Saturday, October 29, 2011

Autumn Cocktail Derby



Recently, I attended a tasting called The Autumn Cocktail Derby at Union Square Wines & Spirits where I had a chance to sample spirits both new and familiar in various cocktails that suited the chillier weather we are encountering here in the northeast this time of year. With this as the theme for the afternoon’s events, I was somewhat amazed when they included a gin in the tasting – and not only that, but it was the best find on the tasting menu!

Perhaps the most pleasantly surprising new spirit was the 83.6 proof offering from Scotland’s Balmenach Distillery called Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin. Until now, the only Scottish gin I was aware of was Hendricks, notable for its spiciness, which is somewhat unusual for a gin; for those of you familiar with Hendricks – whether or not you are a fan –  Caorunn (pronounced “ka-roon”) could not be more different from Hendricks in every conceivable way. If you’ve never heard of Caorunn before, don’t feel bad – it’s only been in the American market since June of 2011. Wish I’d known about this one at the beginning of this past summer because it would’ve been fun playing Mad Scientist with this spirit to see which concoctions I preferred.

Caorunn is distinctive first by its look– its unusually shaped bottle almost suggests a tequila. The next pleasure you get from Caorunn is its fragrance; it is perhaps the most aromatic gin I’ve ever encountered. This, of course, is due to the types of botanicals used in its recipe. In total, Caorunn uses eleven botanicals; six are traditional to gins and the remaining five are unique Celtic botanicals. In fact the name Caorunn itself is the Gaelic word for Rowan Berry, which is the essence of the gin; according to the company representative I met at the tasting, Caorunn is very similar to the cranberry. Besides the usual juniper and coriander, it contains heather and something called bog myrtle.

Regarding its taste, Caorunn is far from a disappointment there, either. As far as I’m concerned, any gin that is capable of enlivening something as ordinary as a simple gin and tonic is worthy of being considered a special gin. Gladly, I can tell you that Caorunn manages to hit a homerun as far as this standard is concerned.

But what of the martini? As long as we’re discussing classic gin cocktails here, it would certainly make sense to ask about this one. Sadly, the company representative chose not to serve it up in a martini, but he did have some recommendations for mixing them on your own: with Caorunn Scottish Gin, he recommended against using an onion, so making a Gibson is out of the question. Likewise, olives would not go well with this gin; therefore, no Dirty Martinis, either. Instead, he suggested, use a fruit – something citrusy, like a lemon twist with the peel floating atop the drink -- would be an excellent choice. Even better would be a thin slice of apple, as this apparently tends to enhance the gin’s flavor particularly well.

If you pick up this gin – and I certainly hope you add it to your bartending arsenal – you might want to experiment with some of the recipes on the company’s Web site.

Friday, October 21, 2011

“Being Elmo” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the new documentary narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, “Being Elmo:  A Puppeteer’s Journey” – the story of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who made “Sesame Street”’s Elmo puppet an immensely popular character on the TV show.   



Growing up in a Baltimore suburb, Kevin Clash was fascinated by both puppets and puppetry.  Watching various children's shows on television,  he wondered what it would be like to not only make the puppets he saw but to operate them as well.  Something of a precocious child, he made his first puppet by cutting out the lining of his father’s good overcoat to use as the fur for his monkey-like construction.  Rather than punishing him for what Kevin did, his parents encouraged him – and it was their loving support that put him well on his way to being a professional puppeteer.

After performing his collection of original puppets for children at schools, hospitals and churches, Kevin finally auditioned for a local TV show upon graduation from high school and won the job.  Soon, his puppet characters became among the most popular parts of a children’s show.  As he became better known for his talents, he moved to New York City to work as a puppeteer on Captain Kangaroo.  Shortly thereafter, an even bigger break occurred when he got to meet his idol, Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets. 

Eventually, Kevin got his dream job of becoming a puppeteer for The Muppets on “Sesame Street”.  One of the secondary puppet characters, a red furry monster named Elmo, was unable to find much time on the show.  When the original puppeteer gave up because he couldn’t find a the right personality for Elmo, Kevin took it over and developed Elmo as a gentle, childlike character always in search of friendship, acceptance and love.  Before too long, the character gained an enormous following among the children who watched Sesame Street and resulted in Kevin reaching worldwide fame and success. 



Everyone has heard of “Sesame Street”.  Most people have heard of its Elmo puppet.  But how many people know Kevin Clash?  Clash was the puppeteer responsible for breathing life into this character and without him, it is likely that the Elmo puppet would be a long-forgotten figure hanging on the wall of The Muppet’s workshop.  In providing Elmo with a unique personality, Clash inevitably wound up imbuing the puppet with many of his own characteristics as well.  As we see in “Being Elmo”, Clash can owe much of this to his family – including and especially his loving and supportive parents. 

“Being Elmo” is nothing short of a magical and inspirational true story about a little boy that grew up to live his dream.  Not only do I recommend you see this movie, but I also recommend that if you know a kid, then by all means, bring him or her when you go.  If you think you wouldn’t love watching a documentary – and if you especially think that children wouldn’t enjoy a documentary -- “Being Elmo” will prove you wrong on both counts. 

Prior to the screening, filmmaker Constance Marks was interviewed by our instructor.  She said that it took her a total of seven years to get this documentary made because of the fact that financing kept dropping out at various points along the way.  Following the screening, Kevin Clash was interviewed; as you might well expect, he also brought along with him the Elmo puppet and he gladly put on quite a show at the end of the evening.  Seeing Clash perform live and in an unscripted, spontaneous environment such as this, his talent is quite obvious and you find yourself marveling not only at that, but at his considerable gifts as a showman as well. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

“Oranges And Sunshine” – Movie Review


This week in my movie class, we had a weeknight bonus screening of the British drama “Oranges And Sunshine”, starring Emily Watson and Hugo Weaving.



When a British Social Worker learns that England spent decades forcing many of its poverty-stricken children to live in Australia, she investigates their cases to try to reunite them with their family – but after she confronts the government, church and various charities with this scandal, can they prevent her from continuing her mission?



In the mid-1980’s, Margaret Humphreys (Watson), a Social Worker located in Nottingham, England, was conducting group therapy sessions with adult clients who were adopted as children. In the course of her work, she becomes aware of the fact that during the 1940’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s, there were quite a number of children whom the British government sent to live in Australia –without their parents’ accompaniment, knowledge or consent. Shortly after beginning to investigate the matter, it becomes apparent that this was an alarmingly common practice.

When word of Humphreys’ efforts to help these displaced British spread throughout Australia, thousands of adults contact her for assistance to either find their birth parents or their true identity or both. Interviewing many of the grown men who were sent to live in an orphanage run by Christian Brothers, they confess being subjected to years of mental, physical and sexual abuse by their caretakers throughout their childhood when they resided at the orphanage. As the number of Australians seeking her assistance grows, Humphreys’ activity is picked up by the media, who spread the news even further around the country.

Despite providing a vital humanitarian service and helping a great many people, Humphreys has stirred up an immense controversy by revealing this scandal. As a result of this, she winds up with reactions of anger and resentment from a wide variety of Australians – including anonymous death threats from people defending the exact same Christian Brotherhood responsible for running the orphanage. As both her safety and security become increasingly compromised, will Humphreys be able to survive and continue her work?



The movie “Oranges and Sunshine” is based on a book authored by Margaret Humphreys titled, “Empty Cradles. Both the book and the movie are in fact based on Humphreys’ real life experience uncovering this story and bringing it to the attention of the government, which made major news headlines throughout The United Kingdom. Unfortunately, “Oranges And Sunshine” suffers from something of a look and feel of a perfunctory “TV-movie-of-the-week” quality to it, replete with every possible cliché imaginable. Although a compelling, heartbreaking and shocking tale, it is told in something of a drab, dreary manner – an uninspired and unimaginative movie, not even the performance by Emily Watson could hope to save this film.

One of the chief problems I found with this movie was the rationale behind England’s deportation of its neediest children; the movie never really makes an attempt to explain why the British and Australian governments colluded with religious authorities and charities to commit this heinous act. Additionally, the characters of Humphreys and her husband are drawn rather broadly, making both of them out to be more saintly than heroic in their words and deeds; as an example, despite her many trips to Australia when she would abandon her own family for long periods of time, the husband never argued with her and the children barely voiced much if any objection.

Following the screening, Humphreys herself was interviewed by our instructor. As best I could tell, she appeared to have something of a lukewarm reaction to the movie version of her book, but conceded that it would be rather difficult to tell the same story in as much detail as it is in the book within the confines of a two hour movie. Among her concerns was the fact that “Oranges And Sunshine” seemed to focus more on the stories of the little boys while completely ignoring what happened to the girls who were also forced to migrate thousands of miles from their home and family. When asked why the government would take these children from their parents, she agreed with our instructor’s interpretation that it was likely a matter of pure economics – meaning that it would be considerably cheaper for England to have the kids taken care of by the Australians than to have them on public assistance in their own land. Her main regret about the whole incident regarding the children is that more of a judicial investigation on the matter was never done, but realizes that it is likely due to the fact that it would encounter too many obstacles from the governments, churches and charities. Humphries has dedicated her life to helping over 130,000 of these people and continues her work to this day.


Friday, October 14, 2011

“Revenge Of The Electric Car” – Movie Review



The Fall Semester of my movie class finally began this week with a screening of the documentary “Revenge Of The Electric Car”.


When the electric car is pretty much left for dead by the major automobile manufacturers, the concept tries to be revived – but will it still succeed or has its time passed?


Several years ago, filmmaker Chris Paine made a documentary entitled, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”; in it, he looked into why the same major automobile manufacturers who spent time, money and manpower developing and marketing electric cars were quick to abandon the idea despite enthusiasm by its small but growing cult of customers. The documentary asserted that the reason for the car’s premature death was due to collusion by the big oil companies, whose existence was threatened by competition with the electric car. After all, if people didn’t need gas for their cars, then they wouldn’t need the oil companies, either.

“Revenge Of The Electric Car” is a documentary that serves as something of a sequel to “Who Killed The Electric Car?” while at the same time contradicting it because of the fact that several years since the previous movie came out, the electric car now appears far from dead. The film follows the life and career of four individuals: Bob Lutz, Chairman of General Motors; Greg “Gadget” Abbott, an entrepreneur who converts gas-powered cars to electric cars; Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, a California – based start-up automobile manufacturer of electric cars; and Carlos Ghosn, head of Nissan.

After pulling the plug on the electric car (pun intended), Lutz suddenly realizes GM’s mistake and tries to resurrect it through their Chevrolet brand – but will it be too little too late? Gadget maintains a garage full of high-end cars he’s converted to electric powered – but after an arsonist burns down the entire garage (including the cars and a quarter million dollars worth of tools), can his business rebound despite the fact that he’s got no insurance? Musk is a multi-millionaire who originally made his money when the company he founded, PayPal, was subsequently sold to eBay; being a Type-A personality, he needs to find a new mountain to climb – but is he willing to risk his fortune? Ghosn is considered a genius by the entire industry; sick of taking a backseat (pun intended again) to Toyota, he decides to gamble on making the electric car the next big thing in order to energize business – but has he accurately predicted market trends?


With the economy still in the doldrums and gas prices unaffordable, it would seem that the timing of this movie is perfect. Director Chris Paine proves his filmmaking craftsmanship with clever use of tracking shots and tight editing. For me, the best part of the movie was a short scene with Arnold Schwarzenegger, especially in light of the hijinks we now know he was up to. Paine’s previous movie, “Who Killed The Electric Car?”, was shown in my movie class a few years ago and I recall finding it very impressive as well as informative. The controversial topic was bravely investigated and clearly laid out in a most convincing manner, so if you haven’t yet seen it, you may want to seriously consider renting or downloading.

My main problem with this movie is that most of the four characters Paine follows are unsympathetic; arguably all four, if Gadget’s goofball sensibilities turn you off. The other three are wealthy, powerful men whom you could hardly consider underdogs worthy of rooting for. Essentially, you don’t wind up rooting for the individuals themselves so much as the concept they represent and that’s ultimately where “Revenge Of The Electric Car” falls a little bit short for me – even in a documentary, I want to root for a person, rather than a business. Sadly, none of these bombastic egomaniacs seem worthy of an audience’s sympathy.

After the screening, filmmaker Chris Paine was interviewed. Our instructor asked him how he got access to some of these people; he said that Gadget was the easiest because he was Paine’s neighbor. One of the interesting things that I find from interviews with documentary makers is the ratio of film shot to film used in the final cut of the movie; according to Paine, he and his crew shot something like 400 hours of film – the actual movie itself is only about an hour and a half in length! Paine told the class that the main concern of the automobile executives was that his film would release secrets about their company that would be discovered by their competitors; it was for this reason that he chose to delay the release of the film until after all the facts were known to the public.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Rhinestone Follies Burlesque Show



After a disappointing evening spent at last year’s New York City Burlesque Festival (reviewed here), I decided to skip the show for 2011. That said, however, I still felt a need for my enjoyment of old-time burlesque shows to be sated – thankfully here in New York, I can turn to the delightful gals who make up The Rhinestone Follies. In fact, you might almost title this post, “How I Spent My Summer Stay-cation” because I wound up spending quite a few Friday evenings this past summer attending their show in downtown Manhattan.

I first learned of their shows at the outset of summer by seeing one of their advertisements in The Village Voice; sounding like a cool idea at a reasonable price, I headed down to The R Bar on The Bowery at my first opportunity.

The performances by the entertainers of The Rhinestone Follies can range from fun to infuriating.  Unfortunately, individual acts can sometimes be a little inconsistent, but at these prices, they are definitely worth trying; even if you don't like parts of the show you saw on a given evening, you’ll still find enough worthy of sincerely enthusiastic applause.  As an example of this inconsistency, one night, in the midst of an otherwise sexy and exciting show, there was a gay couple that performed the most ponderous routine of the entire evening and one which we probably all could’ve done without. Given that the performers seem to vary from show to show, it can then turn into a bit of a pot luck of hodgepodge acts – so you may need to be a bit patient at times. 

To give the performers a bit of a break, there are contests interspersed, hosted by the goofball Master of Ceremonies.  Audience members can win prizes -- occasionally of questionable value – but the contests themselves can at least be fun, even if your only participation is as an audience member rather than a contestant.

These shows are generally populated with a spirited, playful crowd ready for a party and proud to celebrate the qualities of feminine beauty -- all in all, not a bad way to spend a Friday night.   The three core girls of The Rhinestone Follies -- Hazel Honeysuckle, Beelzebabe and Kita St. Cyr -- are luscious and each has an absolutely delicious body, extremely shapely and fit, adding to their desirability.  In short, with an extensive menu of pulchritude on display, there’s plenty for all tastes to enjoy and appreciate and admire. 

A little something about the venue, just because it could influence your decision on going: The R Bar is located at 218 Bowery in lower Manhattan, not far from Spring Street. This place has "Dive" written all over it -- which is not to say that it's a bad thing.  As a matter of fact, the environment even kinda fits in with the old-style burlesque atmosphere.  Just be aware that you will not be seeing this show in a theater or nightclub – rather, it’s a somewhat seedy bar located in a somewhat seedy part of town; R Bar has a stage in the back with a separate bar where, I’m given to understand, bands sometimes play when the ecdysiasts aren’t performing.

The price of the show is quite reasonable – under $20 – although it appears to vary; there were some nights when I got in for only $10 and others where I was required to pay $15. There are no tickets, they just mark up the back of your hand as proof of payment. Before 10PM, most drinks are sold at something of a discount; the show usually ends prior to that time though, leaving you a few minutes for a last round before the prices increase.

In addition to their Web site (see link above), The Rhinestone Follies may be followed on both Twitter and Facebook

This video is an excerpt from the show – their standard finale, a fan dance performed to Billy May’s “Charmaine”.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Master Of Your Domaine (de Canton)



Now that the chill of Autumn has finally begun to set in around certain parts of this here fine country of ours (and it has, just in case you’ve been otherwise too preoccupied to check your calendar lately), our choice of cocktails often tends to change with the weather.

This is the time of year that I choose to be Master Of My Domaine … Domaine de Canton, that is.

For those of you not already familiar with it, Domaine de Canton is a French liqueur made of ginger-enhanced Cognac; when added to a cocktail, its spiciness lends a sensationally distinct flavor to the drink.

In the course of experimenting with different cocktails using this unique liqueur, it has been my distinct pleasure to learn that while there are a great number of unique recipes to be found, Domaine de Canton can also be included in some of your classic cocktails to add an explosive twist, especially in these cooler months.

Let’s start with brunch. Ever enjoy a Kir Royale? Why not hold the Crème de Cassis and instead spice it up as a Canton Royale:



Squeeze the juice of a lemon wedge or add a dash of lemon bitters. Serve in a champagne flute.

Speaking of brunch, you can also do something similar with a mimosa – in this recipe, only put in half the amount of orange juice you would normally use, then add Domaine de Canton for the other half; fill it to the top with the sparkling wine of your choice and you’ve got a libation whose spiciness may prove a viable alternative almost any Bloody Mary.

Another classic is the Sidecar; using Domaine de Canton, you can effectively double-up on the Cognac!



Squeeze juice of a lemon wedge and serve in a chilled martini glass.

Even though Domaine de Canton is a product of France, you can still use it to tweak an old favorite of the British – the Pimm’s Cup!



Add slices of orange, lemon, strawberries, cucumber and sprigs of mint. Serve in a tall glass filled with ice.

As I said, though, there are a great many original recipes that contain Domaine de Canton; one of them is this: L’Orientale …



Add a splash of Chambord and a splash of orange juice. Serve in a chilled martini glass.

You can use Domaine de Canton to put a twist on almost any traditional cocktail – Mojitos, Margaritas, Cosmopolitans – you name it! Although many bottles of Domaine de Canton are sold with a small recipe book, you can also find a treasure trove of others for this transformational liqueur by simply visiting their Web site:

Domaine de Canton Recipes

Do you have a favorite cocktail containing Domaine de Canton?  Have you invented your own?  In either case, please leave a comment and share your recipe!

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Tequila To Kill Ya




Sure, tequila shots are great and margaritas can’t be beat – but seriously, once you’ve had a Tequila Sunrise, is that all there is when it comes to tequila-based cocktails?

Recently, I took a class called “The Cocktails That Made Tequila Famous” with mixologist Elayne Duke at The Astor Center of New York City and happily, I can report that the answer to that question is a resounding “HELL NO!”.

Upon entering the class, we were greeted with our first cocktail of the evening, The Sangrita -- 2 oz. Jose Cuervo Reserva Platino with Served with a 2 oz. shot of fresh sangrita mix, which is made as follows:

  • ¾ cup tomato juice
  • ½ cup orange juice
  • 3 tablespoons of fresh lime juice
  • ¼ teaspoon of onion powder
  • ¼ teaspoon of salt
  • ½ teaspoon of sugar
  • ½ teaspoon of chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon of hot sauce

Combine all ingredients in a pitcher, chill in the fridge before serving.

In the course of introducing us to different tequilas and different tequila cocktails, Duke also educated us on the history of tequila. It turns out that before the Mexicans learned how to make tequila, they accidentally stumbled upon another type of libation derived from the same agave plant that gives us tequila. Pulque is fermented agave nectar; it was discovered when a lightning bolt split and cooked an agave plant. The result of the yeast being added to the sugar of course produced a rudimentary drink which contained anywhere from 3-4% alcohol.

The Spanish, with the knowledge of wine making, came to Mexico in the 1500’s and used a pot still with the agave to create something that would come to be called vino de mescal. This, it turned out, would be the origin of what became the tequila that we know today, before its manufacturing process was refined and improved upon over the years.

Next, we made what you might call a “healthy margarita” because it uses agave nectar instead of Triple Sec or Cointreau, both of which have a higher sugar content; the agave nectar, by contrast, has a lower glycemic index, maintaining sweetness while decreasing the actual sugar content.

Tommy Margarita

  • 2 oz. Don Julio Blanco
  • 1 oz. Lime Juice
  • 1 oz. Agave Nectar

Shake it with ice, then strain and serve in an ice-filled rocks glass with a lime wedge as garnish.

Next was perhaps the most refreshing drink of the evening …

La Paloma

  • 2 oz. Don Julio Blanco
  • 1 oz. simple syrup
  • ½ oz. lime juice
  • 1.5 oz. fresh pink grapefruit juice
  • 3 dashes of grapefruit bitters
  • Top with soda

Combine all ingredients (except the soda) into a cocktail mixing glass, shake with ice, strain into your glass filled with fresh ice; top it off with the club soda. Serve in a highball glass rimmed with sea salt and garnish with a lime wedge and straw.

Our final cocktail of the evening was still made with Don Julio – but this time, using their reposado, which can be aged anywhere from a couple of months up to a year.

El Diablo

  • 1.5 oz. Don Julio Reposado
  • ½ oz. Fresh Lime Juice
  • Ginger Beer
  • Top ½ oz. Crème de Casis

This one is stirred in an ice-filled mixing glass, then served in a highball glass and garnished with a lime wheel.

By the way, just in case you’d like to view the Powerpoint slides that accompanied the evening’s presentation, please be sure to follow this link:

Tequila and the Cocktails That Made It Famous