Bobby Burns

BB4Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

“Hey, where have you been?” an imagined reader may be crying. For the first time since starting this blog, Jonathan and I took an unanticipated stop. We’re both terribly busy and, when illness intervenes or anything surprising, it’s tough to find the time to make a cocktail. Sad but true. So we’re going to be scaling back, offering our cocktailian journey every other week rather than every week.

Policy announcement passed, onto this week’s drink…

Robert Burns (1759–96) is variously known as as Robbie Burns, Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s Favorite Son, the Ploughman Poet, Robden of Solway Firth, the Bard of Ayrshire and, simply, “The Bard” but not, anywhere I can find, “Bobby Burns.” He is THE Scottish poet, an early practitioner of Romanticism, a general aesthetic hero in his homeland, William Wallace with a quill.

A large portion of Burns’ fame springs from his writing in Scots vernacular as English overtook his nation. Though he was the son of a tenant farmer, a tenant farmer himself, and not a college graduate, he rose to prominence in his own lifetime. “I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as… to see my birthday,” he wrote, “inserted among the wonderful events in the Poor Robin’s and Aberdeen Almanacks…. and by all probability I shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the world.”

Okay, I’m not sure he ever made those books and those lists I never I heard of, but he is famous enough to have a cocktail named after him.

Many Americans know Burns (without really knowing him) because they sing his lyrics to Auld Lang Syne each New Year’s Eve or because they’ve heard a few lines from “A Red, Red Rose.” Even though I have an undergraduate and graduate degree in literature, I don’t know his work that well either. I just like cocktails with literary names.

My true attraction to this week’s drink, however, was the main spirit Scotch. Like Jonathan, I have some unfortunate memories of encountering it and some deep-seated need to rehabilitate it. How can any decent cocktailian, really, sidestep one of the chief whiskeys and the favorite of so many connoisseurs?

That would be like, well, dissing a major poet of Scotland.

My hope for the Bobby Burns hinges on its other ingredients, Benedictine and Sweet Vermouth. The drink from this blog that has come closest to winning me over to Scotch was, after all, another sweet entry, the Rusty Nail. That, however, was Scotch overkill, as it combines Scotch and Drambuie, Scotch liqueur. The Bobby Burns promises something like the Vieux Carré, a Manhattan style concoction. There’s no fruit—so no distraction from the spirits—but Scotch purists probably oppose even this much adulteration.

2 oz. Highland malt scotch
3/4 oz. sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. Bénédictine

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and strain into a chilled glass.

The Bobby Burns is the creation of Dale DeGroff, author of The Essential Cocktail and one of the favorites of this blog. For my version, I chose Glenmorangie, a reasonably priced single-malt that, as the picture indicates, even came with two nifty glasses. Right now, some reader is probably saying, “Hey, those glasses are for Scotch, not some wifty sweet drink” or, alternately, “Hey, what do you work for Glenmorangie, or what?” I’ll accept either insult if, at long last, I’ve found a palatable use for Scotland’s most famous export.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

bobbyjbmIn the last drink review David quoted Stephen Dedalus and for this drink he proposed one (purportedly) named for the Ploughman Poet, Robert Burns. I sense that I have exited the cocktail blog world and entered an English literature course. Of course he says he was looking for a successful Scotch based cocktail, but that is too simple.

Our close followers probably noticed we missed a week. That was my fault. Between a bad cold and work obligations, I never had a night when I could, or wanted to, try the cocktail or any alcohol at all. There are those that claim a medicinal benefit to liquors. In fact it kept the distilling industry alive during prohibition to some extent. I even cited that medicinal claim at one point when I noted that our Dad had a sore throat/cold cure that consisted of bourbon, honey, lemon juice and occasionally onion. I still think that was to induce his whining children to fall asleep and have never looked to spirits for their curative properties. The end result was that it took me two weeks to try the Bobby Burns and any opinion I express should be couched in terms of still limited tasting abilities.

Scotch based drinks are a short list and I think I have an idea why. Scotch is very assertive and doesn’t play well with others. There was hope though as this mix with sweet Vermouth and Benedictine had more promise than the others we have tried.

I used a blended Highland Scotch, Dewar’s, to try and tamp down the assertiveness. It still overcame the sweetness and herbal tones of the other additions. If you like Scotch, my guess is that those additions would be unwanted distractions and if you do not favor Scotch they are not enough. It was better than any Scotch drink we have tried, which is saying something, but my recommendation would still be to leave the Scotch neat, on ice, or alone.

Jonathan’s take: The Bobby Burns is a lovely Fall color but Scotch was not the medicine I needed.

David’s take: Maybe Scotch is the loner of the spirits.

Next Week (Proposed by Jonathan):

I love Fall which should be apparent from my past drink selections (and that I have said that before). My love does not include pumpkin beers or the abominations that are committed in the world of coffee concoctions, but the rest of the tastes of the season are great. And what says Fall more than Better Homes & Gardens? I am going back to that source for the Grand Autumn cocktail. Made with rye whiskey, St. Germain, lime juice and ginger beer, I hope that it can be enjoyed on a crisp October evening with nice fire in my new fire pit.

The Daedalus Cocktail

DaedalusJMProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

There is not much Greek mythology that I remember. That is a great shortcoming when playing along with Jeopardy. It is also surprising considering how much it was taught throughout my early education. Surely David does not share this hole in his knowledge. One story that I do remember, however, is the tale of Daedalus and Icarus.

Daedalus was a craftsman and had been imprisoned on an island. He could not escape by land or sea so he used his skills to weave together feathers with string and wax to make wings. Once he was sure it would work, he created a second pair of wings for his son Icarus. Before they escaped by flying away he warned Icarus that flying too high would cause the sun to melt the wax and the wings to fall apart. Like many a petulant child, Icarus became excited by the thrill of flight and forgot his father’s admonitions. The sun began to melt the wax and the wings fell apart. Icarus plunged into the sea below and drowned.

I am not sure if there a greater parable that the story provides or if it has anything to do with this drink. It is entirely possible that the story is as apparent as it seems – pay attention to your parents. Maybe ancient Greeks told this to their children as a warning that they should heed what they were told. Kind of a “eat your peas or you will plunge into the sea and drown” piece of advice. The same may be true of this drink. Try this cocktail and feel the thrill of flight. Or try too many and experience the calamity of a dip in the raging ocean.

The recipe appears to be an original from the bartenders at Absinthe Brasserie and Bar. Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz have included it in their book The Art of the Bar as an example of drink that features carefully made syrups. The syrup is slightly more difficult than the standard simple syrup:

1.5 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 ounces peeled and thinly sliced ginger
1.5 teaspoons whole black peppercorns

Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan, bring to a simmer and then simmer 40 minutes longer (presumably to infuse and thicken). Strain and refrigerate.

The drink is then a simple mix:

2 ounces Irish Whiskey
.5 ounce ginger syrup
Dash of orange bitters
Orange peel garnish

Combine first three ingredients with ice, stir for 20-30 seconds, strain into the appropriate cocktail glass and garnish with the orange peel. I loved the ginger syrup and used a little more than indicated in the recipe. I also found that the whole drink extended well by adding some ginger ale and serving with ice.

Here’s David’s Review:

daedalusdmFirst, I have to thank my wife, who made the ginger syrup and purchased the missing ingredients for this cocktail while I was away assistant coaching at a downstate cross country meet. The bus left at 5 am. It returned at 6 pm.

Perhaps that description of events also explains my reaction to the Daedalus. The ginger syrup seemed improved with its small infusion of pepper and, while I couldn’t say whether Irish Whisky or another type would make a difference—my palate isn’t so exacting—the proportion of spirit to sweetness seemed good. At not even three ounces, this drink seemed a little small, but maybe that was the situation too.

Like Jonathan, I also thought about the name of this drink. I too know the Daedalus of Greek myth, the creative wizard who designed the labyrinth on Crete and was imprisoned to protect its secrets. But I can add that, in ancient Greek art, daidala are a play on Daedalus’ name, ceramic sculptures of particular artistry as a general tribute to his creative genius.

Nothing in any of that, however, suggests to me Irish Whisky, orange bitters, or peppery ginger spirits. It took me two helpings to see a connection. Perhaps this drink is a tribute to Stephen Dedalus, the hero—and alterego—of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Critics say the protagonist’s name arises from Joyce’s theme of exile, his desire to escape from the constraints of his national religion and politics and his simultaneous nostalgic tie to the cultural forces that made James Joyce (and Stephen Dedalus, ostensibly). “Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience,” Dedalus says, “and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

That, by the way, is on my to-do list as well.

Perhaps these grand words account not only for the Irish Whisky but also for the more exotic elements of this cocktail, the ginger/pepper and orange. What makes this drink work, in my estimation, is the combination of expected and unexpected, its warmth and spiciness, its bracing potency and sweetness.

Of course, I may be entirely wrong, but, after a full Saturday away, it certainly seemed a welcome return to me, a recipe worth remembering.

David’s Take: I’m grateful to my wife that we have the ingredients for more.

Jonathan’s Take: Why is Scotch Whisky called “Scotch” but Irish Whiskey not called “Irish”?

Next Week (Proposed By David):

Speaking of Scotch… I think it’s time we return to the spirit. We’ve tried a couple, but this time I’d like to pursue a drink based on the literary hero of Scotland, Robert Burns. The Bobby Burns cocktail includes Sweet Vermouth, Benedictine, and the dreaded Scotch. It’s always tough to guess what’s left in our liquor larders, but I’m guessing we have plenty of scotch.

Year Two: The Best and Worst

As promised, we are taking a look at the highlights (and lowlights) of our second year of tasting cocktails.

Jonathan

JanetoblameThis has been a wonderful year for the virtual cocktail club. That’s mostly because it has been less virtual. We have enjoyed beverages with friends, neighbors, groups and, most importantly, family. David and I even had a couple of drinks together this year. I hate to try to summarize it for fear that something will be left out although there are plenty of cocktails that stand out for one reason or another.

I don’t know about David, but I cannot recall attending any school that named superlatives. You know – “most likely to make friends with a cell mate” or “best dressed person studying phrenology” or even “class rodeo clown”. Yes, that was my second rodeo clown reference this year even if this one makes no sense.

I went back and reviewed all of the drinks we tried this year. Reviewed, not tried. What stood out the most is that we have picked better drinks. There have been a few duds, but for the most part the cocktails have been interesting, sometimes classic sometimes not, and have included a great number of ingredients. Based on that, rather than rank the drinks I would like to offer my superlatives.

Best name/worst drink: The Monkey Incident

It is a bit unseemly to pick a drink I named, but I loved it (the name not the drink). It came to me in a conversation with a co-worker that had absolutely nothing to do with cocktails. I think the reason I liked it so much is that there is something amusing to me about any odd animal reference, and I don’t think it is just me.

I have an enduring memory of one of my nieces, the one most directly related to David, his daughter. We did not see them that often but there was a period that whenever we did she would always make some reference to baboons. What made it so funny is that when she said the word it was almost as if it burst from her like there was an actual baboon crashing into the room.  “And then he danced like a manic baboon!”

The drink wasn’t funny and it wasn’t good. It was our first, and I think only, frozen drink. It was also the only use of crème de banana and now I am stuck with a bottle of the stuff. Bad drink, bad liqueur.

Best use of unique spirits that were actually good: Goldschläger drinks

Goldschläger was used in two different drinks and both were surprisingly good. The first was the Black & Gold which we used to celebrate another niece’s graduation from college. The intent was to create a drink that matched the school colors with the gold flakes floating in a dark spirit. It was so effective that the drink actually tasted good. Nice surprise.

The second use was the 3GT which mixed ginger beer, gin, Goldschläger and tonic. My take was that it could be a staple on bar menus and I still think that. A mix of ginger, botanicals, cinnamon and quinine seems quite odd until you taste it. The interplay is one of the few examples of a drink that is not dominated by a single ingredient.

Most likely to make someone say “what the heck is that”: Pear Bourbon Cider

The base of that drink was a pear cinnamon cider from Trader Joe’s. That cider was so good that I went back less than a week later to get some more. It was gone from the shelves and I suspect it is one of those Trader products that don’t last long like the black pepper cashews that disappeared a few years ago but were so good that I still look for them every time I go in. The cider and bourbon were best friends. So much so that you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. I knew I had used bourbon as the base and that pear was the fruit but would bet that folks drinking the cocktail could not have identified either specifically. The essence of a well-blended drink.

Ingredient most able to make others superlative: Any drink with a sparkling wine

We tried at least three drinks that included a sparkling wine and each of them was fantastic. The Vanilla Bourbon Champagne, Amazonia and Sparkling Peach Sangria all stood out and the effervescence from the bubbly was a big part of each. I could probably include the orange wheat shandy, which benefited in the same way from the beer, in that group too. It may not be manly, whatever that means, but the specific carbonation of wine and beer lifts the drink to another level.

Even better for me, it is not a drink that I want to drink in quantity rather it is one that is worth savoring. Pinky extended, of course.

King and Queen of the Prom: Prickly Pear Margarita

David is right—we are more savvy. I would be one of the last people that a person should ask to whip up a cocktail without use of a recipe because we make a different one each week, and I don’t repeat them enough to commit the bartending to memory. That said, I know so much more about methods, concepts and individual, often odd, ingredients than I ever did. What once was a foreign language when reading drink menus is now familiar and there is a good chance I even know some of the history or background to it.

When I was at The Last Word in San Antonio I asked the bartender if they made their own shrubs. He described a couple of new ones they were working on for future drinks, and I told him about the simple apple shrub we had made a few weeks before. Fortunately, my son David was the only person to hear the conversation, and he is far too nice to tell me what a cocktail nerd I have become.

The prickly pear margarita is great example of the classic mix of ingredients that make up a good drink. Spirit, sweet, sour and water are the base but in this case they were all twists on each of those categories. Front and center were two components made for each other – mezcal and prickly pear syrup. The mezcal is distinctive and smoky providing the platform for everything else and the syrup balanced it with a unique earthy (David’s very apt description) sweetness. They are cousins that seem more like brothers which is fitting since our oldest brother provided the homemade prickly pear syrup that we used. The drink was made complete with more sweetness from orange liqueur and the sour element of lime provided in two different ways. There is both fresh juice and a concentrated limeade that begged for the ice bath to cut its strength. This cocktail deserves its crown(s).

David

drinkHere’s a different approach to this task. I’m going to dare a few thoughts about the aesthetics of cocktails.

After two years of making a different cocktail almost every week, I guess I’m entitled to some conclusions… or at least some opinions. When we last engaged in this week’s exercise of choosing hits, misses, and stuff between, my assessments seemed rather scattershot. It’s hard to say why some cocktails “work” (and others don’t), and anyone examining my choices might discover no pattern, no underlying principle, or specific perspective, no aesthetic.

That’s okay—I’m hanging onto our no-pressure not-so-savvy status as long as possible—but I am beginning to recognize (and anticipate, even) what I like in a drink. For me, it all comes down to balance, interest, and impact.

Balance seems the most obvious trait—you want each ingredient to count for something and you want them to play together well. You seek harmony. You don’t want a shandy that’s too orange-y or Bloody Mary still too married to tomato juice. A whiskey too sour isn’t appealing, nor is anything over-cardamomed. Two of my least favorite weeks involved milk or cream—the wassail and the cherry pisco hot chocolate. In each case, the ingredients seemed at war with one another, each vying for attention. One of the drinks I return to often is the 3GT, a combination of flavors that, while quite different, combine well.

We’ve had a fruity year. That is, we’ve tried a number of cocktails featuring components like grapefruit, figs, prickly pears, rhubarb, peaches, strawberries, cranberry, and even pumpkin. If you count citrus, almost every drink contains fruit. More broadly, however, I’d say each has an interest, a central taste everything else dances around. Balance and interest may seem contradictory—one suggests a meeting of equals and the other a boss—but the two traits are more paradoxical to me. You need to taste everything, but without something particularly interesting, the drink doesn’t work. And it need not be fruit. Take the Vanilla Bourbon Champagne Cocktail. The name is a pile-up of sorts—or an effort to give every actor a line—but the vanilla seems the star, echoed by the mellow taste of bourbon and enhanced by the effervescence of champagne. I’m with Jonathan here… just about any cocktail with sparkling wine is good… well, not every.

When I say a cocktail needs impact, I don’t mean to say it’s potent—though potency is perhaps the most obvious impact in a cocktail—it could be its appearance, as with Tiki drinks or spice, as with the Medicine Man or Chai as in the Chai Town. I realize impact over laps with interest, but if interest is the central flavor cocktails dance around, the impact is the great enticer, attracting eyes, nose, or sensibility. Alcohol-y drinks aren’t for everyone. I’ve talked about my sister-in-law’s preference for fruity drinks, but a spirituous drink has some appeal for me, promising a break from the usual, especially when the usual seems so challenging. In that vein, I enjoyed the Jane Russell and the Monte Carlo, both of which matched spirit against liqueur against bitters, intense, potent, but distinctive.

This aesthetic of balance, interest, and impact may seem to exclude those standards like the whiskey sour or gin and tonic or martini, but I don’t think they do. Oddly, one of my favorite drinks over the last two years has been the Horse’s Neck, which might not seem to have so much going for it—just ginger ale, bourbon, and bitters. My justification is be that an effective cocktail needs some measure of each trait, and that, at times, one trait makes it all work.

Jonathan’s Take: I thought we would have run out of ideas by now, but on to year three.

David’s Take: Still not savvy, but getting there.

Next week (Proposed By Jonathan):

The Daedalus is cocktail that I found in a book I have used for previous proposals – The Art of the Bar. It is one of few drinks I have seen that uses Irish whiskey as the primary liquor, excluding shots, and is combined here with a ginger syrup that also includes peppercorns to add a little spice. It should be a simple mix to start, again, our next year of virtual drinks together.