Evolution of the Walker Inn: an enthusiast’s perspective

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Kumquat toddies off Walker Inn’s Winter Citrus menu, served with dry spices and tinctures of cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise for a personalized cocktail. The foreground sunken ice bar chills juices and garnishes.

Writing about Los Angeles’ Walker Inn has been, since this blog began, both an imperative and an impossibility.

The Koreatown bar’s menus, themes, and approach to cocktails are of history-making importance in West Coast drinking. (As far as this amateur is concerned, they are California’s Aviary. Let more knowledgeable drinkers dispute that.) Writing about the Walker Inn, like drinking there, is obligatory.

But my three visits differed so wildly that I abandoned my unfinished story every time. What I loved about my first time at that unique bar was miles away from what mattered on the third visit.

Recently, Walker Inn staff themselves provided the key to finishing this story. Their “Bar Indepth: The Walker Inn, USA” seminar at Tales of the Cocktail laid out details from architectural design to lab equipment to income. Missing pieces fell into place as they explained the service evolution that allows them to serve more cocktails to the ideal number of drinkers at a pace that shows off their carefully planned menu and exquisite presentation.

In return, I know what the consumer gains and loses in this service evolution.

It turns out that the story I wanted to write — the loving paean to the place that gave me my benchmark for superlative hospitality — is an ode to a place that no longer exists. The Walker Inn still exemplifies theme, scientific creativity, and spectacle like nowhere else west of the Mississippi, and my admiration is largely unchanged.

But I have one critique.

Just one.
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Beetlejuice and vegan cocktails

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing

-Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

Yeats was not talking about bug-based food dyes but let us stretch the metaphor, loving Yeats as we do.

After a teenage stint at veganism (a fine diet, if you have the time and money to spend pursuing it) I came of legal drinking age with a mind unruffled by ethical concerns where my alcohol was concerned.

But the world (and the Bay Area in particular) is full of cocktail enthusiasts with varying dietary and ethical requirements. Early in my California residency I bellied up to a bar where I was warned that my milk stout had lactic acid in it and I should choose another tap if I had lactose issues. That sort of statement made in Wisconsin would get you kicked over the border into Illinois.

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Five non-industry people who will dig 2017 TOTC seminars

TOTClogoTales of the Cocktail has announced 2017’s seminars. As per usual it’s a superlative lineup of industry changes, enlightenment, and rollicking good fun.

I couldn’t help but notice major crossover appeal. Here are five non-hospitality-industry people who would get plenty out of the TOTC lineup.

History buffs

The schedule offers plenty of deep dives into our drinking past:

  • The Original Whiskey Writer: Alfred Barnard – Noah Rothbaum
  • We the People: Cocktails in the Colonies – Brian Maxwell
  • Great Hoaxes in Cocktail History – Robert Simonson (Simonson knows a thing or two about the topic.)
  • Sailor’s Joy: 400 years of Drinking at Sea – David Wondrich
  • From the Medicine Cabinet to the Liquor Cabinet – Noah Rothbaum
  • A Journey Into the World of Vintage Spirits – Edgar Harden

Librarians and academics

Get your sexy research on (and your cotton gloves):

  • Finding Classic Cocktails in the Dusty Archives – Philip Greene

Trekkies

We’re Next Generation devotees around these parts but there’s room for even  NuTrek under our umbrella:

  • Drink Well, Live Long and Prosper? – Claire Smith-Warner

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The worm in the mezcal, the ant in the gin

In a throwback to college benders and unwise drinking choices, I was recently reminded that some mezcals still include a worm in the bottle. The spirit renaissance has lifted mezcal into such rarified company that it’s a blast to read this 1999 Straight Dope column about “tequila worms” and remember the disdain in which it used to be held.

Apart from some unwise choices in college, the majority of my experience with be-wormed bottles is from Poltergeist.

Horror movies to an impressionable child are damn near documentaries, so rest assured I steered clear of mezcal worms, cemeteries in the rain, cabins in the woods, and closed-for-the-winter hotels most of my life.

Which is why it’s terribly exciting that a new generation of coming-of age drinkers might be traumatized by gin ants!
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Peak rum bar

Approaching the rum bar tipping point

Put me down as a fan of bars with tunnel vision. Highly specialized bars offer superior education, a deep-dive for enthusiasts past the Mixology 101 mark, and an outlet for pricey or cult spirits.

But specialization invites certain economic realities. “A little speakeasy with 16 seats is great, but I’m sorry to say that you’ll never make a living,” Dale DeGroff told G-LO via DrinkWire.

Thus I marvel at the saturation of spirit-specific bars in San Francisco — specifically rum bars. Continue reading

Aquafaba is coming

Also, Gib’s is one of the best cocktail spots in Madison, Wisconsin.


Madison is the locus of politics and education in the state of Wisconsin, as it houses both the grand state capitol and the state’s flagship university. Boasting spectacular views and pastimes in the lush summer and snowy winter months, this odd isthmus city boasts more cultural creativity than outsiders expect.

This is to lay the groundwork for a bold claim: every time I drink cocktails in Madison, I discover something new before it begins to appear on Bay Area cocktail menus.

You doubt. I sympathize with your confusion but assure you that my years of ongoing investigation confirm the claim.

This time it’s aquafaba or, as it’s more commonly described, the liquid from canned chickpeas that you can whip up into a passable and vegan meringue. In cocktails it can serve as a frothy egg white substitute or simply as a silky note of texture. The first time I spotted it on a menu was at Gib’s Bar.
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Thematic cocktail menus worth traveling for

Please send airfare. I’m firing up Kayak.com right now to balance the cost of a San Fransisco/D.C./Twin Cities jaunt against my burning need to experience these menus.

San Francisco: Drink your art with Trick Dog’s mural project

Trick Dog‘s blisteringly creative menus are among the very best the industry has to offer (a curious juxtaposition with its aesthetically cold echo chamber of a space, surely one of the least comfortable the industry has to offer).

Their current menu debuted January 8. Drinks are based on Bay Area local artists, each of whom created a mural in San Francisco for the project. The hard-copy menu at Trick Dog seems to be a printed book of photos, the sale of which benefits non-profits, so you can have your art and drink it, too.

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Sirron Norris mural photo by Sonya Yu via SFGate

The above mural by Sirron Norris (a friend of a friend of Coupe Tales, though we’ve never met) accompanies his namesake cocktail: Calle 23 blanco tequila, Cardamaro, fig, chamomile, cinnamon, and lime.

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Smoke ’em if you got ’em

A glance at my scotch or mezcal collections should tip you off to my love of smoky flavors. Though those liquors are typically my go-to building blocks for a smoky glass at home, I’ve long marveled at the actual smoke employed to create some of my most memorable cocktails when dining out.

The full smoke

The formative moment of my smoky cocktail-sipping career, and the standard to which I hold all others, is this Vanilla Hickory Smoked Manhattan from Barchef in Toronto.

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Vanilla hickory smoked Manhattan, Barchef, July 2012

Crown Royal Cask 16, housemade cherry vanilla bitters, hickory-smoked syrup, vanilla cognac (also housemade, I believe), set in an antique cloche to pull in the flavors of smoking hickory chips and vanilla pods.

Once removed from the smoking bell jar the Manhattan and its hand-chipped ice sphere provided me with the longest, smokiest finish I’d yet experienced (at the time, I was not yet a scotch fan). By fully smoking the drink in its glass, the ice, glassware, and your very hand become part of the immersive experience.

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Barchef’s smoked Manhattan, out of the cloche and into my heart

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What’s the oddest garnish you’ve seen?

Whether present for flavor or looks (usually both), the humble garnish works hard to differentiate your drink.

Differing schools of thought rule the citrus peel. Many a mixologist has expressed a peel over my drink. But what happens next differs. Some drop the peel into the drink. Some circle the rim with the peel first. Others believe that rubbing the peel on the stem of the glass is the proper next step, as it leaves warm citrus notes on the drinker’s hand and adds to the nose of the drink.

I’ll update as I receive more interesting examples. Comments about your oddest garnishes are welcome!