The Toast of the Town

Proposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

Toast3The proposal last week noted that we have not tried a cocktail with Scotch. There are classic cocktails like the Rob Roy or Blood and Sand, but don’t seem to be nearly as many variations with Scotch as there are with other whisky (or whiskey). On the other hand, Scotch whisky can vary by being single malt, single grain, blended and all of that with different distilleries by region. The single malt is simply water and malted barley, while the single grain, oddly, can use other grains but is made at a single distillery. The blends make this more complex by blending more than one single malt, more than one single grain, or single malt with single grain.

Once a neophyte grasps that, and the taste variations that come along with it, there are the recognized regions and the differences that brings. The regions are Speyside, Cambeltown, Islay, Lowland and the Highlands. One of the things I find most peculiar is that while Scotland may be an island itself, it has small islands on which they make Scotch. That seems like a region too, but those are included in the Highlands region. Islands are highlands? Of course they are.

Not complicated enough yet? Scotch must be aged in oak casks for at least 3 years to meet requirements but can be, and is, aged much longer to mellow, smooth and increase the complexity of taste. Someone could, and no doubt has, spend their lifetime taste testing all the single malts, single grains, the blends derived from them, and the aged Scotches. I know that I have few friends who would happily volunteer for that task.

The cocktail this week is a relatively new one created by Mike Ryan at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago. It is called the Talk of the Town and I found it in the e-book Speakeasy Cocktails. It uses a blended Scotch from the Famous Grouse family called Black Grouse. Black grouse is described as being smoky and smooth which was appealing as a contrast to the standard sweet and sour (citrus) that make up so many cocktails.

2 ounce Black Grouse blended Scotch

.5 ounce fresh grapefruit juiced

.5 ounce fresh lemon juice

.75 ounce honey syrup (simple syrup made with honey instead of sugar)

Mix all ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake and strain into a coupe or martini glass.

In the proposal I suggested that David may want to go to Sable to try this drink. Interesting that, as David notes, it doesn’t appear on the menu any longer. Not sure this is a verdict on the cocktail, or a comment on the cocktail bar that is constantly mixing and re-mixing to find new combinations.

Here’s David’s Review:Toast 2

I’m compiling a list of bars and restaurants I’d like to visit when my brother comes to Chicago. If you were to arrive here on or around St. Patrick’s Day or the evening of some post-season game, you might think Chicagoans are all nomadic drunks, but we have some sophisticated drinkers too. We don’t all have mustaches, drink PBR, and bray about “Da Bearrs.” Just about every eatery on my list features a cocktail special to that place and—as a bonus—many serve good food.

So I was happy to visit The Sable Kitchen and Bar, one of the dim minimalist, black-furnished, in-the-know spots that seem to appear on every corner inside the loop. Perhaps you have them in your city too—this one had an eight-foot long fireplace filled with a video screen displaying flames. Because it was 1° F the night my wife and I visited, we’d have liked a real flame more, still I’m not making fun. One of the most wonderful aspects of living in Chicago is its celebration of, well, celebrations. Any excuse for a libation will do. Certainly a cold night will do.

But enough civic pride. When we arrived at The Sable, I explained we were on a mission—I might have said… “from Gawd” in that Blues Brothers way, but everyone has heard that around here so it’s understood. The cocktail menu rebuffed us. It didn’t include The Talk of the Town, but our waiter carried the recipe off, explaining their bartenders could make anything.

He returned with the drink and news—they knew the drink after all, as “The Toast of the Town,” and it had appeared on some previous incarnation of their cocktail menu. The drink I tasted, however, seemed a little cobbled together. The recipe calls for honey simple syrup, and this version seemed to have a too-generous squirt of honey in it. Too sweet and nearly hiding the Scotch, for which I’d longed.

Fortunately, he’d brought just one, and, by the time my wife’s arrived, the bartender had evolved—or changed—and I understood how this cocktail works. Though I hadn’t had the chance to try Black Grouse by itself, it’d been advertised as a peaty spirit, and the citrus and honey served to blunt, without eradicating, the somewhat leathery taste of the Scotch. Her drink was lovely, and I wanted to steal it.

We have an Islay Scotch at home. It comes from an earlier drink recipe, but we only use it now to illustrate to guests how strange and “challenging” a spirit can sometimes be. I’ve been trying to rehabilitate Scotch ever since that unfortunate evening before I participated with my fiddler college roommate in a reenactment of the Battle of the Greensboro Courthouse (don’t ask), but I’ve been unable. Now, finally, I feel I’m making progress. Why shouldn’t I like Scotch, why shouldn’t it go with citrus and honey and whatever else, why shouldn’t I join the ranks of those in Chicago and elsewhere who find Scotch the most subtle spirit, a gift of the Celtic gods?

David’s Take: Scotch purists would say any mixed drink is an unjust adulteration of the perfected moderated spirit, but, properly executed, this drink was delicious.

Jonathan’s take: The smokiness that seemed so inviting may be the drawback to this. The initial taste is blended and wonderful, but the peat lingers at the finish.

Next week (proposed by David):

Oddly, here in Chicago we’ve been having Manhattan week (of 14 days, apparently… see earlier comments about Chicago) with assorted restaurants offering their own variations. Suddenly I wondered, “How have we missed trying such a classic?” I thought it might be fun to invite Jonathan to try the traditional type—or one of those variations—while I try another version. So let’s hop Southwestern to LaGuardia and New York to try a Manhattan.

The Suffering Bastard

sufferingProposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

I have a list of reasons for choosing a Suffering Bastard as our cocktail this week:

First, I’ve been looking for a cocktail that combines dark and light spirits as this one does.

Second, there’s the name, a continuation of last week’s trend of intriguing names.

Third, people tell me I’m the Eeyore-y-sort, so I am, I suppose, a sort of a suffering bastard myself and, who knows, I may have found my signature drink at last.

Fourth and last, the Suffering Bastard appears on a list of “100 Cocktails You Must Try Before You Die.”

Not all at once… then you would die, for sure.

We’ve made a habit here of offering drinks’ provenance when they have one, but you could guess some of the Suffering Bastard’s history. It’s another hangover cure, another misguided attempt to douse fire with gasoline. When I’m hungover—yes, I’ve been a suffering bastard of that sort too, which would be reason five—the last thing I’d want is more of what made me so. But, the story goes that, during the 40’s, a bar steward at the Long Bar in Cairo’s Shepheard’s Hotel, Joe Scialom, needed relief from his overindulgence, and created this drink, originally called the “Suffering Bar Steward.” History doesn’t record if it worked, but I’m guessing no, as “Bar Steward” became “Bastard,” clearly a step down.

Many versions of this drink appear on the web, and most of them seem to me (unsavvy as I am) baroque. They are more complicated Tiki drinks mixing two types of rum and Orange Curacao and various other sweet ingredients. The recipe I used is simple, with no ingredient announcing itself any more loudly than any other. I did add a dash or two of lime bitters I’ve been experimenting with, but that was my only amendment.

sbastardHere’s the recipe:

1 ounce bourbon

1 ounce gin

1 ounce fresh lime juice

1 dash Angostura bitters

4 ounces chilled ginger ale

Combine the first four ingredients over ice in a highball glass, then top with the ginger ale. Add more ice if needed, and stir. Garnish with a slice of orange, a cherry, or a sprig of mint.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

Is there anything on the net that is not accompanied by a review, comment, like or dislike anymore? Going to a restaurant? Read the reviews. Reading an article? Now you know what your neighbor, his neighbor and someone in Peyton Manning’s Omaha think they should contribute as a comment. Video on YouTube? You know you found it because someone liked it. The irony of this, of course, is that we are proposing drinks, reviewing them, and then hoping that someone comments or likes our blog.

The reason I bring this up, though, is that I try to ignore other reviews and comments when it is my turn to do the commentary. I don’t want the bias or someone else’s ideas to sway my opinion. This week the link that David supplied had some reviews directly below the recipe and, before I knew it, I had read them. They were an interesting group of ten or so comments and where an opinion was expressed about the cocktail it was black or white. That is to say they liked or disliked it with no one, or at least no one I could recall, that was indifferent.

It may have ended up clouding my review because I did find myself in the middle. The first impression was that the bourbon and gin were fighting each other. They didn’t meld like you would want, and first one then the other grabbed your attention. On top of that the lime added a tartness that dominated the initial taste. And then something odd happened—the tastes began to mix. It may have been the garnish of an orange slice or the melting ice, but the clash of flavors became a nice complexity, and the small addition of bitters started to cut into the tartness. The first impression was war, the second détente, and the third peace.

Jonathan’s Take: On first reading and taste this one seemed discordant, but in the end there was an odd harmony.

David’s Take: I liked it, whatever that’s worth. I wouldn’t hope to cure anything with it, but the combination surprised me and, I think, worked… not my signature drink, though.

Next Week (proposed by Jonathan):

One spirit that we have missed is Scotch. It may be that there are less cocktails than simple pours but there are a few intriguing ideas that range from the classics to innovative new drinks. This proposal is for a specific Scotch blend with the smokiness of peat – Black Grouse. The drink is called the Talk of the Town and is the creation of Mike Ryan of Sable in Chicago. I know the idea is that we are learning to mix our drinks, but if David feels the need to prove he lives the cosmopolitan life he is welcome to seek the direct source.

The Monkey Gland Cocktail

Proposed by: Jonathanmon-key

Reviewed by: David

The Monkey Gland cocktail may be one of the most often referenced drinks other than the true classics. Obviously that has something to do with the intriguing name and the odd history of the drink. It only takes a cursory search to determine the drink was originated in the 1920’s in Paris and that the name is derived from a strange surgical procedure. Dr. Serge Voronoff had surmised that male virility diminished with age. His hypothesis, apparently, was that an increase or addition of testes could reverse that trend and he was known for a surgical practice of grafting monkey testicles into male patients. He was correct in the sense that an increase in testosterone could have positive effects, but not in the idea that surgically implanted monkey parts would do that.

As an aside, I find it interesting that the more of the times led to calling the monkey testes by the more benign term “glands.” There are certainly terms that would be more accurate although they may be considered “…so profound and disgusting that decorum prohibits listing them here.” That Douglas C. Neidermeyer quote (Animal House 1978 and I could not resist sneaking it in) is my way of saying that a drink called Monkey Nuts, Monkey Balls, Monkey Testicles, or Poor Damn Monkey would be far more correct.

meatThe thing that goes unexplained in the history of the drink is why a bartender decided to name a drink after the popular surgical technique. A previous drink from the same era that we tried, the French 75, was named after a World War I artillery piece, but that seemed to be tied to the force with which the drink hit. In this case, the drink could just have easily been named after the jazz explosion, Bohemian lifestyle of prohibition fleeing expatriates or the popularity of cubism in Paris of the 20’s.

There are a few variations on the recipe for the Monkey Gland, but the one I used came from the book referenced last week: Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh. It is as follows:

1.5 ounces dry gin

1.5 ounces orange juice

1 teaspoon pomegranate grenadine

1 teaspoon absinthe

The recipe was another chance to use some of the skills and ideas that we have tried in other cocktails. The first is that the absinthe is used to flavor the ice or coat the cocktail glass (Sazerac), the orange juice is best fresh squeezed (numerous citrus cocktails) and the grenadine is better when homemade (the La Marque).

The other thing that needs mention is that there is also a popular sauce called Monkey Gland Sauce. It is really a glorified ketchup, and is popular with steak. As the true carnivore in this endeavor, I felt the need to cook some up to enjoy after the cocktail. There are a number of recipes available, but all of them use chutney and none that I found specify what kind. Since this sauce is popular in South Africa I used an English style plum chutney which was excellent, but I can imagine a chunkier chutney (like our sister Alison’s pear chutney) would be even better.

monkeyHere’s David’s Review:

Though any mention of “Monkey Glands” seems an absolute turn-off, I enjoyed this drink. Fresh-squeezed nearly-any-fruit seems wonderful to me, and Gin, well, I’ve yet to find a sweetness it couldn’t moderate and/or complicate. All of which is to say, I was a sucker for this cocktail from the start.

Except for the name. I don’t like to think of surgery when I’m drinking, especially not on my nether regions.

The hidden secret of this cocktail may be the absinthe—it’s an odd thing I’ve noticed about absinthe, when you notice the taste, it seems a mistake, but when it’s some part of the mystery or what you’re drinking, the anise adds so much. I’d say that’s the case here. Only a splash—in my mind—makes this drink.

Or perhaps, sometimes, a cocktail is about chemistry. The sour, acidic addition of citrus gives this drink an edge. What if a drink relies entirely upon pH, the unbalanced attack of a flavor one side of neutrality?

My son is home from college, and I shared this drink with him and a friend. I loved it just as the recipe described it, but they enjoyed it more when I changed proportions, adding more orange juice to compensate for the alcoholic contribution of gin. The potency appealed to me, but you might try experimenting with proportions. One beauty of cocktails is subtlety—the slightest change can make a big difference.

Clearly, I’m no food writer—I have to rely on a very limited vocabulary in communicating exactly what these drinks taste like—but I liked this one. I guess you will have to try it for yourself to understand why. Or why not.

But the name, please.

Jonathan’s take: I suggested that this week was a choice between surgery or the cocktail. Really glad that I chose the cocktail, it was fantastic.

David’s take: Fruit always seems to contribute so much for me, and, in this case, the fresh orange juice was a delight in itself. Add alcohol, what’s not to like?

Next Week (proposed by David):

You can read into this choice if you like, but I’m going to propose a drink called The Suffering Bastard that uses gin, bourbon, lime, ginger ale, and bitters. It’s one of those drinks touted as a “hangover remedy” (though this cocktailian would recommend Gatorade, coconut water or—hey, whattayaknow—water). Technically, this is a drink for a warmer season, but here in Chicago we like to pretend.

Rosalind Russell

RosProposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

So, I see the cruelty of sending Jonathan to the liquor store for an obscure Scandinavian spirit, Aquavit. What demand can there be for Linie (the variety I chose), a spirit that crosses the equator twice in sherry casks to reach its proper flavor? It may be one of the more colorful stories of our tenure here, this fetishist tale of taste, what someone might do to make something distinctive.

That said, the cocktail is simple, with only four ingredients, the Aquavit, the Sweet Vermouth, the lemon, and the Angostura bitters. That’s all. I’m not sure any bar tender could reproduce it—who knows how many bars stock Aquavit—but it seems no more odd than a martini, I guess.

foodHere’s a case where maybe the accompaniment makes a big difference. We had crackers and lox with dill Havarti cheese, capers, and a horseradish whipped cream. It could be the Scandinavian connection of ingredients, but the food seemed perfectly complementary. Come to think of it, maybe it was all about the food. Perhaps that explains the collective effect of this cocktail.

Here’s the recipe:

  1. Ice
  2. 2 ounces aquavit
  3. 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  4. 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
  5. 1 lemon twist, for garnish

And here is Jonathan’s review:photo-61

Oh for the halcyon days of The Aviation. A beautiful Fall afternoon, a group of friends, and a what-the-heck cocktail of an indescribable taste and color.

The first thing I have to say about this week’s cocktail is a nod to the main ingredient, its unique voyage and how hard I had to look to find it. Aquavit, as the introduction says, is aged on a serpentine world voyage in sherry casks. I only wish I had the ability to produce a map of my voyage to find it because, other than not crossing the equator twice, I sense it was similar to the map on the back of the Linie Aquavit. It almost demanded that I try the strange gold-brown liqueur once I did find it.

The other admission I need to make is that, while the name Rosalind Russell is familiar I kept confusing her with another actress – Jane Russell. The more I had to look for Aquavit, the more I spent that time considering the creation of a Jane Russell cocktail as a substitute. The funny thing, cross my heart, is that there already is such a cocktail. And if I have to explain the joke in that sentence, you did not watch enough television in the 70’s.

So what happens when you mix that hard to find spirit with the red sweet vermouth and bitters? Another strange what-the-heck color cocktail with an odd and hard to describe flavor. The Aquavit description tells me I should expect caraway, but frankly I am not sure I know that taste well enough to say what it is. There is something familiar in the taste, however, and once we added a little simple syrup it brightened to a good familiar. Maybe a little more citrus would add some needed zing too. There is no doubt that I will make one of these for my friend Jerry. He liked the Aviation, so I suspect that this is one that will appeal to him also.

David’s take: Okay, I’m crazy. I love this stuff. The odder the better, as far as I’m concerned. I just like something new, I guess.

Jonathan’s take: I love the exotic and florid descriptions of spirits like Aquavit, but in cases like these the drinks have trouble holding up their end.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

My sons gave me a cocktail book for my birthday – Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh. The drinks are interesting and the descriptions even more so. I am proposing a choice for next week. David and I can choose to have monkey testicles surgically implanted to improve our virility, or we can try the wonderfully named Monkey Gland cocktail. Not sure what direction David is going to go, but I think I will go for the libation.