Do you need an excuse to drink beer this week? Got one. The beer-swilling potty-mouths that put together the stellar Austin Beer Guide are throwing a release party for the Summer 2012 issue at 7pm on Thursday, June 28, 2012 on the patio of Billy’s on Burnet, 2105 Hancock Drive.
Whether you are an ironic-t-shirt-wearin-over-grown-beard-sportin-yeast-strain-braggin beer geek or just someone who wants to know where to get a good beer in Austin, the Austin Beer Guide is the best source for information on the craft brew scene in Central Texas. The Summer 2012 issue explores Austin’s dive bar culture, looks into the future of packaged beer, has brewers’ opinions on wheat beer, describes the best and worst drinking holes of New Braunfels, has a profile on Austin’s newest brewery, Rogness Brewing, and has an interview with award winning brewer, Brian “Swifty” Peters of Uncle Billy’s.
The brilliant editors of Austin Beer Guide are calling the release party “PATIO-BEER-MAGEDON!” The bash will, of course, feature a sea of casked, kegged and canned rare and special beers. Austin Beerworks will be debuting their Summer seasonal berliner weisse Eisenhorn,Hops & Grain will bring a keg of Barelywine, a first of the Volumes of Oak series, Jester King will have a cask of their Drinkin’ the Sunbeltcollaboration beer with Danish Gyspsy brewer Mikkeller and Live Oak will bring a rare, secret and unnamed cask of mystery beer.
I can’t imagine you need an additional reason to go grab a beer than the amazing line up of brews the good folks at Austin Beer Guide have lined up, but they are also throwing in free, collectible Austin Beer Guide #Brewmore or BeerTownAustin ‘Stache glasses.
“No, no, no! Do not write about this place! We don’t want people to know about it. This is the place where you bring a date and really impress her because you are ‘in the know.’ Don’t tell anyone about this f@%&ing place!” Customer, Zack Fuentes emphatically discouraged me from spreading the word about the newly opened The Red Room Lounge. He wants it to stay unknown and exclusive.
He’s right that the wine lounge is so far only frequented by wine aficionados who are in the know. There’s no sign out front, there was no media blitz or even a press release announcing its opening and it isn’t even listed on Citysearch yet.
Here’s your insider tip: the Red Room Lounge is located at 306 E 3rd St. in downtown, Austin, just down the street from the Convention Center and two doors east of the Vince Young Steakhouse. You don’t have to have a password to get in. Yet.
One reason the wine crowd is drawn to The Red Room Lounge is because its owner, Alex Andrawes, has created a chill, speakeasy-like atmosphere for people to enjoy a few glasses of great wine. The red velvet draped entrance gives it an elegant, hushed feel. There are nicely arranged conversation areas and dark nooks for lovers to steal a kiss or two. Another reason is this is a place where both wine experts and novices can learn something new. Not only is Andrawes a wine expert, but he hired Texas’ Best Sommelier 2011, Bill Elsey, who brings incredible wine knowledge and a deft touch for sharing that insight without making people feel stupid.
The lounge grew out of Andrawes’ other wine businesses, Personal Wine, started in 2000, and Wines.com, started in 2008. He explained the origins of the lounge, “I was tasting wine with Bill Elsey and a group of sommeliers and wine drinkers in the lounge. Everyone thought it was a great space and suggested we should open it up to provide by-the-bottle or glass service. It’s cozy, a great place to be private and feel special. It’s almost like your personal cellar away from home… That’s why we call it a lounge rather than a bar. Our focus is wine, great conversation and great company.”
Judging by the feedback from guests, they hit the mark. Amelia Castilla said, “It’s secretive. It’s private. It’s like you have to have a secret handshake to get in.” Baubak Askari likes the individual attention saying, “The service is very personal. It’s so cozy it feels like I’m drinking wine at home, but I’m out.”
The Red Room Lounge stocks a wide selection of wines by the bottle including some private label and boutique wines that Andrawes sourced on trips to the wine country. Guests can choose to buy a bottle with a selection of more than 500 labels and more than 3,000 bottles, and take home anything they don’t drink in the lounge. They also offer eight to 10 wines by the glass with a menu that changes regularly. Currently they have interesting pours like Spätburgunder, Oxidized Rioja Blanc, and 1989 Chateau Lynch-Bages.
There are a bucket of wine bars downtown to choose from, so it’s damn important to have an interesting selection of wines that appeal to a broad audience.Andrawes said, “That’s the greatest thing about getting Texas’ Best Sommelier Bill Elsey in as the leader of the pack. I let Bill manage the wine selection in the front room. I’m responsible for maintaining the vintage cellar so I select rarities with wines we believe in. Wines must deliver quality first, price second.”
Elsey described his approach to wine buying, “I taste often and make it a priority to build relationships with the wine rep’s who work with me. I take tasting with my distributors very seriously. Those whom I buy the most wine from understand my palate and what I am looking for, which are wines that over-deliver for their price point and taste of the place they are from. In the Lounge, if you are spending $90 on a Châteauneuf-du-Pape you know it is an awesome bottle for what you paid. The same can be said for the $29 bottle of dry Riesling. I also like to have a diverse selection of wines from traditional, as well as esoteric grapes and regions.”
They have some pretty amazing wine in the cellar. Andrawes gave me a tour and pulled out bottle after bottle of rare and collectable wine like Screaming Eagle, 1982 Chateau Haut Brion, 1955 Taylor’s Vintage Port and the mack-daddy 1989 magnum of Petrus. He grabbed a bottle of 2005 Gargiulo Vineyards Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon for me to try. I needed a moment.
While the wine selection is large, that’s all you can expect. They do not serve beer, cocktails or anything else. They don’t prepare food on premise, but have service agreements with restaurants within a two block radius that will bring you cheese plates, hors d’oeuvres and light eats. The Red Room will host private parties and arrange for catering.
The lounge was starting to fill up with guests by the time we came out of the cellar. Elsey poured a selection of wines by the glass at the bar unobtrusively tucked in a back corner, while Andrawes circulated around the lounge tempting guests with prime selections from the cellar. Edward Morgan liked that touch saying, “They have a great portfolio of wine. Things you won’t get anywhere else.”
Nash Garrison was visiting for the first time and was happy to discover a new place near his home. “I love it. Being in the neighborhood, I want to go somewhere to chill out and have a drink. Going to a lounge underground is cool.” It is literally cool in there — around 65 degrees — which will be especially nice when its 100 degrees outside.
Return visitor Adi Pavlovic likes the unhurried pace. “The last time we were here we bought two bottles, sat on the couch and didn’t get up for hours. You can’t do that any other place in town.”
I got caught up in the easy pace too. It was one of those nights where I knew I was tempting a hangover to carve a jagged gash in my morning skull, but I didn’t care and ordered one more glass of Champagne. The crowd was relaxed, conversations were flowing as easily as the wine and the couch sucked me in.
Nagging thoughts about an early morning at work eventually pulled me off the couch. As I was finally leaving Elsey got a call from a group planning to drop in and kick off their late night revelry at the Red Room. He had a gleam in his eye anticipating a flock of wine aficionados encamping in his den until the wee hours. There is nothing better than long conversations with friends over wine. What a dream job.
Just as we are entering the “hot as Hell” phase of summer, a cool breeze called the Texas Tiki Week blows in. Starting this Sunday, June 24, 2012, at 4pm gallons of rum will be spilled down gullets in bars around Austin. Grab your coconut bras, grass skirts and get ready to get laid, oh I mean leid.
Organized by the Austin Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG), Texas Tiki Week gets shaking at three North Loop bars with luau-inspired cocktails, like the Toucan Sam and the Sunset Fizz. A few concoctions from Dame Jessica Sanders, the Drink.Well mixtress, caught my fancy:
Rick(e)y Martin-ique: La Vida Loca WILL be lived during Texas Tiki Week!
Rhum Agricole, Kaffir Lime Cordial, Fresh Lime, Club Soda
Pass the Tabu: Named for the iconic Brady Brunch episode where a discovered tiki idol wreaks havoc on the Brady family’s Hawaiian vacation.
The Snail: The Tipsy Texan’s legendary pre-batched punch with over a dozen ingredients. This bad boy will be sold in small punch cups, while supplies last and ONLY on Sunday. Beware, this one will leave you feeling hazy and moving slow as a snail the next day.
Don Q Anejo Rum, Calvados, Cruzan Black Strap Rum, Pear Liqueur, Cachaca, Domaine de Canton, Balcones Rumble Aperol, Hum Botanical Liqueur, Lime, Lemon, Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters
Dame Jessica said, “I am particularly fascinated by the fact that despite the island overtones, ‘tiki’ was (and still is) at its core an American pop-culture phenomenon, cuisine and aesthetic. The cocktail menus that folks will see at Drink.Well. and across Austin’s other USBG venues will represent the exotic, fun and perhaps even quirky aspects of the tiki cocktail renaissance. We’ve certainly got a fantastic selection of rums and rhum agricoles in each of our tool boxes to play. And, secretly, I hope I see at least one person rock coconut bra next week!”
Drink.Well will have traditional Tiki glassware, leis and Texas Tiki Week t-shirts available for sale for $10. The bar will also show various “…Goes to Hawaii” American TV shows all night, including “Save by the Bell: Hawaiian Style.”
Monday, June 25th – USBG ‘Members Only’ Happy Hour & Boat Cruise, departs from Hula Hut.
Tuesday, June 26th – A special daytime educational event with Ed Hamilton (Location TBA), followed by debauchery at The Volstead Lounge converted into Justin Elliot’s Rhum Bar, from 7pm until the hulu skirts start falling off.
Wednesday, June 27th – Jason Stevens will kick his infamous Tiki menu at Bar Congress into high gear for Tiki Week.
Thursday, June 28th – Contigo Austin will host a Texas Luau featuring cocktails from Drink Local 2011 winner Houston Eaves and his team plus the always terrific food from Contigo’s chef, Andrew Wiseheart.
Saturday, June 30th – USBG Austin will close it out right with a Tiki Block Party at Noble Pig with polynesian sandwich specials, complimentary cocktails and one helluva good time.
How many things have you done just because you were forbidden to do them? Have you ever inhaled? Have you ever fooled around with a married person who isn’t wearing a ring you gave them? Oh, you’re that guy. The one who would have eaten the apple. I bet you wish absinthe were still illegal so you could justify dancing with the green fairy every night.
It’s still a fascinating drink, even if it isn’t forbidden. More than a century ago, the magical elixir was believed by the likes of many—including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Vincent van Gogh—to inspire creativity and bring a sense of clarity and mental acuity. Absinthe was legally prohibitted in 1912 because it was believe to have hallucinogenic effects from thujone, a byproduct of the distillation of its main ingredient, wormwood. There is even a ritual of adding ice cold water to absinthe called la louche, which turns the liquor milky and unlocks the flavors of the herbs.
But in March 2007 the almost century-old injunction against absinthe was overturned when chemist and absinthe enthusiast, Ted Breaux debunked the idea that absinthe was laden with mind-altering concentrations of thujone armed with scientific proof that the spirit was no more dangerous than any other booze.
Breaux also created the first absinthe legally imported into the United States, Lucid Absinthe Supérieure and recently shared his views about the forbidden spirit’s new found acceptance in the United States.
What Are You Drinking?: Why was absinthe banned in the first place?
Breaux: “The accusations levied against absinthe in the 19th century were concocted in an attempt to demonize the entire category, mostly for reasons of economic competition. The only absinthes that were truly deserving of a bad reputation a century ago were cheap, inferior versions that were industrially prepared from chemical adulterants.”
What Are You Drinking?: How did you become interested in absinthe?
Breaux: “I became interested in absinthe in 1993, when a colleague of mine mentioned it in a passing comment. Like most New Orleanians, I knew The Old Absinthe House on Bourbon St., and never put much thought into it. Upon delving into the subject, I was astounded by the dubious information that surrounded it. It seemed odd to me that the subject of so much speculation could be so poorly understood.”
What Are You Drinking?: What was your inspiration for making Lucid Absinthe?
Breaux: “Lucid emerged as an answer to the challenge to distill absinthe on a scale that had not been done since 1915. With our success in overturning the U.S. ban on absinthe, we needed a truly hand-crafted absinthe that would set a standard for quality and authenticity while satisfying the entire U.S. market. Lucidis that product.”
What Are You Drinking?: Does Lucid take its name from the effects of thujone?
Breaux: “Lucid derives its name from a common observation amongst experienced absinthe connoisseurs that drinking absinthe gives one an impression of mental acuity or lucidity, despite the expected effects from the alcohol. Modern science has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that any such perceived sensations from absinthe are not due to thujone. Notions to the contrary are but old wives tale at this point in time.”
What Are You Drinking?: How did you determine the right amount of thujone to include in Lucid? Was that based on determining thujone levels in your tests of antique, pre-prohibition bottles of absinthe?
What Are You Drinking?: “We distill Lucidentirely from whole herbs, including historically accurate amounts of Artemisia absinthium (grand wormwood), and strictly adhere to 19th century distillation methods. This alone determines the content of the final product. While the practice of cheap manufacturing remains widespread today, one will not find any indication of food coloring, sugar, or any other additives within the fine print on our labels. We neither waste our time nor yours with such fakery. We distill herbs.”
What Are You Drinking?: Why is Lucid distilled in France rather than in the U.S.?
Breaux: “Lucid is distilled in France partly because I was distilling absinthe at the Combier distillery in France long before we re-legalized it in the U.S. However, nowhere in the U.S. can I find an intact distillery designed by Gustave Eiffel, with original 130 year-old absinthe distilling equipment present and functional like at Combier. The Combier is unique in that regard, and has been featured on the show Modern Marvels on The History Channel. Furthermore, certain materials I use are virtually impossible to source in the U.S. Relocating to the U.S. would create more problems than it solves.”
What Are You Drinking?: Do you have any tips for preparation if I don’t have a slotted silver spoon and an absinthe fountain for the louche?
Breaux: “With a quality absinthe, sugar was always optional. Most experienced absinthe connoisseurs, omitted it. Always use iced water, pour it slowly, and add just enough to render the absinthe completely cloudy typically makes the best drink. The louche that emerges when ice water is added to absinthe is due to certain herbal essences being soluble in alcohol, but insoluble in water. Genuine absinthe is a very concentrated product, and must be bottled at relatively high proof. Diluting concentrated absinthe with cold water causes its herbal content to precipitate in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, which evolved into the French absinthe ritual.”
Breaux’s descriptions of absinthe made me want a glass almost as badly as I did when it was forbidden. In Austin you can find Lucid and a wide selection of other fine absinthes at The Austin Wine Merchant, Specs and other respectable shops.
Or you could go to Peché Austin, which has a selection of 14 or more brands of absinthe and the set-ups to serve it correctly. Owner, Rob Pate, is a walking encyclopedia of pre-prohibition craft cocktails and an absinthe aficionado. He can tell you anything you might want to know about its history, the taste profile of French versus Swiss versus U.S. varieties and recommend good ones to try.
I went in for one of the all-day happy hours, which they have on Sundays and Mondays, serving $5 cocktails and half-off menu items. Chef Jason Dodge brought out first of the season tomatoes from Springdale Farms, and muscles with fries and house made mustard and ketchup. Rob dropped by and recommended two absinthes that are new to the menu.
First I triedVieux Pontarlier Absinthe Française Superiéure. This quintessentially French absinthe is made with grape-based spirits. It has a light emerald with milky louche, a creamy anise aroma, with a fruity anise flavor that is sweet enough to drink without added sugar. Even though it packs a walloping 65 percent alcohol, it’s elegant and smooth as a kitten’s cheek.
Next I had Mansinthe, a brand of absinthe developed and marketed by shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Mansinthe is yellow green with a milky louche that gets watery at the edge. It is a grain based spirit that smells floral and fruity with black licorice. The flavor is as bold and jarring as Manson’s music with racy alcohol and fennel. After downing a glass, I had the inexplicable urge to scream the opening lyrics from the Manson song, “Cake and Sodomy.” That must be the absinthe effect.
Even though absinthe is perfectly legal, isn’t hallucinogenic and may not even make you artistic, it’s still wrapped in mystique. Whether you pick up the first legal absinthe in the U.S., Lucid, or make your way through the menu at Peché, it is an adventure to see if you experience the absinthe effect.
Now there is no need to get wasted, err, be wasteful, when drinking wine. Whole Foods Market is the first grocery retailer in U.S. to sell wine on tap in reusable “Old Schooler” containers. “Now you have a way to maintain your wine consumption, get better value and reduce your impact,” explains Charles Bieler of The Gotham Project, whose kegged wine is featured on tap at Bar Lamar, in the flagship Whole Foods Market, located 6th and Lamar Blvd in Austin.
Bar Lamar has had wine on tap since it opened. That’s pretty cool in itself if you think about how much packaging waste that eliminates in bottles, labels, corks and foil neck wrappers. According to Bieler, 70 percent of all glass heads straight to the landfill, accounting for 10 percent of the total weight of the trash. Not only are the containers wasteful, but the majority are made overseas meaning the bottles have to travel thousands of miles before they are even filled. Then bottles make up 50 percent of the weight of shipping wine before we get to drink it.
Now Whole Foods has taken the next step in helping us drink responsibly with the to-go wine containers they are affectionately calling “Old Schoolers.” The name refers to the way people in places like Spain, Italy, Argentina and Croatia take their own jugs to the neighborhood winery to fill ‘em up and take ‘em home to drink. “Reusing is a whole lot better than recycling. We live in a world of finite resources,” says Bieler.
The whole idea of creating the “Old Schoolers” program came about around two years ago over beers at the Mean Eyed Cat. Devon Broglie, Whole Foods Market’s Master Sommelier, wanted to sell Bieler’s wine at Bar Lamar in the new keg and tap system. Bieler, a staunch advocate of alternative and eco-friendly wine packaging, was initially challenged reluctant to keg his wine. Broglie challenged Bieler’s manhood with some choice words and eventually convinced him to change his mind.
That personal commitment led to Gotham Project wines being the only wines on tap for the inaugural run of the “Old Schoolers” pouring. They will be there for the indefinite future while supplies last. Six wines on tap are available by the glass or to go in three sizes of glass containers at pretty damned good prices:
12 ounce Mason jars for $5.99 and $1.99 for the jar (two glasses of wine)
32 ounce bottle for $12.99 and $2.99 for the bottle (a little more than a traditional bottle of wine which is about 25 ounces)
64 ounce growler for $19.99 and $4.99 for the container (roughly equivalent to two and half bottles of wine)
As cool as it is to be environmentally conscious and take home wine in a nifty package, it’s really all about the wine. Hell, you can’t drink an empty bottle. The Gotham Project has a portfolio of more than 25 wines sourced from around the world. The wines currently on tap are:
2011 Central Standard White, High Plains of Texas, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Rousanne and Chenin Blanc
2010 Charles & Charles Riesling, from the Columbia Valley, Washington
2011 Charles & Charles Rose, Columbia Valley, Washington
2010 Pacific Standard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley and Santa Ridge Hills, California
2010 Charles & Charles Red Blend, Columbia Valley, Washington, a blend of 50 percent Merlot, 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Syrah
2010 Pacific Standard “Old Vine” Zinfandel, Lodi, Amador, Napa and Sonoma, California
Broglie ceremoniously poured the first Old Schooler, the Central Standard White, a Texas wine made by Kim McPherson, winemaker at McPherson Cellars. Being a patriotic Texan, I grabbed a bottle of the blend to take home. This is a delightful summer sipper with honeysuckle scent, ripe Fredericksburg peach and lemon zest flavors and perky acidity. The bright citrus and lush stone fruit make it a charming wine to serve with grilled fish tacos. I’m going to take my bottle back and work my way through the lineup.
Head over to Bar Lamar and try out one of the wines by the glass before you commit to a full growler. If you aren’t headed straight home after purchasing your wine, head over to the fish counter and ask for a bag of ice to keep your wine from cooking in your car (extra points if you spit out the phrase “bag of issse” like Adrock in the song “High Plains Drifter.”).
The Old Schooler packaging is only available at the Whole Foods location at 6th and Lamar for now. They hope to expand the program to other stores in the future.