Basil Watermelon Cooler

coolerJMProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

Last week’s introduction suggested this would be one of the drinks of summer. And what says summer more than watermelon and fresh herbs? Just like last week there is no back story to this drink. No famous bar, classic recipe, or standard ingredients. Our now slightly famous Sid doesn’t even have anything to say about it or where it came from.

The idea was to use items that are typically only available in summer – in this case, fresh basil and watermelon. Add to that mix ginger root, ginger ale and a spirit (vodka) and you have a drink:

3 large basil leaves
1 slice peeled ginger
1 two inch square of watermelon
.5 ounce simple syrup
2 ounce vodka
.5 ounce lime juice
Ginger ale

Place basil leaves, ginger slice, watermelon and simple syrup in shaker and muddle. Add ice, vodka, lime juice and shake. Strain into double old-fashioned glass filled with ice (I used a fine sifter to strain), top with ginger ale and garnish with watermelon and basil. The recipe rates the difficulty as “complicated” and it is. Get everything ready, invite friends, and make plenty.

There is some version of this drink on most summer cocktail lists at bars that vary their menu by season. And by some version, I don’t mean a watermelon and basil drink, I mean a fruit of summer and some herb mixed in an interesting way, a seltzer, soda or bubbly added and all followed with a chaser of refreshment. This particular combination is not going to show up in a book of cocktail classics, but if you are looking for something to add to the pantheon of summer libations such as the margarita or mojito, it is well worth the effort.

A couple of interesting parts of the recipe that I omitted. The vodka is very precisely identified as Grey Goose. I am no expert, as we have established, but I wonder if anyone could identify a version made with that vodka versus another wheat vodka, or even a corn or potato vodka. In fact, we tried a version with vanilla vodka and other than a slight aftertaste it was hardly distinguishable from the original. The other interesting part is that the ginger ale is not specified. As I have crowed before, in Charlotte we have Blenheim Ginger Ale and the drink is the better for it. The muddled ginger adds some spice, but the Blenheim asserts that spice in a wonderful way.

coolerAnd Here’s David’s Review:

Due to my generally cranky outlook, anything called a “cooler” doesn’t fill me with giddy anticipation. The word seems forever linked to bottles of ersatz wine occupying the 7 Eleven refrigerator case. They usually have “breeze” in their titles and come in unlikely flavors never meeting in nature. Besides, anyone expecting to be cooled by alcohol doesn’t understand its physiological effects. Don’t expect to survive in the desert with a bottle of rot-gut whiskey—I learned that from the westerns Jonathan and I watched as boys.

This cooler ought to shed the name but distinguishes itself in some important ways. First, the collection of fresh ingredients adds a great deal, especially this time of year when fresh is welcome. Watermelon is appropriately named, and the juice is wonderfully light and sweet. The ginger and basil, muddled together, give the drink deft spiciness as well. The combination surprised me, as they unexpectedly harmonized.

Like Jonathan, I like to try more than one drink… er, I meant variation… so I made a second version with some basil brown sugar simple syrup I’d created for a cocktail party earlier in the summer. Watermelon is watery, and I see why the simple syrup is there—to give the drink additional gravity. However, to me, my second version excelled the first because it gave more taste to the original, which seemed simply sweet. The herbal overtone deserves more heft from the other ingredients, particularly since I have only pedestrian ginger ale and, alas, no Blenheim.

Fruit drinks seem less potent to me, and the temptation to try another version—this one with a spirit other than vodka—almost possessed me. My one substantial objection to this cocktail is its base spirit, which adds little or nothing other than alcohol.

Okay, okay, I’m not crazy about vodka, but I also wonder if bourbon might further complement the spiciness of the drink (and my brown sugar simple syrup), while contributing a mellowness and depth the drink could use. My wife says that’d create too much competition, and it wouldn’t be a cooler anymore. I say, maybe you don’t find depth in a “cooler,” but I still think the drink would be refreshing, not too potent, and tasty.

David’s Take: A great drink for the season… though I may play with the ingredients enough to justify a name change.

Jonathan’s take: Yeah Sam, I’ll take the usual. You know that fruity one with the watermelon, basil and ginger. Yup, that one.

Next Week (proposed by David):

I’d like to test my theory that bourbon might work as a summer spirit too, and, as the 4th is coming up, I’m proposing another summer cocktail, this one called The LiberTea. This cocktail combines ice tea and bourbon and a honey liqueur (or just plain honey). All the variations online are for a party, but I will work from the proportions to create a few servings. The recipes also call for basil, but, as we just did basil this week, I may substitute mint… or try both and compare.


The Greenback

Proposed by: DavidGreenback

Reviewed by: Jonathan

The Greenback is the rarest of cocktails for this blog—it has no provenance I can find, no noted inventor, no disputatious history or colorful but apocryphal naming myth. It is, in short, just a drink.

That’s not so bad, as it allows me to invent:

One, British import-export agents developed the Greenback in a remote South American tropical outpost because they admired the local sloths whose inactivity invited the growth of green stuff in the fur on their backs.

Two, some guy named Sid (later famous for inventing butterscotch schnaps) came up with it in the Dekuyper research and development lab during the late 60’s when Sid’s boss yelled daily for more uses for crème de menthe.

Three, the Greenback was invented by those giant-eyed space aliens in honor of the feature of their mates they love most.

Here’s the origin myth I’ve decided to launch into cyberspace. It involves some nameless home bartender bemoaning an imbalance of ingredients in his liquor cabinet, stuff he’s not quite sure what to do with. There’s lemon and gin in this drink, and they’re common enough, but crème de menthe is one of those bottles he wants to hide when company comes over. My recipe also includes absinthe, which, even if you like it (I do) just doesn’t come up all that often.

So, anyway, this imaginary beleaguered bartender combines these ingredients to devise a lovely emerald concoction which he dubs The Greenback because it reminded him of the Civil War monetary policy continuing into the latter half of the 19th century that introduced unsecured green paper money backed—supposedly—by federal deposits of gold that—supposedly, but probably not—became the basis for the emerald city in The Wizard of Oz, according to dubious allegorical readings of the novels.

None of these stories are true or likely, but that’s all I’ve got. That and the recipe (which I doctored a bit from online sources and the Anvil cocktail list:

20140622_160951_resized-1Here’s the recipe:

½ oz. absinthe

1 oz. lemon (or lime)

1 oz. crème de menthe

1 and ½ oz. gin

Add all the ingredients to a shaker with ice, shake and serve in martini glasses.

And here’s Jonathan’s review:

It is fairly common that David and I communicate during the week (e-mails because, face it, who calls anymore) about the cocktail of the week, the exact recipe and what we plan for future weeks. We occasionally even sneak in a few comments about the rest of our lives. That is, in the end, the real purpose of our virtual cocktail club – that we talk more than we have in the past. Not so much because we aren’t close, but because we are both bad communicators especially for two people who rely on, and manage well, that skill on a daily basis.

This week communication was difficult, David was busy and I had a professionally challenging week, but most of the conversation was about the recipe. Specifically, where do you see Absinthe in this drink? I should have asked the more challenging question about why on earth we were using Crème de Menthe again. Ever.

The drink is almost lost in my picture, but as much as you can, look at the color. If we eat with our eyes first, we also drink with them first and no drink should be that color. The Crème de Menthe is as forward in this drink as the color would suggest. I had tried this week to find what type of gin worked best (our previous drinks would suggest that every gin drink calls for some specific type) but could not find a single recipe that did that. That is for good reason, in that the gin is completely lost. And the lemon, or lime in some cases, in the recipe? It adds just enough astringency to the Crème to make you feel as though you just flossed and are enjoying your Listerine rinse.

The funny thing, as I tried it a few more times before tossing the rest, is that I was sure David would like this drink. I don’t know why or how, but there was something so peculiar that I was confident he would taste a redeeming quality. Not me.

Jonathan’s take: This is our second drink with Crème de Menthe (Irish Eyes was the first). I have a bottle available for whoever wants it.

David’s take: Oddly, I liked this drink. Crème de Menthe is awful stuff to be sure, but—to me—this drink found a suitable disguise.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

My thought was that this is the time of year when so many publications, print and on-line, list their drinks of summer. I asked my wife for suggestions, and one Pinterest page later, we settled on a cocktail with watermelon and basil. It’s a basil watermelon cooler and it hardly qualifies as a hard core. But it sure looks like a good way to use all of that basil I have growing, and with this heat any excuse for watermelon is a good one.


The Vieux Carré

VieuxJBMProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

”Take this book as a testament to the fact that we are ready to endure all the little factoids, anecdotes and stories that may come with the drinks – as long as the drinks keep coming.”

That is what my sons, David and Josh, inscribed in the front cover of the Ted Haigh book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails when they gave it to me as a birthday present. It seems fitting then that for the week of Father’s Day our cocktail should be one of the forgotten recipes from that book, the Vieux Carré. Of course in the theme of quibbles about invention and ingredients, neither of which come into question with this drink, I would suggest it is not so forgotten after all. Nor should it be.

The  Vieux Carré was created in New Orleans and the name derived from there. It is confidently credited to Walter Bergeron a bartender at the Monteleone Hotel. The name is obviously French and refers to the French Quarter, or more specifically the “Old Square” around which the French Quarter district grew. The general makeup is equal parts of three spirits with the addition of a liqueur accent and bitters, much as is found in the New Orleans inspired Sazerac. The recipe hardly differs from one version to another:

1 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce cognac
1 ounce sweet vermouth
½ teaspoon Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Mix all of the above, shake with ice and strain into a coupe to serve neat or into an old fashioned glass to serve with ice (some versions specify one very large square of ice). Garnish with a lemon twist.

It is certainly not as well-known as other classic drinks using bitters such as an Old Fashioned, Manhattan or the aforementioned Sazerac, but the Vieux Carre’ is hardly forgotten. When I was considering rye whiskey drinks, it came up quite often on-line and in other books I have accumulated. It would be a good test to walk into a cocktail bar and order one to see what the reaction would be. Or even better, head to the Old Square, find some place that makes more than Hurricanes and seek one out. After trying them this week, I would suggest that in either scenario it will be well worth it.

vcHere’s David’s Review:

My track record should tell you I’d enjoy this drink. The Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Sazerac and De La Louisiane should tell you that. Plus it’s Father’s Day, which for some folks probably calls for something strong. When I served this drink at a cocktail party we held this week, one of the guests offered the review, “It’s all alcohol.”

Recipes that even out the parts seem to galvanize the flavors and, despite being all alcohol, this cocktail wasn’t at all hard to drink. I had it out a couple of weeks ago when we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, and that version seemed a little different to me—not quite as sweet and somehow heavier on the rye. This version, howeve, hits me in layers, first the rye, then the cognac, and finally the sweet vermouth. The Benedictine was in there too somewhere, but I was as sparing with it as the recipe suggested and I barely noticed it—it was one ingredient that seemed too subtle for my palate, except to add a little more sweetness.

Some of the guests at my party found the drink too sweet, and, if I had one suggestion it would be to choose the cognac wisely. Some cognacs have a sugary taste and heavier dose of grapey-ness, and, for a cocktail like this one, it seems important to go for more dry cognac and give the rye gets a chance to stand in the foreground.

David’s Take: I don’t think I’ll wait until next Father’s Day to have another.

Jonathan’s Take: Be sparing with the Benedictine, but otherwise try this cocktail. It could become your classic.

Next Week (proposed by David):

I’m at a writing conference this week and have heard repeatedly that it’s all about taking risks. When it comes to cocktails, some of the biggest risks are taking an ingredient we already have (and may not have liked) and trying to rehabilitate it. That’s why I’m proposing a Greenback cocktail for next week. The gin and lemon are safe enough, but the other two ingredients are creme de menthe and absinthe. According to Anvil in Houston it’s a classic. We’ll see.

The Belmont Breeze

Proposed by: DavidBelmontage

Reviewed by: Jonathan

In 1998, Dale DeGroff replaced the old official Belmont drink—the White Carnation—with a new cocktail. The Belmont Breeze isn’t a breeze to make, but some alchemy dictates its formula: one sour, two sweet, three strong, and four weak. If you study the recipe closely, and designate rightly, you can see how it fits, and DeGroff got the idea from colonial punch.

The biggest innovation from the White Carnation was the substitution of bourbon (or, as some recipes have it, American blended whiskey) for vodka, and sherry for peach schnapps. The White Carnation, apparently, was an acquired taste, as it also included orange juice and cream, making it the sort of Orange Julius of the cocktail world.

Being a mint julep fan—and a Derby snob—I don’t know what to think of a cocktail named after the track. These days, every stadium bears the name of an underwriting corporation, and you can hardly swing your head left to right without inadvertently scanning logos, brand names, and overt or covert advertising. I imagine when The White Carnation stopped selling, the powers-that-be sought another drink with this space for sale.

Sorry to be so cynical. My experience with this blog suggests two cocktail worlds: The older, more mysterious one features murky, almost magical, provenances, archival ingredients, and word-of-mouth transmutations and evolutions. The newer one is available online in videos of muscular and/or beautiful people mixing insert-alcohol-sponsor-name here and various other variable parts to create something trademarked.

Perhaps you sense which I prefer.

I don’t want to speak for Jonathan, but my experience (coming up on a year) tells me there’s something quixotic in mixology. You’re always looking for that combination of ingredients that click like tumblers deep inside a safe door and throw it open with a shouted, “Behold!” I shouldn’t be surprised at the challenge of reaching that word. I shouldn’t be surprised there’s money in it too.

But enough soap-boxing, here’s the recipe:

Muddle the mint and mix the ingredients in a shaker, and strain into ice-filled glasses.

betterbelmontHere’s Jonathan’s Review:

First the lament. I thought this was the year. Thought that California Chrome would be trademarking California Crown. All that thinking made me sad that I would not be able to watch the coronation due to other celebrations we were attending. As it ended up, we were able to watch the race and the stretch run that never came for a tired horse. No need to get into the fairness of the competition, this in fact being a cocktail blog not a sports discussion, just to wallow in the lament of another year gone by without that extra special horse.

Now back to the real purpose, the final leg of the triple crown of cocktails. The Belmont Breeze is another in the category of changing tradition. This race even had another name for its traditional cocktail (the White Carnation David has mentioned) and a number of versions of the Breeze to choose from. Our selected recipe was the bourbon and fruit juices version and despite all the indecision by others it was a great choice.

I followed the path that has led to the most success and used fresh squeezed juices for all but the cranberry. The truth is that I almost switched up and used fresh pomegranate instead of the cranberry so I could use all fresh, but stuck with the recipe. That is stuck with it other than ignoring the measurements simply listed as “a splash of.” The end result, because both the oranges and lemons were not very sweet, was a tart drink that mixed with the bourbon and sherry almost perfectly. A second version with a tiny amount of simple syrup was perfect. If only the race had been.

There can’t be a triple crown of cocktails celebrating horse racing without a win, place and show. The show cocktail was the Black Eyed Susan. Too fruity, too much change and too little satisfaction. Maybe David’s version with St. Germain was better, but mine was a distant third. Placing was the Belmont Breeze but only because of that lack of tradition. The drink is excellent, especially with the fresh juices, even if they change it year in and year out. A fresh pomegranate juice for the cranberry version could even nose at ahead at the line. But in the final reckoning the Julep wins because it is wonderful, traditional and demanding. There may be few versions, or preferences in making them if you like, but it is a storied drink that must have its own type of cup, the right kind of ice and then it demands you savor it.

David’s Take: A lot of flavors left me unsure of the winner

Jonathan’s take: The Belmont should stick with the DeGroff version and create the tradition.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

Summer is coming, but before then is Father’s Day. It may be stereotypical, but when I think of a fatherly drink it has to start with whiskey. I was leaning towards rye whiskey and kept coming across the Vieux Carre Cocktail. It has also those standards of a classic, which it is, including the whiskey, plus cognac, vermouth and a mix of bitters.


The Old Oaxacan

Proposed by: Jonathanoxan

Reviewed by: David

It has been my observation, and I am sure I have written it before, that people come up with some interesting things to use in the making of alcoholic beverages. Surely the agave plant is one of those. Agave is a succulent, don’t call it a cactus, that grows primarily in Mexico and has a number of uses. Among those uses are a variety of spirits that range from the fresh, quick pulque made from the sap to this week’s spirit, mezcal, which is made from the roasted heart (pina) of the plant. In between those lies tequila which is arguably the most common and popular of the agave liquors.

I have heard it said that all mezcal is a tequila, or all tequila is a mezcal but that makes little sense to me. Tequilas are made from a variety of agave plants, but primarily blue agave. The distillation of the spirit is centered around the town of Tequila, does not involve roasting the pina, and can include some aging. Mezcal on the other hand is made from Agave Americana, must come from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and gets its characteristic taste from roasting the heart of the plant (after a great deal of work to make sure it is full of sugar/sap meant for the flower) in ground ovens. That roasting gives it the distinctive smoky flavor that is both a benefit and curse.

My sons were home this week and I let one of them do the shopping for the mezcal. There is not a great deal of selection, especially compared to tequilas, which says something about popularity and taste. A number of sources describe the smoky and complex character of mezcal to that of a fine scotch. With that in mind, we tried the pina liquor simply poured over ice as a test. Either it, or we failed. The complexity came across more like a fuel than a fine spirit, strong and distinctive but tasting of solvents with no sweetness.

That left my proposed drink a challenge to see if there was a way to mix that distinctive taste and find something that meshed. The proposal was for a drink called the Old Oaxacan which is as follows:

2 ounces mezcal
1 ounce simple syrup
.75 ounce lime juice
4-5 shakes angostura bitters
8 mint leaves
2 ounces champagne

Mix all ingredients, except the champagne, in shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a coupe, add the champagne and garnish with mint. I used a chocolate mint because it made sense to me when I considered the desert south of Mexico.

The end result was oddly harmonious and so much better than the spirit by itself or even in a simple mix with citrus and sweetener. It may be the champagne talking, but I finally understood the odd complexity of the roasted agave, and perhaps the idea to use it to make hooch in the first place.

David’s Review:

OldOaxWhen Jonathan and I were young, we launched model rockets, and, oddly, this drink made me remember those launches, not just the smoke but also the thrill of watching them streak into the sky nearly before you noticed.

If you read carefully, that’s the sum of my review. Mezcal seems an entirely different beast from tequila in its charcoaled taste, and, for reasons I can’t quite explain, this drink seemed particularly potent and particularly sudden in attack. It may be the champagne, which every celebrant knows goes to your head, but it could be that the other ingredients—angostura, lime, and a little simple syrup—hardly slow the drink down.

My daughter, the most instinctually culinary in our family, suggested I boil a lime peel with the sugar and water, but the smokiness of the mezcal subdued any subtlety that step may have imparted. The lime juice seemed muted too, and the angostura, though it gave the drink color, added a bitterness well in the background. My liquor purveyor described mezcal as the Islay of tequilas, and that description fits but there’s something western in it, more mesquite than oak.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. The Old Oaxacan is interesting, a perfect accompaniment to guacamole and chips, a suitably more serious substitute to that sweet margarita you’ve gotten used to. One caution: if you’re expecting the familiar tequila-laced confection, overcome that anticipation. You’ll find something quite different here, an in-your-face confrontation with fire and sugar that speaks more to char than caramel.

David’s take: I loved it, though I suspect it’s not for everyone.

Jonathan’s take: A good tequila would still be my preference, but this didn’t kill my curiosity about the subset that is mezcal.

Next Week (proposed by David):

We’ve celebrated the Derby. We’ve celebrated the Preakness. So far, California Chrome has responded. With the Belmont next week, we can’t pass up a Belmont Breeze. Though part of me bristles at a drink so obviously and cravenly promotional, the ingredients and combination sound wonderful. And if it will help the horse, well, that’s a bonus.