I appreciate talented Beijing bartenders who will indulge the nonconformist requests of customers like me. Last year, Paul Mathew came through not once, not twice, but at least a dozen times. Whether it involved unusual drink items, strange combinations or rarely seen technology, I enjoyed trying those concoctions, even more so when they tasted good. And I can safely say that seeing Mathew in action is like watching a wild-haired maniacally laughing mad scientist — without the unkempt do, lack of restraint and crazy.
Anyway, here is a “top five” of drinks that helped distinguish last year from any other for me. And I should note that these are not representative of the cocktails Mathew usually makes — I recommend his Passionate Englishman, Sazerac and Smoky Martini, among others. These are drinks simply made for fun.
With my computer in the repair shop and an hour to spend before picking it up, I stopped at a supermarket (I think it was “Wu Mart”), moseyed about and happened upon a one-liter bottle of Changyu Vermouth. My annual home use of Vermouth — both imported and domestic — is zero milliliters so I called Mathew to see if he had any interest in the bottle. He did, I grabbed it, and the next day at Flamme I enjoyed a local twist on a Fighting Cock Manhattan.
A few days after Laurent Greco came to town and got out his smoke gun for some cocktail classes, Mathew brought his own into Flamme for a long afternoon / evening of experimentation. He immolated everything from mint tea to powdered coffee in order to infuse everything from wine to Bourbon. Most of it smelled like plain old smoke, including the raspberry tea I brought — not even a hint of fruit. But the rose tea-infused Hendrick’s gin martini? That one stood out.
Mathew brought a bottle of ginseng liquor to a guest bartender session at Mao Mao Chong and I asked if he would take a drink we tried earlier and include some North Korean spirit in order to, hopefully, get a candied ginseng effect. The result might better be described as “dirty candy”, but the drink — dubbed the Licensed to Kim Jong-Ill — tasted OK. One part each of Wild Turkey, ginseng liquor, Campari and Vermouth. We tried a few other experiments, including a Kim Gin-Il Tonic, but these were less inspiring both in terms of taste and nomenclature.
I like Buffalo wings. I like martinis. I dream of merging them — with some blue cheese-stuffed olives as garnish. Some people reacted to this idea as though I had suggested support for panda hunting, painting the Great Wall, and serving baijiu in elementary schools. Chill out, cocktail aficionados. Anyway, Andy Bright at Union provided the wings, Mathew used them to infuse the vodka, and the resulting martini would at best be described as “interesting“. Hmmm. Maybe I should use Bourbon next time. By the way, when I told frequent drinking buddy Mr Hao — who considers a glass of cold vodka to be a “martini” — about this top five, he suggested putting the “nefarious” Buffalo Wing cocktail as number one, much as Time magazine once made Hitler its “Man of the Year“. Alack and alas, I saved that spot for another drink, mainly because it represents the kind of fun that ensues from an impromptu night out — my favorite kind.
If memory serves, it was a gray and murky day, one of those [insert scary number] parts per million deals where you needed a drink to help wash away reality, if even for a few moments. I ended up at Flamme, it wasn’t too busy, and Mathew made some concoctions based on names I threw at him — I remember one of them being The Green Lung. But the one that still makes me laugh turned out to be Titanic II. The movie falls into the “so bad you can’t stop watching it” category, thus, in terms of quality, the ratio between it and this drink is almost immeasurably high. Almost. I was able to calculate it at 142. Anyway, this concoction, with tequila and two kinds of bitters, is a favorite since it includes both the iceberg (an apple juice ice ball) and the ship (the garnish). Check out the peel — you don’t see craftsmanship like that any more.
People like to make jokes about people in China who mix wine with Coke even though this practice is common in other countries (see Spain et al) and makes sense especially if the wine is, let’s say, lacking — and lots of local plonk is. Anyway, Mathew actually agreed to promote the combo one night (see photo above) at a superb happy hour price of rmb13 — no charge for the Coke.
- Titanic II: Now a cocktail complete with ship and iceberg
- Spice up your life? The Buffalo Wing Martini Experiment
- Licensed to Kim Jong-Ill: Where Kentucky Bourbon meets Korean liquor
- Where’s there’s smoke, there’s Flamme: Paul Mathew gets out his gun
- Sips in Beijing: Changyu Vermouth, Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon, Schorsch Lager
- Flamme special: Beaujolais Nouveau and Coke at RMB13 per glass