Monday, April 26, 2010

Caring for Old Cocktail Books, Part 1: Water Damage

Keep a shotgun under the bar if you like, but a hundred-year-old cocktail guide has no place next to it. Bars and kitchens—right where they’d be most useful—are some of the very worst places to keep old bartending manuals—and cookbooks for that matter. The water, the ice, spilled drinks, and (let’s face it) the drunks put valuable books under constant threat of irrevocable damage. And those aren’t the only danger zones.

Fortunately, caring for them is not difficult.

Mixing drinks and book collecting are complementary pastimes, but not in the same place. I know: I’ve done both for more than twenty years.

In a former life, I was a museum curator and still advise historical organizations on managing collections, libraries, and archives. Since the 1980’s, I’ve assembled about a 2,000-volume food and drink library at home, so caring for books—and making sure they last at least my lifetime—is something I do daily.

Of the most pernicious threats to your liquor library, light and water are two of the biggest. You can have cocktails in the dark, but you can’t have them without water so, for now, we’ll look at the wet stuff.

My library spreads over almost every room of the house, but there are four places I’d never store valuable books:
  • The kitchen, bar, or back bar
  • Bathrooms
  • The attic
  • The basement
Their common problem? Humidity. Paper, like humans, does best with a certain amount of moisture. Too much or too little and your books, pamphlets, and other paper cocktail ephemera react badly. For paper objects like these, conservators recommend 45-60% relative humidity—the amount of gaseous water in air at a certain temperature, expressed as RH%. Humidity above this range invites bugs and microbes as well as plain old structural damage to your collection—warped covers and curled pages, the kind of hurt you can see just looking at a book from several feet away.

Although it isn’t practical to measure RH at home or in your bar, you can use common sense to avoid very wet and very dry zones.

Too wet: Do not store or even use valuable books if liquids—water, ice cubes, liquor, bitters, syrups, fruit juices, soap, etc—are nearby. This means kitchen counters, bar tops, back bars, any food or drink prep area, and anywhere even near a sink or hand washing station. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to pour yourself a beer and cry into because there will be a spill or a splash. Pages will stick together, bindings will swell, inks will run, or the books may just get so waterlogged that they have to be thrown out. And the kicker? You didn’t need a museum curator to tell you this: it’s common sense.

There are a few water threats, though, that may be less self-evident. Do not store books on, under, or near:
  • Windows and skylights
  • Air conditioners
  • Outside walls
  • Ice machines
  • Refrigeration units
Because each of these tends to be a different temperature than the air in the room, water is more likely to condense in these places—and it’s not always apparent. Slowly, quietly, small amounts of unseen water can do big damage to your books long before you realize it.

Likewise, never store books under or near roofs, sprinkler heads, pipes, hoses, soda guns, faucets, beer engines, or valves of any kind; they may leak. They may leak? Who are we kidding? If they can leak, they will. The only question is when.

Whenever possible, it’s best to keep the books at least six inches off the floor, preferably on metal bookcases. If there is a spill, the sprinkler system goes off, or the dishwasher overflows, your books will be safer. Wooden bookcases can draw standing water up their posts and into the shelving, but generally only for a few inches; that’s why you want the lowest level of books about six inches off the floor.

But even ambient water in the air can be damaging. Like a whiskey barrel, paper expands and contracts. Makes sense: they’re both made of trees. The espresso machine, a shower, dishwasher, stove, washing machine, drier, or a teakettle can change the surrounding humidity enough to cause structural damage to a book when its paper expands or contracts too quickly. The obvious results could be wrinkles, splayed covers, and twisted spines. Your cocktail books will look like characters in a Bukowski story. Simply do not store books in rooms prone to high humidity. In your home, this means the kitchen, the bathroom, and the basement are definite no-go zones.

Water damage could, on the other hand, be subtle. High humidity encourages mold and, some say, foxing, those reddish brown spots that appear throughout older books. There’s nothing to be done about it. Once foxed, always foxed. Keeping such books away from water and high humidity, as outlined above, should help prevent further foxing. Mold is another thing entirely.

Mold is the herpes of your library. Never—and I mean never—bring home a book that’s already got mold. In addition to its distinctive unpleasant musty smell, mold produces enzymes that break down paper and binding. It is a pernicious infection that will spread to other books through direct contact as well as during handling when mold spores are disturbed. Mold can be halted, cleaned, and even—sometimes—eradicated. But those are expensive procedures: it’s easier just to keep books away from high-humidity settings in the first place—and from already-infected books.

Finally, damp areas (think of rathskellers, basement tiki bars, and basements in general) tend to attract vermin. I know. I know. Not your basement. Other people’s. So this is for those other people. Such areas at first might just attract insects that thrive in damp environments, insects that feast on the paper, glue, and fibers in books. Silverfish, cockroaches, firebrats, bookworms—these are the enemies of your books. Bad enough that they eat the paper, spines, and bindings, but they also attract insectivore predators, including mice and rats. Think a bookworm is bad for your books? Try a mother rodent shredding all that lovely, warm, insulating 19th-century paper to build a nest for her precious, tiny, pink newborns.

Keeping your book storage area dry is no guarantee of a pest-free home, but it helps keep the rodents and insects at bay. More importantly, dry storage is vital to maintaining your books’ structural integrity and limiting their exposure to mold.

Another day we’ll take a look at light. Sunlight arguably has done wonders for George Hamilton, but it’ll destroy your old food and drinks books.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Bookshelf: Garden & Gun Magazine

There are just some things that male writers, of a certain ilk, feel they have to do. I call it the Curse of Hemingway. We have to like to fish. We have to be proficient in blowing birds from the sky with shotguns. And we have to love oysters. We have to sit around a table in some sun-blasted shack on some desolate, mosquito-infested cay and slurp ’em right out of the shell.

Your First Oyster
~ Rick Bragg

You’ll never see me with People or Us magazines, but find me on a plane and you may just catch me toting one of my favorites: Garden & Gun. Since I tend not to work in transit, planes are where I catch up on reading for fun and studying the craft of some damn good writing.

Garden & Gun regularly features food and drinks stories. After all, being Southern entails an appreciation for both. The above quote is from the current G&G’s six-part A Southerner’s Guide to Oysters in which Rick Bragg, Robb Walsh, and others consider oysters—what they are, where to get them, and how to cook them. Justin Devillier spikes Oysters Bienville with Angostura bitters, Edward Lee whips up a mess of cornbread oyster dressing, and Linton Hopkins uses Anson Mills Antebellum fine yellow cornmeal for frying the little suckers.

In the same February/March 2010 issue, Joe Bargmann writes on a quartet of Kentucky bourbons and PJ O’Rourke applies dog-training concepts to child rearing in Fetch Daddy a Drink (“It goes without saying that the idea of Seeing Eye kids is wrong—probably against child labor laws and an awful thing to do to blind people.”).

John T. Edge is a frequent contributor, as is Roy Blount, Jr. and roving New Orleanian Pableaux Johnson. You’ll find stories by culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler and boudin junkie Sara Roahen. Funny, insightful, sometimes poignant, the writing is treat. Get yourself a subscription or check it out online.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bitter Elements in Albuquerque

In the land of red and green chiles, of honey-slathered sopaipillas, of carne seca, and Christmas-style enchiladas, I stumbled across the ingredients to make buckets of homemade cocktail bitters.

On a recent trip to Albuquerque, I stumbled across The Herb Store, a small shop in the Nob Hill neighborhood. From the street, I had seen shelf after shelf of apothecary bottles and wanted a better look. Little ones, big ones, brown ones, blue ones, some with caps, some with droppers, some with spray tops, and some with stoppers. It was if Dr. Seuss had penned a siren call for the cocktail geeks of New Mexico.

I snapped up a few blue bottles with droppers—good for homemade bitters and tinctures—but then froze at the smell. A rich, earthy, almost smoky aroma was coming from the back of the store. Although the commingled smell included many elements, the piercing, high, root-beer scent of sassafras stood out even from fifteen feet away.

The walls beyond the register were lined with gallon jars of exactly the kinds of spices, herbs, and oddments used to create those bitters and extracts—gentian, wild cherry bark, marshmallow, aloe, sandalwood, licorice, angelica, quassia, sarsaparilla, elecampane, and that sassafras root I’d smelled from halfway across the store. I scored some of each. Space limitations meant I left dozens more for another day.

Even if I don’t make it back to Duke City anytime soon, I’m glad to put the Herb Store on my list of suppliers. Good news: they’ve got a huge selection and will ship to you. Bad news: there’s no online catalog, so it’s best to have an idea of what you want, then call.

The Herb Store
107 Carlisle Blvd. SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106-1427

Meet Me in Kentucky: ADI's Whiskey & Moonshine Conference

For casual drinkers, Springtime means a switch from brown spirits to white. That means an uptick in vodka, light rums, gin…and—something new this year—moonshine. Or at least a slew of spirits meant to emulate and suggest unaged whiskey. And there are few better places to learn what the buzz is about than the annual meetings of the American Distilling Institute.

The ADI’s 7th annual meetings run May 3-5 in and around Louisville, Kentucky. The theme this year is Whiskey & Moonshine. I’ll be joining Chasing the White Dog author Max Watman, distiller Rick Wasmund, and Bill Owens, president of ADI, for a panel discussion on moonshine: what it is, what it’s not, where it’s coming from, why it’s back, and what its resurgence means for spirits producers and cocktail enthusiasts.

We might even agree on a few points.

The rest of the conference will include talks on building and licensing distilleries, fermentation, distilling, malting, blending, the effects of barrel aging, tax issues for craft distillers, marketing and selling of spirits, getting press coverage for your brands, and tasting.

Lots and lots of tasting.

The full registration info and schedule are here (click on the 2010 conference registration button on the left to download a PDF).


Thursday, April 15, 2010

I am a Meat Wagon

Eugene O’Neill’s line about the shackles of history runs through my mind — There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now. Circumstances are different, but I know what’s coming.

Because of what I’m about to do, the security line at the Baton Rouge airport will grind to a halt. After all, this has happened before. And will happen again.

I tried to look natural, relaxed, as I slipped off my shoes into a grey plastic bin. It’ll be fine, I thought. Out came the laptop. They won’t stop me, not here. Off with the jacket. Though in New Orleans I was stopped with a payload smaller than this. There isn’t a piece of steel or iron on me, not one coin of copper or nickel. Last time, when the agent finally saw my package, she had said she wanted to come home with me. As I breeze through the metal detector, the TSA agent guarding it is already looking at the passenger behind me. I’m through. No incident.

Then the conveyor belt lurches to a stop.

“WHOSE is this?!” Today’s agent, a local boy, had seen through my façade. He’s pointing to my overnight bag and now knows as well as I what it holds: forearm-sized sticks of andouille sausage, several pounds of smoked beef sausages, packets of little pork sausages no bigger than my ring finger, smoked turkey legs, hot pork sausages, and—why not?— more sausage from a different producer about 200 feet down from the first. I have been to LaPlace, Louisiana, andouille capital of, if not the world, then of my heart.

“We might have to keep this bag,” he tells me. Then, breaking into a smile, he indicates my Timbuk2 laptop bag, just out of reach. It's bearing a similar carnal load: “And that one, too.”

LaPlace andouille is powerful stuff, but it’s no match for X-ray technology. Clearly, I'm not the first sausage smuggling bandit to come through security.

I am, it's been said, a meat wagon and my Baton Rouge experience is not untypical when I travel. In addition to my well-known affection for spirits, I am a fiend for cured and smoked meats. Whenever I travel, I try to make time to investigate not just bars and distilleries, but smokehouses, butchers, charcutiers, delis, carnicerias, cheese shops, wurstmachers, and any other place that might have some local meaty specialty.

Sopressata, sobrasada, chorizo, chaurice, speck, rookvlees, jerky, carne seca, horka, finocchiona, pfefferwurst, bacons, hams, smoked hocks, tasso, burnt ends, the assflesh Saucisson d'Arles—there’s no end to the sausage and cured meats I’ve schlepped across state and national boundaries. I even pack throwaway clothes as a sort of sartorial ballast so that, once ditched, I have have more room for meat on the return trip.

This morning, I made about a two-hour round trip drive just for the smoked treats—notably andouille sausage—from two shops in LaPlace, Louisiana. The LaPlace andouille is thick as my wrist and longer than a bottle of rum, each like a rolling pin of seasoned and smoked pork. That ersatz andouille I get in my local place is fine for what it is, but this stuff is transcendental. The sheer awesome deliciousness of proper Cajun andouille is unparalleled. Each batch of gumbo I make with it is stellar, filled with smoky goodness.

For my colleagues headed to Tales of the Cocktail this summer, LaPlace is a bit of a hike outside New Orleans. But just a bit. My suggestion for scoring the thicker, heavily smoked andouille typical of the town? Drive the half-hour west or pool your cash and send an emissary who will maybe skim, as courier fee, only a stick or two. If your plans don’t take you to LaPlace, stop by Cochon Butcher in the warehouse district. They’ve often got the same style of fat “sticks” in the deli case.


Bailey’s World Famous Andouille
513 West Airline Hwy
LaPlace, LA 70068

Jacob’s World Famous Andouille
505 West Airline Hwy
LaPlace, LA 70068

Wayne Jacob’s Smokehouse
769 W 5th St
La Place, LA 70068.

New Orleans

Cochon Butcher
930 Tchoupitoulas
New Orleans LA 70130


Saturday, April 3, 2010

This Mother in Law's Welcome Any Night

Jim Beam isn’t my go-to bourbon, but it's a good value and I do like it enough to buy 1.75 liters at a time. This amount, just shy of a two-liter, is a measurement we call a handle around here. In the back of my mind, I knew that our hall liquor closet held an unopened handle of Beam somewhere. Hauling it out last week and regarding its heft made me think of one cocktail in particular: Brooks Baldwin’s Mother in Law cocktail.

Brooks didn’t name the drink. In fact, when he wrote about it to Chuck Taggart in 2003, it didn’t have a name at all—just a New Orleans heritage and a notable lack of being listed in any of the cocktail books. For something that was practically unknown a decade ago, the drink’s gained a wide circle of fans. Taggart tells the tale of its discovery here.

Some—such as Dale DeGroff, Ted Haigh, and Taggart himself—have offered smaller versions, but the original recipe was for about a quart of the stuff, made up at home and poured as needed. After whipping up a sample batch of this bitters-heavy cocktail, I went for the whole batch. Here’s how:

Mother in Law Cocktail

2.5 tsp Peychaud’s Bitters
2.5 tsp Angostura Bitters
2.5 tsp Torani Amer (or vintage 78-proof Amer Picon)
1.5 oz Maraschino liqueur (Luxardo or Maraska)
1.5 oz Cointreau or high-quality orange Curaçao
1.5 oz simple syrup
One 750ml bottle bourbon

Combine ingredients thoroughly and pour into a clean one-quart bottle. To serve, pour three ounces into a cocktail shaker with cracked ice. Stir for no less than thirty seconds, then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a stemless cherry.
On the nights I want something stiffer than tea, more complex than whiskey alone, and about as easy as opening a bottle, I reach for my mother in law.