Thursday, January 23, 2014

At First Glass turns two (and has a cocktail)

This, my fatheads, is where I discovered cocktails. Winter of '09. Here also you will learn of my almost continuous genuflection before the shrine of our master, Charles Schumann.

For a while now I have had in my possession a copy of American Bar: The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, by Charles Schumann (Abbeville Press, 1995). This is the book that I picked up for a song at a used book warehouse, and that the gifts catalog Acorn was selling for over eighty dollars this fall, just in time for the holidays.

Since I have little knowledge of spirits or cocktails, American Bar has been a great study aide for the liquor section of the wine aisle. The book is, however, peculiarly organized. All its five hundred individual drinks recipes come first, followed by the explanatory material describing drinks categories, and then by very basic information defining the many liquors in the world. (By the way, is there any substance which mankind has not tried to ferment? -- he would ferment water and rocks if he could.) Lastly comes information concerning bar equipment and The Bartender. I believe an American publishing firm would have changed all this a bit, and insisted on a homegrown book's chapters being entirely flip-flopped; perhaps Abbeville hadn't the time to bother in this case, or perhaps they reasoned that the audience for this volume wouldn't mind the charm of a more European arrangement. For while Abbeville may have had a New York address, American Bar certainly reflects its provenance -- Wilhelm Heyne Verlag GmbH & Co., KG Munich (1991).

Munich is also the location of Schumann's, owned and run by the famous, no, the legendary Charles Schumann, author not only of this book but of Schumann's Bar Book and Tropical Bar Book. When you open this one, almost the first thing that confronts you is a photograph, circa 1991, of the man himself. It's because of a glance at it that I'm sure I would never have the nerve to walk into Schumann's myself, still less to actually order a drink there. He looks rather fearsome, if not definitely downright scary. He looks as if he had been in his share of barfights already and would be glad to hold his own in a few more. A newer photograph shows him looking exactly the same, only with sweeping and magisterial silver hair and, granted, a slightly wider smile. Still, in his brief remarks on Dealing with the Public he writes, "the bartender is neither emcee nor circus director ... discreetly the bartender lets the undesirable guest know that this is not the place for him." Emphasis mine.

Dear me. But it is fun to read the reports of people who have screwed up the courage to venture into his precincts. There's a collection of old reviews of the tourists' experience at Schumann's at a website called Toytown Germany ("for Germany's English speaking crowd"), and another set of reviews, still older, at World's Best Bars. These latter seem to come from more hardened travelers. The gist of all the reviews is: legendary, expensive, great drinks, jam-packed, if you're in Munich you must go.

One comment, at Toytown Germany, is sophisticated enough and complete enough to be worth quoting in full. An anonymous who called himself "'Ratbert' " responds, in January 2007, to two women, one of whom had a glorious time at the bar, one of whom felt snubbed by the rude staff:

I think you two ladies perfectly summed up the Schumann´s experience. The first time I was in (the old) Schumann´s I met the owner personally, complimented him on his bar and his world famous cocktail book and found him to be friendly and professional. I have since seen him on several occasions and whether in one of his bars, walking the streets of Munich or (believe it or not) at dinner in Venice, have always found him to act with the same professional courtesy that one would expect from (whether you agree or not) a legendary barkeeper. Now, are most of his staff of the same caliber? Clearly not. Their names are not on the menus and it is not their reputation at stake. Some of the staff are rude and pompous, but hey, which of Munich´s many "institutions" (be they shopping, dining, or drinking) are not guilty of arrogant staff? If you are a tourist without a clue, well, let´s just say that there are places in Munich where you will be made to feel more welcome by the staff; but if you are there when the owner is working, I assure you that he will make you one of the finest `dry martinis´ you are likely to find on the planet - whether you realize it or not.

That last little dig about not knowing whether or not you've been served a great martini struck me as very a propos, since I have American Bar open in front of me and I've noticed one or two things about the master's work. For one thing, his drinks are amazingly small, surely. Measurements typically are "3/4 ounce," "1/4 ounce," "1 and 1/2 ounces," and even drinks which belong in a big glass -- and he includes a sketch below each recipe of the proper glass for it -- are obviously only "big" because they include lots of room for a non-alcoholic component. His Harvey Wallbanger, to be served in a highball glass, is only 3 Tablespoons of vodka and 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of Galliano. The rest -- a whopping 3 and 1/2 ounces -- amounts to about 7 Tablespoons of orange juice, assuming I've done my conversionary arithmetic right. I don't doubt it's delicious, but I suspect the average person fixing himself a H. W. at home, and merely "eyeballing" the measurements, is probably going to pour himself much more booze. That person will probably also be chagrined, if he should happen to visit Schumann's, at the expense of what little he's getting. Perhaps he'll chalk it up to the falling dollar.

And there are certain drinks the master won't make, out of respect for the ingredients he is using. "I personally never pour vodka and gin together," he notes below the recipe he nevertheless grudgingly includes for the original Long Island Iced Tea, which has itself evolved, at least among some commercial producers, into any mucky combination of any four liquors you like plus caramel coloring. A hangover in a glass, as customers call it ($16.99 for a 1.75 liter jug). But that's not all the master won't make. He also won't pour together "gin and whiskey, vodka and whiskey, gin and brandy, or vodka and brandy." He won't mix gin with tequila or rum, either. ("Why would one mix those?") It all must let out I don't know how many commonplace drinks from Schumann's legendary menu. He also is appalled by very sugary concoctions, and who can blame him -- "even the list of ingredients makes me queasy" -- he is wary of excessive fruit and vegetable garnishes in or on drinks and commands that the bar not resemble a farm stand, and he absolutely declares that no martini shall be enhanced by anything but a whole green olive, with pit. "What place do stuffed olives have in a martini?" Emphasis his. And, in bold red print, in the Julep category: "Fruits do not belong in a julep!"

Why, why, and why not? Mr. Schumann's pronouncements all come down to this, a respect for the potables that go into drinks, most especially for the painstaking care and time that mankind has devoted to his fermented and aged and mixed and fortified and triple-distilled and otherwise doctored wheats, ryes, grapes, apples, rice, barleys, sugar cane, raspberries, agave plants, potatoes, coffee, molasses, corn, juniper berries, any and all green leafy things, and on and on, you name them. From all the possibilities for any one drink, he says, impose the guiding, classic order and pick three: the basis -- a gin cocktail should taste of gin -- the modifier -- "to determine which direction the cocktail is going" -- and the flavoring agent, which "rounds the cocktail off and brings it to completion." Shaking and stirring each have their purpose, as does either crushed ice or cubes, or the use of an electric blender or a cocktail shaker. Be aware of the effect of the cocktail and the hour of the day, too. Oh, and when you have made your work of art, keep in mind that "it is not at all suited to little umbrellas or national flags." It all gives new meaning to the exhortation to drink responsibly.

From his menu of five hundred "diverse recipes that strike me as more than sufficient" and which adhere to his classic requirements -- evidently he's never gone surfing the web for ideas, and found such an atrocity as the Bloody Tampon -- I think I'd pick the Sombrero to welcome in the new year. Here it is, and be respectful:


1 and 1/2 ounces brandy (3 Tablespoons)
1/4 ounce ruby port (1 and 1/2 teaspoons)
3/4 ounce cream (about 1 and 1/2 Tablespoons)

Stir the liquors over ice cubes in a mixing glass. Strain them into a sherry glass (in other words, keep out the ice). Carefully top with cream.

For further information: a useful glossary of terms in liquor, from a very bare-bones but interesting site called Taste of the Southwest.

Looking back:

At First Glass turns one (and goes on a field trip)

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