Rant: Ignorance is Bliss

Posted: June 1, 2013 in Rants

The real trouble with cocktail snobbery is that it becomes almost impossible to drink anything you haven’t made yourself.  There are a few bars where this is the exception but I can begin to see why people would favor one place as their sole drinking establishment.  In the last month I have been to birthdays, conventions, parties, bars, pubs and restaurants.  At any given time my go to drink in terra incognita is the kamikazi.  It’s simple, hard to screw up and doesn’t require me to muzzle myself from staring at pictures of things in martini glasses that aren’t martinis.

Of the 3-5 kamikazi’s that I have ordered I have to say that the best by far was one made in the upstairs bar at Big Al’s.  If you have not been to one of these places before Big Al’s is a  combination pizza place, bowling alley, arcade, bar and sports bar.  It’s functionally a casino where the gambling is replaced by whack-a-mole ticket games.

All of the other times I’ve had this very, very simple drink made for me there is something wrong with it.  Too much lime juice, bad triple sec, sometimes I just can’t put my finger on it but I’m betting the vodka is to blame.

All of this from the combination of vodka, triple sec and lime juice.  It’s embarrassing that anything more complicated than a screwdriver and I feel like I have to give the bartender the third degree about what he’s putting in my glass.  I’m just not sure if it’s more embarrassing for him or me.

Come back around to the convention I went to in April.  Someone at the event was having a birthday party and they handed me $300 and a general list of booze-o-hol that they wanted.  I was to make haste to the liquor store and acquire potables for the evening.  The list was fairly simple, a nice collection of rum, vodka, tequila and the like.  No crazy expensive whisky or bizarre requests.  But still the list annoyed me because it seemed to lack any real direction.  It wasn’t like I was trying to make anything specific, it was just a list of baseline alcohol that someone would later add some kind of fruit juice or soda to in an attempt to become as hammered as possible.

So when the party rolled around I pulled out my travel case and lay down the law of good drinking.  I made my own drinks using top shelf vodka and liqueurs and let the craziness of the party fade into the background as I mixed solid and tasty cocktails.

Some nights you can wish that it is as simple as putting a gallon of hood river vodka through your liver but for the life of me I can’t seem to bring myself to so casually toss aside my palate just to watch the room wiggle.

The cocktail is not the simplest form of alcoholic beverage.  Above it on the rung of simplicity are the On the Rocks, and the Neat to say the least.  The definition of cocktail has been bandied about in my household almost as long as I’ve been doing this.  Mostly because in my aspirations to cocktail snobbery I have denigrated the practice of adding sodas or colas to drinks as a method of claiming cocktail status.  I’ll go into it in a lot more detail some other time but the basic idea that Rum + cola is not a cocktail but with the addition of lime juice it suddenly transmutes into the acceptable Cuba Libre has been the subject of more than one late night debate.

The cocktail itself blossoms in complexity above the line of simple mixed drink and now encompasses everything from the punch to the crusta to the fizz.  Getting into those hallowed categories would take most of a night so I bring myself to the point.  No matter how simple the cocktail you attempt to make there will inevitably be a need for some form of mixer.  That mixer, be it sour mix, pina colada or margarita will contain some form of sweetener.  If you’re buying it off a shelf then 9 times out of ten that sweetener is going to be some form of corn syrup.  The new trend in skinny cocktail mixers means that more and more you’re going to see the addition of artificial sweeteners like aspartame and Phenylalanine.

All of that can be avoided.  Making your own mixers could not possibly be simpler and for the drinker who insists on quality fresh ingredients the results could not be more excellent.

As the first of my series of attempts to put bottled mixers back on the shelf I give you the Mother Sauce of them all.  Simple syrup is the magical application of sugar and water.

The recipe for this magic elixir is even easier.  1 part sugar to 1 part water.

For my test batch tonight I went with the remains of a box of bakers sugar which amounted to just over a third of a cup.  I measured out a third of a cup of water and laid out my project.

simple1

In a small saucepan you bring the water to a boil, add the sugar and stir constantly until the sugar dissolves.

simple2

At this point you are faced with an interesting choice.  The syrup is going to remain liquid at this point even if you remove a good portion of the water.  The longer you leave it on the boil the more of the water you remove.  At some point the mixture of water and sugar is going to crystalize and seize up but you have some flexibility in how long you keep it going.  The longer you wait, the thicker the syrup becomes.  Personally I like mine a bit runny since it’s going to dry out as it ages and this will give it a bit more shelf life but play with your time until you get something that works for your taste.

We’re not making caramels here so don’t worry about it too much, just keep stirring until you’re ready to pull it off the heat.  Once you do, allow the syrup to cool for a bit before you use it or bottle it.

simple3

For my own uses I have these lovely squeeze bottles which I can cap or seal as needed and they work wonders for serving small portions.  Our third cup is slightly reduced here but will serve for a few cocktails over the next few days.  The yield from this batch was about 2.25 – 2.5 oz of syrup depending on how long you left it on the stove.  That’s  usually enough for 1-2 drinks so 1/3 of a cup of sugar looks like a good single serving batch.

Now since this is really just sugar in a liquid it will go bad at some point if you just leave it sitting around.  Refrigeration can postpone that giving you up to three weeks, but the addition of a couple of ounces of vodka to the bottle will keep most things from growing in there long enough for you to run out the bottle.

The beauty of this is that it takes almost no time at all to make.  I had this much done in the time it took me to snap the photos and I could easily have done 3-6 times as much in the same span.

If you do add vodka just remember that you did so before you start making mocktails for the kids.

Once you have your syrup here is a fairly simple thing you can do with it.

Basic Soda:

1-4 Cherries
2 oz Simple Syrup
8 oz Club Soda

Pitt and quarter the cherries, add them to the bottom of a collins glass.  Add Syrup and muddle in the bottom of the glass.  Add club soda to fill glass.  You’ve just made the best possible italian soda without having to buy a $12 bottle of torani cherry syrup.

Seasonal fruit is best, and as with any italian soda you can add a splash of heavy cream if you like it that way.

Special thanks to Jess Hartley for asking me to start doing this feature, expect many more as I explore the various mixers and syrups.

Tech: Mr. Bartender App

Posted: May 30, 2013 in Tech

Nobody can remember the exact amounts that go into a Harvey Wallbanger.  Not all the time anyway.  The secret most bartenders hold dear in their hearts is that they know how to make a very small list of drinks by heart and the rest they will either take a stab at or look up.  What they consider a small list might put the novice into fits of catalepsy. In return they often have to mix very few things outside of their comfort zone.  People are shockingly comfortable with rum & coke, screwdriver and gin & tonic.  None of which require even the slightest effort to remember.  Doing them well, is another story entirely, and relies on the quality of components as well as having a steady pouring hand.

For those of us who want to keep something in your pocket a little smaller than The Savoy Cocktail Book, I use Mr. Bartender. As far as free apps go this one does about 99% of what you could want.  It keeps a Kitchen of what you’ve got in stock.  Lets you search by name, ingredient or even combinations of ingredients.  And once you’ve gotten your bar loaded up you can just shake the phone and have it generate something random from what you’ve got on hand.

It also provides pictures of what the drink looks like, which can help a lot for layered shots.  If there isn’t a picture you can make the drink and submit your own shot.

And should you get a little creative you can submit your own creations including photos.

In the category of “put-up or shut-up” I present to you my current project.

Oregon is really the second best place to do this, (the best being Italy).  The cherry trees are plentiful, there are a number of different varieties to choose from and we have a long happy growing season all summer.

Step one is almost solved for you, find some good cherries.  Much like making a pie sour cherries are nice for this kind of things but Mascara cherries are actually sweet so go wild.  I think next time I do this I’m going to find some nice yellow and red ranier’s to give the whole thing some splash.  Pit your cherries and remove any stems.

General ingredients and equipment:

maraschnio1

1 mason or ball jar with a self sealing lid
enough cherries to fill the jar without having to force them
2 teaspoons of sugar
enough maraschino liqueur to cover the cherries

Step Deux: Fill the jar with enough cherries that it’s not going to be a problem to get the lid on.

maraschnio2

 

Step the Third: Add a small quantity of sugar (2 tsp).  I recommend bakers sugar if you have it, it’s finer grained and will dissolve much more quickly.

maraschnio3

 

Step Quatro: Fill the Jar with Maraschino Liqueur.  For this run I’m using Luxardo, If I run out I’m going to see if I can find a different brand.  Nothing bad on Luxardo I just want to shop around.

maraschnio4

 

Step the Last: Close the Jar, shake until the sugar is fully dissolved, refrigerate.  Shake the jar a couple of times a day to keeps things mixed up, and check the jar in a week or so to see how they’re coming along.

Side note: Like most things you make yourself these do not have anything in them to act as a preservative.  Even if you’re using canning jars the process we use here isn’t sterile and won’t hold up like freezer jam.  Once these start going they won’t stop so plan to use them once they get to the right concentration.  If you need a reason I can comfortably point you to my Hard Cherry Limeade which benefits from a good garnish.

Vesper Martini

Posted: May 28, 2013 in Drink Review, Recipe

As I’ve probably said about a dozen times now the “real” James Bond martini is not just a vodka martini (shaken not stirred).  The original and recognized drink of 007 is the Vesper, a drink he essentially created on the spot during the course of casino royale and named for the traitorous double agent Vesper Lynd.

There’s a lot of history on this drink, including a great deal of debate as to whether Ian Fleming created the drink or simply encountered it, but in 1953 Bond uttered the following:

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

In the course of trying to recreate this drink there are a number of factors that could make any number of difficulties but let us look first and foremost at the recipe.

3 oz Gordon’s Gin
1 oz Vodka
1/2 oz Kina Lillet

If you’ve been following my little scribblings here at all you can already see at least one problem.  The drink was created in 1953 and since that time Lillet has reformulated their line giving Lillet Blanc and entirely different flavor than what Fleming might have gotten from his buddy Ivar Bryce.  It has been intimated that  Cocchi Americano is an acceptable and equal substitute for our lost Kina.

Another factor comes into play here, Gordon’s Gin was also reformulated at one point for the UK domestic market.  Gin is an incredibly complex spirit and even the slightest change is likely to result in a big flavor difference.  In the UK modern Gordon’s is an 80 proof Gin, the more traditional Gin is 94 proof.  I’m told reliably that the version exported to America is 94 proof but it is a good idea to check your gin before you mix if you want to be “authentic”.

Next up we have the vodka.  Bond recommended a grain vodka as opposed to a potato vodka.  I think in the US right now you’re actually more likely to find a grain vodka than a potato one.  After doing some research it also appears that vodka in the 50′ s was far more likely to be 100 proof.  Modern vodka tends more towards 80 proof.

Combined together we see that Bond was asking for a much stronger drink that what we might make with off the shelf bottles. Stoli makes a premium 100 proof vodka today which I gather would be the vodka of choice in trying to make this work.

So updated for the modern age the recipe might resemble something like this:

3 oz Gordon’s Gin
1 oz Stoli Premium Vodka
1/2 oz Cocchi Americano

Sadly I lack any of those ingredients.  What I do have is a perfectly good bottle of Lillet Blanc slowing losing flavor in my fridge.  So we improvise.

3 oz Aviation Gin
1 oz Crater Lake Vodka
1/2 oz Lillet Blanc
Thick slice of lemon peel twisted

Vesper1

On first sip I can say that I’m not a fan.  This is a huge, heavy drink without any of the bells or whistles.  It’s also a lot of gin, and I’m a big fan of gin.  The drink is heavy and doesn’t move along any flavor.  It may be that I’m using aviation, which is not a dry gin but I think this needs some tweaking for my taste.  I power through this one and step back up to the shaker.

vesper2

Version 2: Here I went with slightly less gin, closer to 1.5 oz than 3.  Still an ounce of vodka but I upped the Lillet to a full ounce.  The shift is remarkable.  For starters I don’t feel like I’m drinking a fishbowl of booze.  For another the fruity notes in the Lillet are coming in loud and clear.  The vodka is doing the job of keeping the gin’s wilder tendency in check, and the Gin is dancing the fandango all around the herbal components in the Lillet.

I can’t say I’m going to make any more of these once my Lillet runs out, they’re simply dull.  But as a change from the Gin and Tonic they’re a temporary diversion.

lillet blanc

As I pointed out in my white whales section on Kina Lillet, Lillet Blanc is the rebranded and possibly reformulated quinquina aperitif wine made famous by James Bond in the books and movies Casino Royale.

It could easily be mistaken for a sweet vermouth.  They both have a very crisp flavor but the Lillet is a much more complex product.  A lot of white wines that I’ve tried don’t do a lot for me.  They’re frequently too dry, and the alcohol taste runs roughshod over any other flavor components.  Lillet takes those flavor notes and brings them front and center by adding fruit, herbs and spices to the mixture of white wine.

I tried it straight, on the rocks, well chilled and with various citrus twists and they all perform very well.  It’s a sweet taste, very much in the fruit category without any syrupy or cloying components.  It’s harder to find that a lot of other things but you’ll see it in the most unusual places just sitting there alongside the Rouge and the Rose.  I picked my bottle up on special for about $20.

The one downside that I find to this is that it’s going to go bad.  Like a bottle of wine or vermouth, once open it will age rather quickly and the tannins in the wine will render it undrinkable after a couple of weeks.  So it’s vesper cocktails around here for a couple of days until this one is gone.

The difficulty in locating a bottle means I probably won’t keep this in stock at the house, but it is unusual enough that it makes for something unique to take to a party where people will be drinking wine rather than slugging aftershock.

I find that it mixes well with both Dry Gin and the Aviation that I already had on hand.  It goes passably with vodka but I’m expecting more notes there and I expect something citrus like limoncello, cointreau, curacao, or campari would work equally well in the mix there to create something more verbose.

I think tomorrow I’ll try it with some of the Clear Creek fruit liqueurs and see how it runs on cherry or cranberry.  I’m doubting that rum will go far in something like this but I would put money on a lillet sidecar having some legs.

working glass

Glassware is an important factor in any cocktail.  It can make or break the drink you’re attempting simply for lack of space.

Consider the double old fashioned.  One of the reasons the glass style has that name is the drink the Old Fashioned which calls for a very minor amount of liquid but does ask that the bartender muddle the sugar and orange peel in the bottom of the glass.  That means you don’t need a tall glass but you do need a wide mouth and a solid base so that when you apply the muddler to the glass it doesn’t break in your hand and or miss some part of the bottom and leave the orange peel uncrushed.

To that end my current favorite drinking glass is the Luminarc Working Glass.  I picked up my first set of these while still working at Meyer and Frank many many years ago.  They were going out of stock and we had one box left.  I hid that box in the back room until the next sale day and with clearance and a coupon I picked up an 8 glass set for about 5 dollars.

They are a heavy glass with faceted body and rolled lip.  You will be tempted to stack the Old Fashioneds, resist.  They chip like the dickens and you will find that you’re down to highballs in a matter of months.  One of the nicer things about this glass is that the insides are straight, the bottoms are flat and they hold a lot of liquid.  The highball is a 21 oz which is more than enough for even a garbage pail of a cocktail like the AMF.

Additionally they sell a plastic lid which fits snugly over the top of either size.  Crate and Barrel only shows the white but I picked up one in red not too long ago.  I’ve also seen this same style at places like Kitchen Kaboodle.  What that lid does here is turn our glass into a shaker.

For those one glass cocktails that you don’t want to dig out the entire kit for, this is perfect.  The big glass means plenty of room for ice, and lots of air for the shake.  Not needing to pour means you don’t need a strainer or to crack the seal on your boston shaker.  My boston shaker is 24 oz compared to the glass’ 21.  Not a comparable loss here.

I’ve made a number of things in this and not been disappointed.   It doesn’t travel well.  It’s shorter than my boston all told but it’s wider at the base and the heavy glass isn’t indestructible.  A good all metal boston will be lighter and more durable for something like camping.   Additionally this doesn’t have any flash.  It’s a nice way to get yourself a kamikaze or a Negroni at 2am without having to wash anything but if you want to show off at a party or a convention it’s not the way to do that.

Now that I have a couple of sources for this type of glass I keep myself well in stock of them.  They hold up to drops and bumps a bit better than the standard pint glasses and they’re not much more expensive which means I wind up replacing them less often and saving money.

Tapback: Mudder’s Milk

So, I’ve set my sails and I have a goal in sight.  The idea to make either a late night drink that will sub out a meal while you’re drinking or a breakfast drink you can whip up in a hurry without having to slave over a hot stove.

The idea of choice was oatmeal.  It’s already a pretty close friend with milk, swapping out a measure of the cream for Irish Cream isn’t beyond thinkable.  But a number of hurdles stand in the way.

For starters I haven’t really cooked oatmeal much before so the nuance there is going to escape me.  Second, we’re looking for something drinkable.  Having to chew is a distant desire on the list of things we would like to have.

So I came up with a couple of possibilities.

Test #1: No pictures because I was dumb and forgot.  It was a late night experiment.  For starters I stewed some apples.  I did far too much for a test batch.  Two whole apples to 1 cup oats was not doing it.  I spiced the apples with quite a few things looking for a taste that would finish out the batch.  Allspice, cloves, cinnamon, possibly coriander, definitely nutmeg.  I didn’t taste most of them in the finished product.   Could be the balance of spice is off could be that I didn’t give the spices time in the oats.  I’m going to try simpler settings, start with sugar/cinnamon add items from there.  No irish cream in the house at the time I was doing this, I used a somewhat crappy chocolate cream liqueur that had been doggedly hanging on like an unwanted party guest.  Next time coole swan or something better for sure.  Need heavy cream for testing.
2 apples cubed and stewed with a small amount of lemon juice until soft.  Added nutmeg, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice, ground ginger, turmeric.
add 1 cup water, 3/4 cup whole milk, bring to boil.
add 1 cup oats, cook 5 minutes.  Add cream liqueur to top and loosen.

Verdict, good first pass.  Now I know what not to do next time.  Taste was ok but consistency was way off.

Test #2:

In an effort to cut down on the lumpiness of the previous experiment this batch was going to see the business end of a stick blender before I was done.

1 Apple, peeled cubed and sweated with agave nectar.
Spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg.
1 1/2 cup of Heavy Whipping cream, brought to a slight boil
1 cup quaker oats

Once the cooking process was done and the oats looked soft enough I applied the stick blender.  Now at this point the entire mess was a bit off.  Owing to the fats in the cream it had become a sticky blob in the pot and was not loose at all.  The application of the blender, I was later to find, was to release all of the starches bound up in the oats at once which made the previously sticky blob into a bona fide glue.

Which is not to say that the day was without victory.  The resulting glue was even, smooth and had a very nice feel in the mouth.  The apples were not obvious in either flavor or shape.  I’m betting that was my other mistake.  Agave nectar is not as hygroscopic as baker’s sugar and it didn’t draw out the moisture of the apples enough to soften them.

So three steps backwards, one forwards.  But we learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

I quote to you here from The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks

“American growers favored large sweet cherries (a different species, Prunus avium), and they had developed a brining process that involved bleaching them in sulfur dioxide, which removed all the color but could also turn them to mush.  To solve that problem, they added calcium carbonate (widely available at plaster and paint stores in those days) to harden them.  What was left was described in one American agricultural report as nothing but bleached cellulose “in the shape of a cherry” that was then dyed with coal tar, flavored with a chemical extract of stone fruit called benzaldehyde, and packed in sugar syrup.”

This ladies and gents is why maraschino cherries suck.  The flavor comes not from the fruit but from a windowless building in New Jersey.

Oregon is blessed when it comes to fruit.  There are at least five  farmers markets within a 10 minute drive of my home where I can purchase any of a dozen varieties of cherry fresh off the tree.  An hour behind the wheel and I’m standing in an orchard with a wicker basket ready to pick my fill.  Swing a recently deceased feline and I’m sure I could hit a neighbor with a neglected Bing Tree behind his house.

Other places are not so lucky, but even then, why in the world would you want to eat those little bright red death-balls when you can get the yellow/red perfection of a Rainier.

Solution:
Make your own

Buy a Better Cherry

The difference here is really one of flavor.  Both recipes call for maraschino liqueur but the luxardo actually use Mascara cherries which are a sour cherry as opposed to the sweet dessert cherry you’re likely to find at the supermarket or the farmers market.

Maitai

One of the hallmarks of Tiki culture in the 50’s and 60’s was the cocktail done polynesian style and of those none was so famous as the Mai Tai.  The name is a corruption of the tahitian word Maita’i which means really good and from the couple of these I’ve made so far the name is well earned.

A search of the net revealed no less than eleven versions of this drink.  This is not surprising, once you get more than three ingredients into a beverage there is going to be a lot of flex in the production.  One night someone runs out of lime juice and all of a sudden you have to scramble for something similar, bam new formula.

My own recipe comes partly from necessity and partly from laziness.

1 oz white rum (for this run I used baccardi)
1.5 oz blue Curacao
0.5 oz Orgeat Syrup
1 oz Lime Juice
1 oz Spiced Rum (Captain Morgan)

Shake everything but the spiced rum in a shaker over ice and strain into a glass.  Float the Spiced rum on top, garnish with maraschino cherry.

Most of the original formulas call for orange Curacao but blue is the same product with a flashier color.  Orgeat (pronounced or-ZHA) is an almond syrup with some other things like orange flower water in it.

What the various versions of this drink have in common is Rum and sweetness.  The few with the closest claim to the original use two kinds of rum and the effect here is certainly worthwhile.  It has inspired me to find a dark un-spiced rum as well as to finally pick up that bottle of Demerara rum I’ve been pondering.

In sweetness the variations waffle back and forth.  Orgeat isn’t a common kitchen ingredient and unless you’re running a coffee cart or tiki bar it’s the kind of syrup that just hangs around because you don’t use it for non-tiki related cocktails that often.  If you can’t find Orgeat look for Torani Almond.  I have it on good authority that they’re the same thing, they just changed the label because they got tired of people asking what Orgeat was.  Many of the other formulas call for simple syrup, rock candy syrup, amaretto or even Falernum.  I haven’t had a chance to try Falernum yet but it’s showed up in a half dozen things I’ve been reading lately so it’s worth the time to hunt some down.  What they all have in common is sweetness and a cherry/almond flavor which is the hallmark of the tiki in this case.

What many of the other variations have in common is citrus.  Lime juice is a given, that’s going to cut your alcohol taste and let the rum flavors shine.  Some people cut down on the syrups and change out for grapefruit and lemon juice.  The dirty way to get around a lot of that is sweet and sour mix, which is really just lemon, lime and simple syrup.

In that same citrus category is the Curacao.  Variations calling for cointreau, triple sec and even orange rum are all known but the intent is the same.  There needs to be the essence of orange peel in the mix and one of these is the way to get that.  Curacao and Triple sec are essentially the same animal.  The peel of the bitter lahara orange steeped in some kind of alcohol and distilled.  With Curacao it’s a brandy base for triple sec it’s usually a neutral spirit.

My standard drink of choice at unknown bars right now is the kamikazi.  There’s really very little to screw up and you can always count on vodka and triple-sec.  I’m beginning to wonder if I haven’t been cheating myself by not going with a rum and triple-sec concoction instead.

If I had this drink to do over I for sure would use better rum.  I think my next version will use cointreau instead of curacao since I have some left and it’s a better product than the cheap curacao I can find locally.  Also I want to get my hands on some real maraschino cherries.  I’ll tell you why in another post.