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Hey, Bartender 

When it comes to drinks and drinking, Robert Plotkin has all the answers.

What famous American liqueur was originally marketed in 1875 in New Orleans as 'cuff and buttons'?"

The answer is Southern Comfort, which barman M.W. Herron created and named after an upscale reference to white tie and tails. Herron eventually moved to St. Louis and renamed his concoction Southern Comfort.

Noted beverage author Robert Plotkin answers that question and a thousand more in his upcoming book, 1001 Questions Every Bartender and Lounge Lizard Should Know How to Answer, and during his appearances at this weekend's Southern Comfort Tales of the Cocktail. The second annual event celebrates New Orleans' two favorite pastimes -- dining and drinking -- and will feature lectures, dinners and tours at various French Quarter locations.

Plotkin is a veteran of the food-and-beverage industry, growing up in a family of restaurateurs. "My parents never wanted me to get into the beverage end of it. So, my first day at college that's exactly what I did," says Plotkin. Working his way from bar-back to bar guru, he fell in love with the dynamic of the business, which he describes as, "kind of as complicated as a V-8 engine to keep tuned."

This week Plotkin, a self-described "idiot savant," will put that wide-ranging knowledge to the test, from hosting a private industry seminar Thursday afternoon at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum to leading a rum-tasting dinner later that evening at Tujague's. There, he will sign the latest edition of his book The Original Guide to American Cocktails and Drinks, which comes in full and pocket size. His new book, 1001 Questions Š, will not be available yet but should be in stores by the end of the year.

Plotkin gathers most of his information the old-fashioned way -- on the street, or rather in the bar. So it's not surprising that he loves New Orleans. He claims that the Napoleon House serves a better Pimm's Cup than its European birthplace, and he always visits Brennan's for its famous milk punch. However, it's off the beaten path that Plotkin really hits his stride.

"One of my favorite things to do in any city is seek out favorite haunts and ask the bartender, 'What do you do really well here?'" says Plotkin. In New Orleans, he finds such spots by walking down Decatur Street seeking out places that look "just a touch seedy."

Of course, much of Plotkin's time in New Orleans during this trip will be in the more refined Decatur Street environs of Tujague's. Plotkin worked with the old-line restaurant to create a rum tasting dinner that should give diners both tastes of old New Orleans and sips from around the globe. Offerings include a Kingston Royale that will be served with shrimp remoulade and a lemon cosmopolitan that will be served with a crab and spinach bisque.

Plotkin says he thinks more about the human response when creating a menu than any deep philosophies. For example, when he decided on the Kingston Royale, a mixture of rum, lime juice, lemonade and 7-Up, as his first drink, he thought, "They are coming in off the street. It's hot and humid, and I remember the shrimp were a little spicy. I wanted to start off the night with something easy to drink -- tall, icy and effervescent."

Obviously, Plotkin will be happy to answer questions concerning the pairings or any aspect of the beverage business, as questions are his specialty. The original version of 1001 Questions Š was 501 Questions Every Bartender and Lounge Lizard Should Know How to Answer, and it was one of the first books that Plotkin and his wife, Carol, self-published when they started their company, Bar Media, in the late 1980s. Economics forced them to let 501 Questions Š slip out of print, but requests for the book never stopped. Previews of the new version justify such popularity. The book virtually brims with beverage knowledge from historical questions, such as the Southern Comfort trivia, to more serious scientific material, such as, "A small percentage of alcohol passes through the small intestine unabsorbed in food matter and is eliminated. True/False" (The answer is true.)

Plotkin says that it was "freakin' hard" to come up with the additional 500 questions, as he did not want the material to be arcane or useless. So he imagined a panel of experts that would review each question. The result is a book that could interest anyone from advanced barman to liquor neophyte.

Such thorough coverage seems to be a trademark of Plotkin's work. The fifth edition of The Original Guide to American Cocktails and Drinks, released next month, is a virtual adult beverage encyclopedia. The guide features more than 2,700 recipes, including 24 pages devoted to martinis and 20 pages devoted to margaritas. Not to be missed are oddities like Alien Secretion and Dirty Ashtray Iced Tea. All of these were tested at Bar Media's very own in-house bar, and many new additions came from readers of past editions. Your input would most likely be welcomed by Plotkin, and he might just take some special beverage requests; last year, he rolled up his sleeves and actually tended bar at the Tujague's dinner. If attendees could only be so lucky as to witness a repeat performance.

click to enlarge Cocktail expert Robert Plotkin's upcoming book, 1001 Questions Every Bartender and Lounge Lizard Should Know How to Answer, doubles the pleasure of his previous book.
  • Cocktail expert Robert Plotkin's upcoming book, 1001 Questions Every Bartender and Lounge Lizard Should Know How to Answer, doubles the pleasure of his previous book.
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