The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey

I am officially a published author!

Although my own book isn’t coming out until 2015, I’ve contributed an essay and a recipe to my buddy Colin at the Kings County Distilling.  He’s got a new book out, The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey, which includes the story of how he got started in the business, how to make your own moonshine, and a host of recipes by “the country’s hottest mixologists and chefs.” I think I probably fit into a third category of “random shut-ins with interesting jobs,” but I think you will enjoy the recipe I contributed for Martha Washington’s Cherry Bounce, a cherry infused whiskey. And I think you will enjoy this book.

Official blurby:

A new generation of urban bootleggers is distilling whiskey at home, and cocktail enthusiasts have embraced the nuances of brown liquors. Written by the founders of Kings County Distillery, New York City’s first distillery since Prohibition, this spirited illustrated book explores America’s age-old love affair with whiskey. It begins with chapters on whiskey’s history and culture from 1640 to today, when the DIY trend and the classic cocktail craze have conspired to make it the next big thing. For those thirsty for practical information, the book next provides a detailed, easy-to-follow guide to safe home distilling, complete with a list of supplies, step-by-step instructions, and helpful pictures, anecdotes, and tips. The final section focuses on the contemporary whiskey scene, featuring a list of microdistillers, cocktail and food recipes from the country’s hottest mixologists and chefs, and an opinionated guide to building your own whiskey collection.

Buy it here: The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey

Etsy Kitchen Histories: Tiki Time

maitai1A Mai Tai with a few Tiki touches.

In a last toast to summer, I explore Tiki and all its accompanying kitsch on the Etsy blog.

Tiki is a Frankenstein combination of influences from the Caribbean, Polynesia, Hawaii and China. During prohibition, alcohol-starved Americans traveled to the Caribbean, experiencing for the first time rum drinks like the Mojito at infamous bars like Sloppy Joe’s. Post-prohibition, the first Tiki bars were opened in California by some of these Caribbean travelers. After World War II, soldiers posted in the Pacific brought back a taste for the exotic, and bars and restaurants began to reflect a luau theme. But the food served in these establishments was often cooked by Chinese immigrants, who served their own Cantonese fare

The post includes a recipe for a classic Mai Tai, which I promise is just the thing for this coming Labor Day weekend. Read it all here!

Taste History Today: Pulque

pulqueA flight of pulque. Clockwise from the top: oatmeal, guava, lime, celery, mango, and plain in the center.

We were way too old to be in this place. We were definitely the creepy old couple.  Looking around the bar, most of the people drinking around us looked to be in their early twenties, and perhaps younger: the drinking age in Mexico is 18, after all.  And more than that, there was a youthful rebelliousness in this crowd seldom seen Mexico City: in general mild temperatures and Catholicism resulted in conservative dress. But in the pulqueria, facial piercings were the norm, women bared their shoulders, and one crusty punkette asked if we would like to buy a pot brownie (brownie de cannabis).

My husband and I were recently married (late in life, by some standards, at the ages of 30 and 31) and honeymooning in Mexico City, when curiosity led us to a Pulqueria.  Pulque is an ancient drink made from the fermented sap of the agave; it is thought to have been developed at least 2,000 years ago.  Distill that juice, and you get tequila (or mezcal); ferment it like beer, and you get pulque, thick and milky white.  A staple of Aztec life, for many years it survived as a drink of the working class; but recently, pulque has been receiving press for its growing popularity amongst Mexico City’s youth.

A 1,000 year old mural depicted people drinking pulque. (source)

The Pulqueria La Risa, where we sat, has been pouring the thick beverage for over a century. In the modern incarnation of this drink, fruit juices, or nuts and grains along with sugar are added. On the day we visited, the sabores de dia included Guava, Mango, Celery, Blackberry, Oatmeal, and Pine Nut.  In its pure state, I found pulque to taste like stomach acid, so the addition of sweet fruit juice is a huge improvement.  The result is something like a wine cooler: sweet in flavor, but with an ABV on level with a beer.

IMG_0258Inside Pulqueria La Risa.

I think it’s wine cooler-like qualities are responsible for its resurgence amongst the young.  The drink is even beginning to make its way to New York City; Pulqueria, in lower Manhattan, offers ginger-peach and tomatillo pulques alongside a full Mexcian menu. A glass of pulque costs $14, about ten times the going price in Mexico city.

Do I think pulque will be a huge hit north of the border? Not likely. After carving out a small corner in the densely packed bar, my husband and I ordered a pitcher of oatmeal pulque.  Sweetened and topped with cinnamon, its the breakfast that gets you drunk.  We had planned to order several pitchers, and perhaps a discrete, foam, to-go cup, and get slowly drunk on a hot afternoon.  But after the first pitcher, our stomachs were full and grossly distended. Pulque is often known as a meal in a glass, packed full of calories and vitamins, and is incredibly filling. We left, sober and gassy, and fairly confident that that was the first, and last time, we’d try to get drunk on pulque.

Events: Cocktail History and Chili Powder History!

I’m back! And I’ve got two events coming up in the NYC area: The history and future of COCKTAILS and an exploration of the evolution of Chili Powder!

Masters of Social Gatronomy do COCKTAILS

Monday, July 29th, 6:30 PM
@ the Brooklyn Kitchen
$5 gets you admission, two free beers and 10% off purchases at the Kitchen. Buy tickets here!

Each month, Sarah and Soma take on a curious food topic and break down the history, science, and stories behind it. Up this month: **cocktails!**

The cocktail is credited as one of America’s greatest inventions. But where did it come from, and how did it evolve into the endless combinations we find today? Sarah will examine the dawn of the cocktail and trace the origins of some of our country’s most beloved imbibements. You’ll walk away with a new appreciation for the drinks that got your ancestors drunk.

Soma will tackle our modern-day obsession with the cocktail. Rules will be broken and assumptions shattered: water vs whiskey, shaken vs stirred, and the One True Way to craft a martini! Find out how egg whites got from your breakfast plate to your highball glass, and whether baseball sized ice cubes make your drinks a sure home run.

BIG IMPORTANT NOTE!: MSG mooooving on over to Brooklyn Kitchen this month, where your $5 admission will get you 2 drink tickets and 10% off anything your heart desires. Doors at 6:30, talks shortly thereafter! Awesome? Yes. You can buy tickets at the door but there is a limited capacity; buy in advance here.

Image courtesy Marx Foods.

Chili Powder: A History

Thursday, July 25th, 6:30 PM
@ the Brooklyn Brainery
$18 Buy Tickets Here

What was chili’s path from a local dish of the Southwest to an easy weeknight meal for millions of Americans? There was an era when black pepper was considered spicy; but today, we make ourselves sweat with the hottest chili pepper blends. Why? Can science offer an explanation for our obsession with heat?

From traditional spices to national chili cook-offs, we’ll discover how the distribution of commercialized chili powder affected our eating habits and how it fits into our national pantry.

We’ll look at the roots of chili in Mexican cuisine, as well as the “Chili Queens” of San Antonio. We’ll learn how chili made its national debut at the 1893 world’s fair, and how this Tex Mex dish became a part of Americana from Washington DC to Cincinnati to Texas.

This class will include a tasting of chili cooked from a recipe in the first Mexican-American cookbook published in 1908. Buy tickets here!




Events: Bitters, Infusions and Simple Syrups: A Custom Cocktail Workshop

Wednesday, April 10, 6pm-8:30pm
The New York Horticultural Society
Tickets $50; Register Here!
Doors open at 6:00pm;
Workshop starts at 6:30pm
Hort Members $30; non-members $50

Join us as Sarah Lohman teaches us how to recreate those ever-so-delicious cocktails that you thought only a trained “mixologist” could create. Learn how to infuse liquors with herbs and spices using historic recipes as inspiration, and concoct herbal cocktails with flavored simple syrups and fresh ingredients. She’ll also discuss how to use cocktail bitters—as well as their fascinating history—and you’ll make your own bitters from scratch. You’ll learn how to make your own botanically inspired cocktails with a hands-on demo. We’ll enjoy a cocktail in class and you’ll get to take home a sample of your own cocktail bitters.

Origin of a Dish: The Toga Party

fdrFDR presiding over one of the first known “toga parties.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

After my experiment with a Greek Symposium (where we did at one point shout “Toga! Toga! Toga!”), I got curious about the origins of the modern, pseudo-Greek, fraternal Toga Parties.  And I found the photo above.

Yes. In the middle, that is indeed President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  In a toga.

FDR’s critics often compared him to a dictator, going as far as to refer to him as “Caesar”.  To poke fun at the name, his wife Eleanor threw him a “Dear Caesar” themed birthday on January 30th, 1934, his 52nd year of life.  The costume pictured on the left is from the FDR Library & Museum and was worn by a friend of the Roosevelts to the ball.  According to Henrietta Nesbitt, head of the White House housekeeping and cooking staff, the birthday cake was a fruitcake, made with dates, raisins, almonds, citron and orange peel (source).

Did Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt throw the first toga party on record?  Perhaps.

I have found one earlier reference in the novel Vile Bodies, published in 1930 (although it takes place in 1914).  The book is an account of the Bright Young Things, a group of Londoners in the early 20th century perceived as “the most glamorous, influential, self-absorbed, quasi-bohemian and overeducated creatures in existence. During their flickering moment they were adored and despised in almost equal measure. (source)”

In Vile Bodies, the protagonist Adam complains ‘Oh Nina, what a lot of parties’ and the narrator elaborates:

 …Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … Those vile bodies …

Were Greek-themed toga parties actually a thing in pre-war London?  I’m uncertain.

Although the idea of a college fraternity stemmed from the Greeks, togas are Roman.  So how did one become associated with the other? It’s believed to have been invented in the 1950s, but the only source is a self-referencing reference about a party at Pamona Collge in 1953. I apparently need to start doing oral histories with Pamona College alumnus (know any?).  But this lineage may be entirely made-up.  The toga party simple may have been a creation of popular culture.

The 1978 film Animal House had a famous Toga Party scene which over the next year, created a fervor for toga parties on college campuses.  Both the Washington Post and Newsweek reported on the new phenomenon and allegedly the movie’s promoters were going campus to campus throwing toga parties.  The best article I’ve found on all this comes from the Princeton Weekly newsletter, written in in the midst of the toga frenzy in 1978.  A few select quotes:

Toga is wild and crazy…Toga is an excuse to let loose.  Toga is bed-sheet chic and drapery decadence.

‘What do you think all this toga business means?” I asked.

“Nothing really. For a lot of people, it’s key to have a crazy time is all.”

My favorite part is when he describes a campus-sheet shortage due to over-zealous partiers and wary linen franchises.  Read the whole article here.

The Official Preppy Handbook, a parody published in 1980, gives this advice: “Toga party- Girls wear designer sheets, men wear the kind from the linen service.  If accompanied by a Roman-style dinner, these sheets may go home stained with red wine, though serious drinkers might switch to a grain alcohol punch around 10 o’clock. Since dancing in a toga is impossible, getting drunk is the primary activity.”  In just two years, toga parties went from the height of college fashion to passé enough to be parodied.

There are a lot of gaping holes in the story of the toga party.  The frustrating part about researching the history of alcohol is that apparently people were too drunk to remember.

Party Time Reenactor: How to Drink Like an Ancient Greek

greek5A slave helps a drinker to vomit. (National Museum of Cophenaghen)

The Ancient Greeks loved to drink.  They called wine “The mirror of the mind” and believed the way you behaved when you drank was revealing of your innermost nature.  As a result, the Ancient Greeks invented a celebration of wine: a male drinking party called a Symposium.

I first read about Syposia in Tom Standage’s book A History of the World in 6 Glasses; classically, the event was written about by Plato.  In Standage’s chapter on wine, he describes the symposium: an evening of food and wine that included games, philosophical debate, and tended to end in a riot or an orgy.  Sounds like a party worthy of reenactment.

The Invitation

An ideal symposium was thought to have between 12-24 drinkers; 16 being ideal.  Originally all the drinkers would be men, with women only present as entertainers:  musicians, dancers, and high-end prostitutes.  Since sticking to this rule would exclude my own presence, I decided to open up the party to men and women alike.  The Facebook invitation went out with great fanfare.

You know I love a good theme party. So Brian and I are hosting a Symposium: An Ancient Greek Drinking party! The evening will include:- drinking wine (everyone please bring a bottle, red or white)
– ancient Greek snacks
– a “symposiarch”, chosen at random, who is responsible for deciding how drunk the party will get.
– games!
– “entertainments”
– serious discussion of philosophy or not.That’s all I got. Just come over, drink, and indulge my nerdiness

The Food

greek1Two types of bread were served: flatbread for scooping up food and small, yeasty rolls. There was also olive oil for dipping and olives for snacking.

We known a lot more about Ancient Roman cooking than we do about the Ancient Greeks.  Much of what we do know comes from Archestratus’ The Life of Luxury, a poem written sometime in the mid-4th century BC.  In essence, it’s a guide book on where to find, and prepare, the best food in Greece.  You can read it here, and read a great article about it here.

The symposium was preceded by a meal, full of foods that laid down a good base for a night of drinking.  From various sources, I assembled this menu:

First Course: Fish and Lentils – The Ancient Greeks ate very little meat; their diet was based largely on fish, legumes and grains   Lentils were a staple of everyone’s diet–I slow-cooked mine with salt, vinegar and coriander.  For the fish, I prepared salmon–not a fish that I know would have been available to the Greeks, but my friends in Alaska had sent me a package of beautiful, fresh caught, wild salmon fillets.  So I had good fish, so I was gonna cook it.  I prepared it the way Archestratus suggests, with a little olive oil and a dusting of salt and cumin.  I broiled it for a few minutes and it came out flaky, flavorful, and perfect.  The cumin matched the fish wonderfully.  It was the best fish I’ve ever cooked.

Each course was served with bread: the Ancient Greeks ate primarily two types, a soft and fluffy roll and flatbread for scooping up food.  They did not use silverware–only bread and their hands. I also set olives on the table, for snacking.

greek2Later in the evening, I lost my ability to take decent photos. I should delegate.  But you get the idea. Clockwise from top: pistachios, a bowl of lentils, olives, grapes, a pitcher of water (the traditional accompaniment to dinner), broiled salmon with cumin, figs, dates, almonds drizzled with honey, bread, feta drizzled with honey.

Second Course: Cheese, Fruits, and Nuts – I served feta, the most commonly available Greek cheese in the States, and very similar to the sheeps’ milk cheese the Ancient Greeks would have consumed. Almonds, pistachios and grapes were grown in Ancient Greece, and dried dates and figs were imported from the Middle East.  The entire platter was drizzled with Greek honey.

greek3Olive oil cake with grapes baked into the top.

Third Course: Olive Oil Cake – Although the Ancient Greeks did not cultivate sugar, they were fond of sweets, and made many types of honey cakes.  Although I found many mentions of cakes made of barley or wheat ending a meal, I could not find any historic recipes.  So I used this modern recipe, and used only ingredients the Greeks would have had available to them: wheat, yogurt, olive oil, and honey.

The Drinking

greek4The Symposiarch.

In a traditional symposium, the guests don’t start drinking until after the meal.  But as people started to trickle in, I realized there was no way to convince anyone to stick to that rule.  Additionally, the Greeks always drank their wine mixed with water–they saw drinking it straight as both barbaric, and only fit for the gods.  Only Dionysus, god of wine, was strong enough to drink wine unmixed.  Mere mortal man could go mad.

Wine and water would be mixed at varying proportions in a special bowl called a krater.  When one krater of wine was finished, it was the Symposiarch who decided when another would be mixed.  The Symposiarch was the leader of the party–elected either by votes or by chance–who decided the topics that should be debated as well as the level of drunkenness the party would attain.  The ideal was to keep people tipsy and loose lipped without having the party descend into drunken chaos. One symposiarch said that three kraters of wine was just enough–and after the third one is drained “…wise men go home.”  Drinking after that point leads to fights, breaking of the furniture, depression, and ultimately madness.

Our symposiarch was unanimously elected: old Roommate Jeff, who has been a part of this blog from the beginning.  He donned a toga and took to his duty, doling out wine (“When this bottle comes back to me, it better be empty!”) and suggesting topics of discussion (“What happens after you die? Discuss.”)

The Party

More togas were donned, wine was imbibed, food was consumed, and our true personalities began to shine through.  Traditionally, drinking games like kottabos could be played: the dregs of your wine were hurled at a target. I wisely didn’t tell my guests the Ancient Greeks hurled wine around their homes, thus saving the carpet.

There was talking, belly aching laughter, and a few card games as well.  We celebrated a birthday. We toasted the symposiarch, the Ancient Greeks, wine itself. Sometime in the night– 3am? 4? – -the drinkers trickled out, praising the symposiarch for his good judgement, and ending the night in whichever Ancient Greek themed way they saw fit. In Plato’s symposium, Alcibiades showed up drunk and mostly naked.

The Results

I have never participated in a classier excuse to binge drink.  Like a grown-up toga party, the Symposium combined an appreciation for the effects of alcohol with an easily enjoyable theme.  We all celebrated, learned, and ended the night happy.

But this party got me thinking: when did the college-style Toga Party originate? That’s the subject of my next post.

Video: Bourbon Now Made in Brooklyn

I was quoted as an expert in this recent CNN story about the revival of distilleries in Brooklyn.  Looser liquor laws are catching on nationwide, so be one the lookout for a craft distiller opening near you.

I’ve got a teensy segment in this video–don’t blink or you’ll miss me–but featured far more prominently is my buddy Colin down at King’s Country Distillery, making fine whiskeys in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.


The History Dish: Beer Soup

beersoupHot German beer soup.

The History

Beer soup!  Soup made from beer!  And there is no cheddar cheese or Guinness in sight–this is a sweet, German lager soup.

This recipe comes from the generically named Practical Cook Book one of the most popular German cookbooks of all time.  First published in 1844 (first English version in 1897), the book was written and compiled by Henriette Davidis, a woman known as the German Mrs. Beeton for the scope and scale of her work.

A reprint of this cookbook is available, titled Pickled Herring and Pumpkin Pie: A Nineteenth-Century Cookbook for German Immigrants to America; the evocative title makes me  think of this book tucked in the suitcases of the thousands of German immigrants that made their way to America in the middle of the 19th century.  Separated from their mother, young women could have brought this book with them as a reminder of the tastes of home.  Or, as the different German cultures mixed and married in the Kleine Deutschlands of the U.S., perhaps they used it to learn to cook a new regional cuisine for their husband.

I first worked with Davidis’ book while researching food for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s new Shop Life exhibit, which features a fully restored 1870s German lager beer saloon.  I made lebkuchen, a honey spice cake, and sauerbraten, a sort of pickled pot roast, from Davidis’ recipes.  They were molded in latex and cast to create the faux food on display in the exhibit.

But a few more recipes in this cook book caught my eye, so I’m going to revisit this tomb of classic German cooking to see if we can discover some gems.  First up, beer soup!

The Germans were responsible for bringing lager beer to the United States: a lighter beer with a lower alcoholic content, it became wildly popular in America, replacing ale as the favorite draught.  Currently, all of this country’s major beer producers make lager beer.

The Recipe


Beer Soup

From The Practical Cook Book by Henriette Davidis, 1897 (English Version)

1 cup beer
1 cup water
1/2 cup light brown sugar
Pinch salt
1 egg yolk
1 heaping tablespoon flour

Place egg and flour in a heat safe bowl; set aside. Heat beer, water, sugar, and salt until just before boiling.  Pour beer slowly over egg and flour, constantly whisking.  Return to pan. Serve hot.

beersoup2Beer, measured for soup.

The Results

I ended up using a hefeweizen beer, which is not a lager, because I thought its natural sweetness would work well in this recipe.  When I sipped my soup, it had a wonderful, soft, creamy mouth-feel.  But it tasted like the day after a party smells: warm, stale beer.


Living History: New Year’s Day, a Thinly Veiled Pub Crawl

Waiting for callers on New Year’s Day. (source)

19th century New Yorkers didn’t do their drinking on New Year’s Eve; instead,  New Year’s Day was the day for revelry, in what the Merchant’s House Museum recently described as “an elegant, albeit thinly masked, pub crawl.”

On New Years Day, it was tradition to travel all around New York and visit the houses of your friends and family.  This was an old Dutch tradition brought to New Amsterdam that was revived in New York in the 19th century, and celebrated by the entire city, not just Dutch immigrants and their descendants.  This custom was known as “calling,” and some people would visit between 30-100 houses in a day.

It was usually the men who would travel from house to house, while the women stayed at home to meet the guests–and they might see 200-300 friends and family in a day.  The days leading up to the occasion were particularly busy, as houses were cleaned top to bottom, sometimes refurnished, and there was a general slew of “baking, brewing, stewing, broiling, and frying” according to Lights and Shadows of New York Life – or, the Sights and Sensations of the Great City, a fascinating, often sensationalized, encyclopedia on the city from 1872.

According to Lights and Shadows, women would have a new dress made, and would rely on hairdressers–or “artist of hair”–who would visit their homes.  But because the season was so busy, hairdressers would often have to work through the night, calling on the women at three or four in the morning.  The ladies would spent the rest of the night sleeping sitting up, or in some other Geisha-like sleeping arrangement, so they didn’t  muss their do.

Punchmakers were another set employed throughout the night–but I’ve written about them before, and you can read about them here.

A punch bowl in the collection of the William H. Seward House.

When the great day arrived, the whole city was already in motion by 9am.  If you’ve been doing this a number of years, you knew enough to make a bee-line for the houses with the best food.  Sometimes, as you ran into your friends on the street, you would exchange inside information about who has the best plumb pudding or charlotte russe this year.

A typical visit would consist of  giving the greetings of the season, accepting refreshments and then moving on to the next house.  The men would keep a list, and check off names or each family they visited.  The list was a necessity, for as the day rolled on, you’d accept a drink at every house.  According to Lights and Shadows

“At the outset, of course, everything is conducted with the utmost propriety, but, as the day wears on, the generous liquors they have imbibed begin to ‘tell’ upon the callers…Towards the close of the day, everything is in confusion–the door-bell is never silent.  Crowds of young men, in various stages of intoxication, rush into the lighted parlous, leer at the hostess in the vain effort to offer their respects, call for liquor  drink it, and stagger out, to repeat the scene at some other house…Strange as it may seem, it is no disgrace to get drunk on New Year’s Day.”

I’ve always loved this tradition  and have often sought to recreate it.  After the hubbub of the holidays, I can’t imagine anything more lovely that calling on all of my friends, and having a few quiet hours to enjoy their company.  I intended to make my rounds today, but after following the normal 21st century pattern of revelry, I woke up with a hangover so nasty that I haven’t done much of anything today.  I will leave in about an hour, to see two friends I haven’t got a chance to talk to since Thanksgiving, and to cut their silhouettes for their belated Christmas present.  I don’t think I’ll be drinking any punch, though.

Updated 11pm: My visit was wonderful! Will (originally of Manchester, England) and Sarah (of Kentucky!) presented my fiancee and I with a cheese platter, hot milky tea, and a real English Christmas pudding! They doused it in brandy and set it ablaze. It was the most perfect New Year’s visit.



You can read Lights and Shadows of New York Life here, or purchase it here
I’d also recommend The Battle for Christmas, a wonderful book on the development on the holiday season in America.  The author focuses a lot on New York life and tells some great stories about visiting on New Year’s Day.