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What Are You Drinking, Camper English?
If you do any cocktail-related reading, you've probably seen the name Camper English before. He's the man behind Alcademics, which covers spirits and cocktails in general as well as sharing news on the Bay area bar scene. He's now the Contributing Drinks Editor at Saveur, and spirits editor for FSR Magazine, plus he writes for scores of other publications. We checked in with Camper about what he's drinking these days, what cocktail trends he's tired of, and where he sees cocktails going next.
What're you drinking these days, Camper English?
Lately I've been drinking a lot of American whiskey, because I've been writing and speaking about it more. It's a category I've struggled with—I never felt like I really "got" it from a tasting perspective and felt unqualified to judge one brand against another, but finally a few hundred bottles later I'm in the zone and making up for lost time.
Last night I was researching amari for a forthcoming magazine story and so I went to a pizzeria and crammed a huge slice in my face as fast as I could, so I could take advantage of the bitter liqueurs' digestive benefits. I pretty much plan my eating around my drinking these days.
What Bay Area bars do you go to frequently?
Dalva Hideout, which is the best closest bar to my house. It was my local-local bar for years, and then they built a cocktail bar in the back of it. It's my default bar for both cocktails and cheap Mexican beer.
Besides Dalva Hideout, I probably appear the most at Jasper's Corner Tap. It's open all day downtown so it's good for meeting people, it's casual, they have a great cocktail menu and a greasy grilled cheese sandwich for absorbing booze if you've been drinking already. Beyond that I like going to Trick Dog when it first opens at 3 p.m. and though I don't get there often enough I still love me some Bar Agricole. But I've been busy just trying to keep up with all the new bars opening lately—running around to them all to see what they're doing, so I'm spending less time in any one bar.
How did you get into the drinks-writing business in the first place?
I was an unemployed software engineer in 2001 so I started writing bar and club reviews to help with the rent. Then in 2006 I could see where this cocktail renaissance was going so I changed my focus to study the cocktails and spirits rather than just the bars. Long story short: I always liked drinking so I found a way to get paid to do it.
What spirits and brands are you excited about right now?
For the last year I've been really excited about water: mineral water, carbonated water, and how they affect what they're mixed with. And I feel like I'm going to be really into Armagnac in 2014.
Armagnac can be more wild, herbaceous, and rustic than cognac and it shows through in cocktails, though I'll admit part of my excitement about it is that it's a lesser-known category in the US so there is a lot to discover. At Bar Agricole [in San Francisco] they have a ton of it right now.
What cocktail trends are you tired of?
I like bitter spirits and cocktails as much as the next person, but it seems lately I keep getting drinks that don't balance the bitter against sweetness. They taste like waking up with dry mouth in the morning. Also the mezcal thing has gotten a little out of hand.
What trends do you anticipate going forward?
I think we'll continue to see bulk format craft cocktails—on tap, in punches, bottled, carbonated, shareable, etc. And then I think we'll see a backlash against them when the bartenders can't make fresh versions of the same drink to order.
The lower-alcohol trend is going to continue and spread (grab a copy of Dinah Sander's gorgeous book Art of the Shim) as an alternative to all the crazy boozy drinks on menus and I am really happy about it—as long as the drinks are priced accordingly. That trend is bolstered by the new attention to vermouth and sherry and those categories are really exciting right now.
Can you tell us about any favorites in the vermouth and sherry categories?
For sherries, I'm just happy to see it used in cocktails as it's such a great and versatile ingredient. Some interesting small-import products are hitting the market too, like the Equipo Navazos sherries and Alexander Jules selections. The Spanish Table in Berkeley is the place to shop for it [in the Bay Area].
For vermouth I do love the Imbue from Portland (it will be on tap at TBD [the new restaurant from the AQ team]) and the locally-made Sutton Cellars, but I'm also really excited about the new La Quintinye Vermouth Royal from the G'Vine gin folks—I just tried it in Berlin and it's delicious; made with a base of Pineau des Charentes.