Monday, May 3, 2010

FIAT LUX: And There Was Light

HERE WE ARE on Monday, April 26th, and it’s raining heavier than the drains can bear. I jump in a car right outside my posto di lavoro. The driver knows me, I say “Hello Kimchi!” Half a mile later, I realize I’ve forgotten the very thing.

Cursing mildly, I wistfully put it down to the mists of my mind brought about by the fluid in my eyes. We double-back, I collect the goods, and return to the company of Joe Baxi, who has in the meanwhile set about checking under the hood. “We’re going to East 9th Street,” I reassign, “9th at Avenue C. For real this time.” I check my lid, and it’s still dry.

So we motor across town and I jump out five minutes before requested time of arrival, enough it seems for a sheltered cigarette in the doorway of Louis 649. Inside, at the very corner of the bar, sits Fredo. He can no doubt see me, but the man knows how to hold down real estate. I leave him to it, instead shaking hands with the manager, one Gianfranco Verga, who on his way by set for me (and you) the scene...

Cocktail competitions are a dime a dozen these days, but all of them are geared only to bartenders and industry people. We believe at Louis 649 that ‘Anyone can be a mixologist’, and we’re putting this theory to the test in our first ever Consumer Cocktail competition, strictly prohibiting bartenders from participating. We received over 70 submissions, and they were all viable. Tonight, the best 10 duke it out. It's going to be a battle.”

What’s your criteria? Can anyone make anything?

“No, they have to incorporate as a base spirit any one from Beefeater Gin, Becherovka Herbal Liqueur, Chivas Regal 12yr Scotch, Jameson Irish Whiskey, Luksusowa Vodka, Martell Cognac, Pernod Absinthe, Plymouth Gin, Ramazzotti Amaro, or Ricard Pastis. They have to prepare their drink in front of the judges who will then decide on a winning entry based on the recipe’s creativity, ease of preparation, flavor and balance.”

Sounds good. I hold open the door, follow him in, and slide a solid shake into the hand of Our Kid. To my fast delight, I learn there is a punch being prepared, and then, as if to broaden my smile I spot across from me a stirring Mr. Damon Dyer: among the most erudite and accomplished of the city’s best bartenders. A top man is Damon, with the humility that always underpins a fine craftsman of prospective greatness.

This night promises much.

Already the room is filling with the field and company. To my immediate right sits Selena Ricks, known to many as the brains and beauty behind the Dizzy Fizz blog. Way in the back is perched the pretty Kathleen "K-Rey" Reynolds and her husband Eugene who has been drafted into paparazzi duty. At the other end of the bar, apparently with her posse, lurks Rosemary Gray. There’s a lot of peering going on, a bit of the old ‘psyching-out’: it’s a mind game meme.

Warming to their theme, I create a distance of being – the motive to unsettle any of Fredo’s competition - if only by parlaying a distracting intrigue: ‘til I realize I have no idea of who's competing. So I ask Mr. Dyer for the list of participants, and he passes to me a crisp sheet with these names and their accompanying drink entries in bottle green:

Aaron Sugiura - The Apricot Muse
David Brenner - The Epice Cocktail
Fredo - The Cinquecento
Jesse Schomer - Episkey!
Joseph Sannicandro - Pear Presbyterian
Kathleen Reynolds - Strawbasil Fields
Kyle Burgess - Avec Trois
Rosemary Gray - The Black Pearl
Selena Ricks - The Merchant's Mistress
Zachary Moss - The Ginger Rabbit

For a good while after this, I utter nothing to anyone but Fredo and Mr. Dyer, and even then only in mere whispers of code. I now recognize the occasion as the moment our Fredo will have to turn over his cards. Thus, my role is to make his adversaries feel like they will have to bluff to steal.

Soon enough, the bar has filled with the amateur bartenders and their supporters, and so without any further ado, Louis 649 owner, Zachary Sharaga, calls to order the attention of the room. The contestants will step behind the bar two at a time. They’ll be granted 10 minutes to create five original cocktails: four for the judges, and one to be tested by the gathered loyal! Until this moment, I had tasted punch after punch after money punch, in a kind of preempted Sugar Shane simulacrum. So they won’t have to invite me twice to straw-test each creation: us loungers dig experimental libations.

At this very instant of rapture, Ms. Jee Jee Giles and Ivan Vartanian, editors of my first book, arrive. Whenever those two combine, there ensues a whirligig of flashes. And so as each nervy finalist takes their turn ‘behind the stick’, we would be watching them to a soundtrack of ‘click, clickety, click’. With Jee Jee and IV playing Nikon tag, I quiz Fredo about The Cinquecento. “It’s vodka-based, with Luksusowa. I wanted to test myself with that and also to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Benedictine, which like Campari (and of course, FIAT), is from Torino. It also has grapefruit juice, and originally I used grapefruit bitters, but Angostura Bitters work better. I’ll garnish it with a grapefruit peel. It's the new aperitivo!”

There is no more time for easy distraction. Fredo’s up. The clicks stop. First, he clears a space in front of him. Then he sets forth on elaborating to the judges what it is he is making - the symbolism of the FIAT Cinquecento. We three in his corner marvel at his composure, though perhaps the most striking aspect of the whole spectacle is our instinctively recognizing that here is a bloke, our friend, absolutely in his element. Sure, anybody can be a mixologist, but not any one can be a natural as a bartender.

The drinks look delicious, they are measured to perfection, the time is not an issue, the judges watch in anticipation, they are noting his technique and approving of his station. And then the coup de grace: he pulls out that 'very thing’, four personalized coasters with the iconic motor car, and, with a graceful hand, he signs them ‘Cin Cin!’ He presents the drinks. His cards are now turned over. FREDO IS ALL IN.

Some thirty-five minutes later, after a long discussion and lively debate, the four judges tinkle their glasses - ready to declare a victor. They praise the exceptional quality of each entry, with Zachary Sharaga adding, "I may be out of a job before the end of the night," Gianfranco Verga claiming with great satisfaction and delight, "I think we proved our theory that ANYONE could be a mixologist," Glenn Lucci says "I do not think I'd place in the Top 8 if I had submitted a cocktail," and finally Mr. Dyer discloses, “These cocktails could be on the list of the best bars in New York City.”

The tension is rising. We are down to the nitty-gritty.

“In third place,” announces Sharaga, while Fred’s shoulders tighten, “Kyle Burgess and the Avec Trois.” The crowd hoots as Mr. Burgess blushes his thrill. “In second place,” booms the increasingly wry Sharaga, “is Jesse Schomer’s Episkey!”

At this juncture we’re informed that both of the runners up will, like the winner, have their cocktails featured on the Spring menu, while also receiving the much coveted Plymouth Gin Bartending Kit. As the first runner up, Schomer is also given a one-year subscription to Imbibe Magazine. These are serious prizes. The winner takes home a $100 gift card too.

The atmosphere is joyous, but I am nervous, as there were a good number of cleverly crafted, quite tremendous-tasting entries. This is wide open, I sense, and it really could be anyone’s. ‘Goodness me,’ I eek, ‘I hope you aren’t driving The Cinquecento off to some local scrap yard after this...’

“The winner,” interrupts Sharaga, and the room falls into a slow trance, “who shall receive a Plymouth Gin Bartending Kit, a one-year subscription to Imbibe Magazine, a $100 Gift Card to your friendly neighborhood Louis 649, and pride of place on our Spring menu is... The Cinquecento by Fredo!”

We are stunned. Jee Jee and I can do nothing but slap Fredo on the back! Hard! Quite a lot! But he hasn’t even reacted! Fortunately, the ever-eloquent Mr. Dyer is asked to explain how the judges came to their decision.

“Crafting a complex and nuanced cocktail using vodka as your base spirit is a challenge. Often, such attempts fall flat, or are lost in a sea of juice. The Cinquecento suffered from neither malady. It was, simply put, a perfectly crafted, well-balanced cocktail. The Campari and grapefruit are natural bedfellows, and were balanced nicely by the spice and honey notes of the Benedictine. Fredo chose well to build this on a foundation of vodka, as a way of letting the other flavors shine. Of the many outstanding cocktails presented, this one stood out. Well done, sir, well done.”

And so there is nothing left to add, other than to ask that you please make haste to Louis 649 this coming season... If, like me, you haven't taken a vodka drink in awhile, now we can’t say no. Just remember to order The Ching-Kwi-CHEN-Toh!

The winning recipes (in reverse order)

Avec Trois
2 oz. Plymouth Gin
1 oz. Lustau "Los Arcos" Dry Amontillado Sherry
.5 oz. St. Germaine Elderflower Liqueur
1 barspoon Pernod Absinthe

Rinse a rocks glass with Pernod Absinthe and discard. Fill shaker with ice, add Gin, Sherry, and elderflower liqueur and stir. Strain into the Absinthe-rinsed rocks glass over fresh ice. Squeeze lemon oil onto the cocktail and drop in for garnish.
1oz Martel Cognac
1oz Applejack
1oz Carpano Antica Formulae
3/4oz Amaro Meletti
2-3 dashes Regan's Orange Bitters

Shake vigorously with ice and serve in the glass of your choice. Top with a dash of Angostura bitters. Place on the counter in front of you and clearly speak the incantation "Episkey!" while gesturing your hand forward, as with a magic wand.
The Cinquecento
1 1/2 oz Luksusowa Vodka
1/2 oz DOM Benedictine
1/2 oz Campari
3/4 Grapefruit juice
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Combine in bar glass, add ice, and shake rigorously until chilled. Double Strain into a coupe and garnish with grapefruit peel.

- Graeme


  1. Wow, I was browsing for Fiat news and I stumbled across this. Many congratulations to Fredo. :) This definitely the most unique story that I've seen Fiat crop up in. :)

    Fiat's city cars have so much personality. I can't see many other cars giving people much inspiration.

  2. Was so much fun! Excellent recap, and I look forward to drinking Fredo's cocktail at Louis soon!!