world


OK, I haven't been in every bar in the world, but I have visited a lot of them in a lot of countries and shot a lot of pictures. No special occasion for posting this. I was just going through some of my personal photo files and came across it.

It is The Dome, is a gorgeous bar and restaurant located in Edinburgh in what once was the headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Scotland. The 1930s-style cocktail lounge leads to a parasol-covered garden café and an elegant grill room with mosaic floors and stained glass windows.

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Fronds will be at half-mast

Photo courtesy San Francisco Chronicle
From The Village Voice

Norman Jay Hobday, the man credited with inventing the leafy breed of swinging singles bar called the "fern bar," died last week at the age of 77 in San Francisco. 

Originally from Upstate New York, Hobday ended up in San Francisco after the Korean War, where he opened Henry Africa's. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he had little money to spruce the place up, so he filled it with hanging plants, and it became known as the world's first fern bar.

Last year's tiki renaissance led Washington Post booze writer Jason Wilson to ask the question: Can a fern bar revival be very far off? He wrote:

"Are we soon to see trendy urban bars themed to look like the Regal Beagle, Jack Tripper's swinging hangout in the 1970s sitcom 'Three's Company'? Why not? We've already lived through the speakeasy revival and the tiki bar revival."

Sadly or not, the fern bar remains a distant, fuzzy memory -- in New York, at least. But prospective bar owners looking for the next fad might want to take note: We already have bars with rooftop and backyard gardens. So, why not bring some of that green inside, trade in those tiki Hawaiian shirts for some good ol' polyester, and see what sort of convoluted, sexually suggestive mishaps we can get ourselves into.

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