Saturday, March 27, 2010

Papa Drank Daiquiris?

As a child and during college, I associated a rum daiquiri with elderly ladies suffering from a chronic sweet tooth. My maternal grandmother, a faded beauty with a mole on her cheek, sipped cocktails of all sorts, but used to grow animated when my father broke out the blender and a bottle of rum. Cooing like the most contented of babies, she downed daiquiris like a marathoner guzzling water at the finish line.

And I was left with an impression of the daiquiri that I figured was about as indelible and profound as the Grand Canyon: daiquiris and rum drinks were for sissies.

In short, the 70’s and the blender were not good for rum drinks.

Flash forward to four years ago when my view of the cocktail changed during a remarkable, eye-opening visit to Bacardi’s rum distillery in Puerto Rico.

Imagine my surprise when I learned from one of Bacardi’s spirit-makers that Papa (a/k/a Ernest) Hemingway enjoyed a daiquiri now and then during his sojourns in Cuba. Papa, the man’s man, the macho American writer who wrote eloquently of war, smoking, drinking, running from bulls and being gored to death by a bull on a warm, sunny afternoon? You mean, that guy? He liked daiquiris?

“That’s right,” the Bacardi rum blender assured me.

After a behind the scenes tour and a sampling of some of the same vintage rum Hemingway had sipped, I succumbed to the urging of the Bacardi master and under the sweeping, contemporary canopy of the visitor center’s outdoor bar, I was poured a classic daiquiri. Made with rum, lime juice, a bit of sugar, and ice, the drink actually tastes like rum. You see, as explained to me by Bacardi’s blender and a number of rum aficionados, the problem with a lot of ice and blended drinks in particular is that too much ice freezes the taste buds.

And frozen taste buds make a nuanced or uniquely flavored rum taste bland. With ice shaved or crushed, as in a classic daiquiri, the flavor of the rum shines through and dances across the palate. Really.

And given the impressive variety and quality of rums available, why order this storied spirit in a cocktail that masks its flavor?

A classic daiquiri offers a boatload of flavors, while a blended drink offers numbness.

If you’d like to actually taste the rum in your drink, order a classic daiquiri. Papa enjoyed them, and you can, too.

Where to find a classic daiquiri? A handful of bars & restaurants offer them, most during warm weather months, but you can always find one at New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace or the Bacardi visitor’s center outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. For a recipe, check out In the Land of Cocktails by Ti and Lally Brennan.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sweetest Pour-Over

It seems that every decade or so we re-discover some aspect of coffee. Forty years ago we learned that grinding beans made for a more flavorful cup of java. And since then we've come to appreciate espresso, cappuccino, French press and small batch coffee. So what's the latest revelation for this freshly minted decade?


Pour-over? You mean, taking hot water and pouring it over a filter loaded with freshly-ground coffee?

That’s right.

After a four-decade voyage through the multi-faceted and increasingly complex world of coffee, we’re realizing that sometimes the simplest approach is the best. And the pour-over couldn’t be simpler: grind beans and place in a filter suspended over a carafe, boil water, and pour water over the ground beans.

See, coffee machines can diminish flavor, so the more straight forward your approach to brewing coffee, the tastier and fresher the resulting beverage.

In Chicago, standard-bearer Intelligentsia has converted its buzzing Loop café into a frenetic but highly functioning pour-over zone. Instead of brewing giant vats of java, baristas prepare dozens of cups of fresh coffee via pour-over.

Of course, it helps when the coffee you’re serving is award winning, and Intelligentsia’s no slouch when it comes to sourcing and roasting the tastiest beans on the planet.

And while I’m tempted to give the rapidly growing West Side roaster credit for being the first in the city to offer pour-over, credit goes to Asado on Irving Park Road, according to Intelligentsia’s Todd Burbo.

“But their coffee’s not as good,” he’s careful to add.

Interestingly, Starbuck’s and other spots with less coffee cred plan to follow Intelligentsia’s lead, though none appears likely to fully convert from vats to the more labor-intensive pour-over model. (For more info, check out this recent Seattle Times article.)

If you’re in the Loop or even if you’re not, a stop at the Chicago chain’s Old School café in the historic Monadnock Building is worth a trip—even if you eschew a pour-over for one of the best cappuccinos this side of the Appian Way.

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