There's a weird growing trend among American boozers: sucking down shots through beef marrow bones. Yes, the Bone Luge sounds macabre, savage, disgusting, and fratty, but don't let the name fool you. It's a high-end (read: expensive) affair, but all the pomp isn't just for show. It's actually, you know, good.
Here's everything you need to know about it.
A typical Bone Luge starts with a fancyish appetiser at a fancyish restaurant. You want to order the roasted beef marrow bone. It'll arrive, generally sawed in half, lengthwise, with garlic toast, and a couple other accouterments. That right there will generally run you £15-odd. Scrape that fatty marrow out onto your toast, and enjoy as your arteries cry out for mercy.
When you're done eating, you're left with a hollowed-out bone. Here's where the luge comes in. You're going to order a glass of booze (more on which kind in a moment). You put one end of the bone up to your mouth, tilt the bone up, and pour your drink down the other side. Do it right, and it's perfectly funneled into your mouth.
It sounds like a disgusting gimmick. No better than drinking beer out of a helmet, or a shoe, right? Wrong. In fact, you're adding a distinct and pleasing dimension to your drink: umami. Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. It is the savoury flavour (different from salty), that coats your tongue and lingers. It is our tastebuds' response to the amino acid L-glutamate. Human breast milk is extremely high in glutamate (more than ten times the content of cow's milk), so most of us first encounter the umami flavour while nursing, which may explain why many find it to be calming, soothing, and satisfying. Umami is also known to be a flavour enhancer. Bone marrow is teeming with the stuff.
That's not all. When you bone luge, the alcohol carries some of the excess fat present in the marrow residue with it. Even in small amounts, this adds to the richness of the drink. Because the fat is still liquid on the warm bone, it mixes instantly with the beverage as your drinking it. The effect is very similar to a fat wash, where something like bacon fat is infused into a spirit, frozen, and then strained out. Except with the luge it's an instantaneous effect. Pouring it down the warm bone also serves to heat the alcohol, slightly, which further releases the aroma.
The combined effect is subtle, but distinctive. It doesn't really alter the flavour of the drink very much, but it adds that hard-to-articulate, rich, savoury element. There's a bit more smoothness to it, and the experience really lingers. After you've finished your drink you'll continue to notice the flavours evolve on your tongue for a good while after. And yes, I would have thought it was all just hype, too, if I hadn't tried it myself. It's really not about the spectacle (which is actually mildly embarrassing), it's all about the flavours.
There's no one answer to this. Since the trend started taking off, people have been luging everything from hard spirits, to wines, to cocktails. There are a few general guidelines you should follow though.
- Choose something that you would normally want to sip and savour
- This isn't a shot, exactly, in that that point isn't to get wasted. You'll probably end up pouring the drink a bit at a time so you can really take it in. You're probably going to want to go top shelf.
- You want something that will be enhanced by the addition of that savoury umami flavour This isn't everything. In fact, some things are going to overwhelm it. Basically: don't use scotch. Its flavours are so strong that you'd probably miss the more subtle new ones.
- Likewise, if the proof is too high, the alcohol burn will totally overwhelm your tastebuds and you'll miss the ride. So 80 proof is probably the absolute max you'd want to go (maaaaybe 86, but you're really pushing it). Simply put, if you keep it lower, you'll be able to taste everything better. Similarly, you want a room-temperature drink. Not only will you be able to taste it better, but it will more efficiently carry the warm fat off the bone.
So where does that leave us? The two most popular beverages for bone luging are brandy or a nice dry sherry. Fino sherry (which is what I tried) is a fortified wine, which means it's slightly stronger the most traditional wines. On its own, it doesn't do much for me, but through the luge I found it to be mouth-watering, and far more complex. It brought out all kinds of flavours that were already in the wine, but that I hadn't noticed before.
Brandy (Larressingle VSOP Armagnac, in this case, which was very tasty) has much more flavour of its own, so when taken through a bone luge it is still the predominant flavour But still, the savoury marrow really complements the smoky, sweet flavours and the resulting combination is very warming. It made me want to curl up by a fire and lick my lips for an hour.
Others are partial to sipping bourbon through their bone, or tequila. In both cases the umami flavour would be a nice complement to the smokiness of the spirit, but the higher proof may detract a little. There's evidence that people have sipped a Manhattan through a bone luge, which sounds like a great idea; you've got the sweet smokiness of bourbon or rye, plus the aromatics of the vermouth, and a slightly lower alcohol content than a straight up spirit. The website boneluge.com has many more intriguing pairing suggestions and various sage advice.
There's some debate about when the first bone luge really was (cavemen?), but credit for the modern bone luge is generally given to Jacob Grier of Portland, OR, who was out with some friends during Cocktail Week 2010 and, well, one thing lead to another, and he found himself drinking tequila out of a marrow bone. He convinced the restaurant Metrovino (where he's head bartender) to add the bone luge to the menu, and it's been spreading ever since.
The bone luge officially went mainstream when Anthony Bourdain said, "I'm aware of this practice. It's extremely anti-social and against all standards of decency. So I think we should do it," while at a bar in Toronto during an episode of No Reservations. The rest is TV history.
The short answer is pretty much anywhere they serve marrow bones. These are generally somewhat pricey restaurants that specialise in meat. Be somewhat selective in your choice of restaurant, as you don't want to do it anywhere that takes themselves too seriously lest you receive scornful looks.
Of course, if you'd rather a bit more privacy, you can always roast marrow bones at home, but you may want to leave sawing the bone length-wise to the pros. But hey, a bone shot-glass world would just as well, I think.
If you've got any bone luging tips or tricks, we want to hear 'em, so give us a shout in the discussion below. Now if you'll excuse us, we have to go die of gout.
Photos by Stefanie Charlotte.