Chilcano

Proposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

The basis of the featured cocktail was a way to use up some of the different liquors I have accumulated. In the course of doing that though I found a cocktail that answered a nagging non-question and posed another. We will start with the cocktail and work towards the other two things.

The drink is The Chilcano which is a Pisco based drink. It is in the mule/buck style with a slight twist:

2 ounces Pisco
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/4 ounce fresh ginger juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
Ginger ale (I used 4 ounces)
Angostura bitters

Mix everything except the ginger ale, add ice, top with the ginger ale and garnish with a lime peel. The twist is the ginger juice,which you can buy in small bottles, that adds a real kick to the drink. The simple syrup seemed unnecessary so I left it out as many variations of Chilcano recipes do.

This blog has been an education with huge amounts of information to process both good and bad. One of my least favorites are the lists of in and out cocktails as if you should choose what to drink based on popularity or lack of it. Sometime around the new year I read an article that included expert bartender opinions about cocktails. One of those bartenders suggested that Moscow Mules have overstayed their welcome. His thought was that it did not matter if you liked them—they were over ordered and it was time to move on. So the non-question is whether someone else should tell you what to like. If you want to drink a Mule, do it. If you want a great variation, however, try this.

The other question posed by this drink comes from the name. In Peru, the home of Pisco, Chilcano can be a cocktail or a soup that is considered a cure for hangovers. Chilcano de Pescado is a Peruvian fish soup that traditionally starts with a fish head broth. The idea is that this soup should be consumed the morning after over-consumption to alleviate the ill effects. That made me wonder what folks thought were the most effective and the most odd hangover cures, so I did an informal poll.

The list of effective cures is not too surprising. Sleep, analgesics, and water were clearly at the top of the list. The other common ideas, none of which were fish head soup, included sugary drinks, exercise, and hair of the dog. I’m not sure drinking more is so much a cure as it is putting off the pain or crying for help.

There weren’t too many odd cures, but there were some very specific ones. One person insisted that Dr. Pepper before bed was the magic elixir, one suggested extreme hard labor, and another was just as sure a late night greasy meal was the trick.

Long ago when David would eat such things, he and I tried the latter method. He was living in Louisville and we followed a long night of beers with a stop at the local White Castle for sliders (mini-burgers for the uninitiated) to make sure we felt fine in the morning. I can’t remember if it worked but have tried or seen plenty of variations of that over the years. In college a Greek grilled cheese was a very common end to a night. If that didn’t work, one friend of mine was sure a quick meal of basic McDonald’s cheeseburgers the next day would.

David’s Review:

Clearly, Jonathan hasn’t been taking care of this spirits larder. For me, the pisco we bought oh-so-long-ago is gone… and I may have finished another bottle since then. I could account for my pisco deficit in several ways. First, I have replaced the gin in gin and tonics with pisco and experimented with it in other drinks. I even made a caipirinha with pisco, which was quite good. Second, I try not to buy a new bottle of anything until some other bottle gets empty (see #1). Third, I like pisco a lot. Four, maybe I should stop drinking altogether.

I’d say that, with the exception of the ginger elements, this drink struck me as being very like a caipirinha, but that might be a little like saying “with the exception of beef, beef stroganoff is very like a tofu stroganoff.” There’s an analogy I’m sure Jonathan will understand. The ginger is rather important and finding ginger juice was much more difficult than obtaining pisco. I settled on a “ginger shot,” a nutritional form of ginger juice I found at Whole Foods. Another choice, a bottle of squeezable ginger from our regular grocery, proved too pulpy and too sweet.

Sweetness has become one of my biggest bugaboos with mixology. It seems most drinks are too sweet to me now, and simple syrup—even the ginger-grapefruit simple syrup I made for an earlier recipe—is something (along with Jonathan) I’d skip. Pisco isn’t sweet, but, redolent of grapes, the fruity scent seems enough for me. Plus, the simple syrup seemed to interfere with the Angostura, and I like to taste my Angostura—or what’s it doing there?

Those caveats out of the way, I really liked this drink. While pisco isn’t that distinctive a spirit, it isn’t vodka, which to me is a big blank. But it isn’t like whiskey, scotch, or gin either, flavors that are instantly recognizable and thus a little more touchy to mix. If I had a friend looking to try some new spirit, in fact, I might recommend pisco as a safe bet for something he or she might like.

Oh, and for hangovers, by the way, I always recommend a punishing (and penitent) workout followed by Gatorade or coconut water.

David’s take: If Jonathan still hasn’t exhausted his pisco supply, I’m willing to buy another bottle to help him get to the bottom of it.

Jonathan’s take: Don’t listen to the experts listen to me, The Chilcano is excellent. At least the non-fish head version is.

Next Time (Proposed by David):

Our sister gave me a book for Christmas called Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails from the Lone Star State, and I’ve been dipping into it looking for our next cocktail. After much debate, I’ve chosen El Pepino, which is sort a tequila julep made with cucumbers in addition to the usual mint simple syrup. The recipe cites the drink as proof that tequila is a versatile spirit and not just for Margaritas. Plus, looking on the web, I discovered it’s Justin Timberlake’s favorite drink. So there.

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The Crusta

FullSizeRender-22Proposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

There are two parts to this introduction. One part, of course, is the background and history of this drink. That history is part of the evolution of the cocktail as we know it and is tied one the most common birthplaces for tipples that have spanned generations. The other part is familiar territory for the blog ,which is the theme of how we get ideas and proposals for what we will try each week – or every other week now. It may be best to start with the latter.

I have an ever-growing library of books about spirits, cocktails and the things that go with them. Those books are in actual paper format and e-books. As an aside, it is hard enough to remember where I read what but that is magnified by trying to recall which format first. At least e-books have a search function once I get that far. Among the newest of those books is Southern Cocktails by Denise Gee. I almost always do a quick perusal of books as I get them and the first thing that jumped out from this one were some recipes to go with the cocktails. In a twist on the traditional New Year’s Day menu for health, luck and money we used two appetizer suggestions. One was a black eyed pea queso and the other country ham and goat cheese pinwheels. Throw in some corn and collard green pancakes with lemon zest sour cream and we had the peas, ham, corn and greens we needed to start our year.

The cocktail I chose from the book was a familiar one called The Crusta. But why was it familiar and where the heck did I read about it before? Here’s the recipe first:

Fine grained sugar
Wedge of lemon
1.5 ounces cognac or bourbon
.5 ounce orange liqueur
.25 ounce maraschino cherry liqueur
.5 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
Dash angostura bitters
Orange peel for garnish

Wet the rim of a wine glass with the lemon, put sugar on a plate and rim the glass in sugar, mix all of the ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake and strain into the wine glass into which new ice has been added. Garnish with the orange peel.

There are multiple versions of this recipe as David pointed out to me in a welcome reminder that I had not told him which one we would be using. Although this one does not have any sweetener other than that on the rim, history tells us that it should.

The reason that this drink sounded familiar is that it is part of the evolution of cocktails. David Wondrich wrote about The Crusta in his classic book Imbibe (that one is an e-book in my library) and notes that it marks the addition of citrus to the cocktail world. The Crusta is among one of many classics that were invented in New Orleans and is most certainly near the top of that list chronologically.  It was created by Joseph Santini in the 1850’s at the New Orleans City Exchange bar or an establishment called the Jewel of the South that he opened a few years later. Southern Cocktails credits it to Santini’s Saloon but I will stick with Wondrich on cocktail history. The drink impressed the oft noted professor, Jerry Thomas, so much that he included it in his famous book on cocktails. He included a version with gin but brandy/cognac seems to be the most common.

I am still in the self-imposed alcohol free zone of January. I did employ my taster, though, and even had the poor guy try both a cognac and a bourbon version. Classic cocktail evolution and the recipe both make it obvious that this is a spirit forward drink. He likes bourbon more than the unfamiliar cognac and preferred that one. By the same token if gin is your favorite then follow the professor’s lead and go with that.

Here’s David’s Review:

IMG_1369You have to understand something about this blog—sometimes it feels as if it’s all about the photo. When the recipe calls for a specific garnish, or the drink is supposed to separate into layers, or even when there’s whipped cream, I start to worry. The Crusta, from every version I saw online looked more aesthetically pleasing than I usually muster. The sugar is part of the cocktail, of course. It lends sweetness to every sip… but that orange peel?

My brother might tell you I’m a champion worrier and that, nine times out of ten, my worry is entirely unjustified. In this case, the relief of making the Crusta look like the pictures of it distracted me. I’d had most of one before I thought, “Hey, what’s this like?”

Much about the drink suggests its venerable heritage. For one, whether you used Bourbon or Brandy (and I also made one of each), the spirit pushes to the forefront of this cocktail. The lemon juice, curacao and maraschino seem simply complementary, pleasant background to the main event. The sugar on the edge of the glass will seem a little too much to some who prefer more bitter, but I didn’t mind as long as the bourbon/brandy came through.

If you’re a regular reader, you know my feeling about these cocktails sometimes drifts into fiction. I think about who might drink them and in what circumstance. I’ve never seen a Crusta on a cocktail menu, but I imagine a person-in-the-know (a cognoscenti, or cocktailscenti, if you were) ordering it. He or she does it, in part, to challenge the bartender and, in another part, to draw some line back to the proto-cocktails that started everything. They say cocktails are an American art like Jazz or early cinema, and I like that idea. I like thinking Americans know how to combine, how to make something inventive simply by putting several different, and occasionally seemingly disparate, parts together. This libation, held up to the light by my imaginary customer, promises a celebration of ingredients, and I approve. The originals are often the most satisfying.

David’s Take: Not sure I can take the pressure of presentation too many more times, but I loved this cocktail.

Jonathan’s take: Cocktails without citrus? Say it ain’t so, and then say thank you to Joseph Santini.

Next Time (Proposed by David):

Boy, I hope Jonathan is up for this. Now that my brother has returned from cocktail exile, I’m going to propose a serious drink, the author of Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess’ favorite, the Hangman’s Blood, a potent—even if literary—”cocktail.” Call it revenge if you like. With seven (yes, SEVEN) spirits, this drink may prove the better of the Long Island Ice Tea. We can each split one with our wives, that’s permissible, but I’m been threatening this drink for awhile… maybe it’s time.

 

Rock and Rye

Rock and Rye.jbmProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

This is an inauspicious beginning. I wasn’t there but take it on good authority that early rye whiskeys were not good. They had off flavors that needed to be disguised and that mask was typically a sweetener. If you wanted to drink a bad whiskey it is doubtful that you wanted to water it down with any other liquid so bartenders provided lumps of rock candy for that purpose.

The evolution of the sweetened rye continued from that simple combination. Rye was livened up with sugar and a flavoring of fruit and herbs. The concoction became a popular curative, there’s that theme again, with the addition of herbs that helped, or purported to help, with chest and head congestion. One of these, horehound, is a flowering plant that has been used for centuries for congestion and respiratory issues. Modern researchers have determined that aspects of the herb may also be beneficial for other ailments and even for anti-cancer benefits. Try that excuse next time you want a drink.

Rock and rye lasted into and through prohibition due to these claims as a medicinal aid. Once prohibition ended, though, its popularity faded. If I were to guess, the attention on creating quality spirits once they became legal again probably chased away the need to mask bad liquors with herbs, fruit and sweeteners.

Part of the increased popularity of cocktails has been a resurgence of unique rock and ryes made both in bars and at home. The basic recipe is to start the infusion with fresh fruit, fruit peels, dried fruit or some combination of those. Herbs are added and then the crafted liquor is finished with the rock candy that provided half of its name. The recipe that I used is from Gun and Garden magazine and is credited to John Maher of Rogue Gentlemen bar in Richmond:

1 750 milliliter bottle of rye (they recommend Reservoir but there’s no way I am spending that much on whiskey and then doing some home flavoring)
Peel of half an orange
Peel of one lemon
10 dried cherries (I went tart here for a hoped for contrast)
½ cinnamon stick
1 clove
1 star anise
1 tsp horehound (had to use horehound candies since I couldn’t find the straight herb)
1 six inch piece string of rock candy soaked in Cheerwine (a regional black cherry soda) syrup (12 ounces of soda simmered until it is reduced to at least half that volume).

Combine the first 5 items in a glass container and set aside for 3 days. Add the rest of the items on the list and infuse for another day. Strain the mix and put back into the original rye bottle. That last part is not on their recipe but it made sense to me. Plus I had to try a little since the Cheerwine syrup added a little extra liquid. I added a few more dried cherries into the bottle because I had read somewhere that they do that in bars to identify their different mixes.

My proposal included the suggestion that we try this on the rocks and in a cocktail. The base rock and rye was very good served with ice and some Angostura bitters. I was extra careful not to add too much Cheerwine syrup when I did the infusion since I had used horehound candies and didn’t want it to be too sweet. The bitters also helped with that. Between the soda and the dried cherries it had a nice fruit flavor that went well with the rye. The cocktail was a simple mix of ginger ale and rock and rye. Oddly, the more basic ginger ale was better than the spicier versions as a mixer.

Here’s David’s Review:

DBMTo start, two confessions:

First, my Rock and Rye didn’t steep the proper number of days. Even though Jonathan and I have had this concoction in mind for a while and I’d gone to some trouble to obtain Cheerwine, I didn’t consult the recipe until Friday morning, which meant my wife quickly combining of the ingredients, my shaking it all weekend to compensate for brevity (every time I passed the jar), and delaying consumption until the last possible moment Sunday evening.

Second, I couldn’t find the horehound the recipe called for, even at my super-fancy spice store. They were sure the recipe meant horehound candy, but that didn’t make sense to me because the ingredient is measured in teaspoons. No matter, I couldn’t find the candy either. Asking about it did elicit some interesting and amusing expressions, however.

So here’s what I think of my admittedly imperfect version: it’s strong. I guess I missed the part where Jonathan suggested using it with a mixer. You need to know, when you drink this stuff, you’re essentially drinking some citrusy and spicy rye. Some of you may say, “Great!” but my rock candy hardly sweetened it. If you’re as unused as I am to drinking spirits straight, you will need to tell yourself to slow down.

And, to me, it tastes mostly like rye. Certainly the lemon and orange are there, but they come across mostly as a bitter finish, intruding on the rye only in the last taste. If I were steeping this mixture again, I might put the anise and other spices in earlier, as, in my version at least, they were so subtle as to be barely recognizable. The cherry didn’t stand a chance at all.

I read in one account online that the Rock and Rye available in bars was particularly appealing to an overindulgent customer who chose it because “It has fruit in it.” His rationalization makes perfect sense to me, which is perhaps why I’ll look for ways to mix this stuff into other cocktails rather than drinking it straight.

On a side note, some weeks ago, during a visit to my friendly neighborhood not-so-upscale liquor store, I spotted a bottle of liqueur labeled Rock N’ Rye, so I bought some, for comparison’s sake. It’s far sweeter—you’d have to pour all of the Cheerwine syrup into this iteration to get even close—and there must be some other stuff in the commercial version too. The store-bought isn’t as citrusy or spicy. As Jonathan always says, there’s no substitute for fresh (and actual) ingredients, and, in comparison, the liqueur just tastes like sweetened rye.

That said, I may pour some Cheerwine syrup into my bottle (hey, what else am I going to do with Cheerwine syrup?) and try my Rock and Rye in combination with ginger ale or soda. The idea (if not-so-much the reality) of both versions appeals to me, and I haven’t given up on my homemade libation.

David’s Take: Do you like rye and the peels of lemons and oranges? Ask that question before you invest your time and energy.

Jonathan’s take: May have to make a Thanksgiving version this week with orange peel, dried cranberries, nutmeg and allspice.

Next Time (Proposed By: David):

I sometimes think of my ingredients as athletes sitting on the bench waiting for the chance to get into the game. Next time, I’m calling in Dark Rum, Kahlua, and (my sister-in-law will likely hate me) eggs. It just seems the time to return to an egg cocktail, so I’m suggesting the Almeria Cocktail.

Grand Autumn Cocktail

-1Proposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

My proposal for this drink included a wish that I could enjoy the cocktail on a crisp October evening by the fire pit. I did enjoy the cocktail, although the crisp evening by the fire eluded me. We have not had the rain which has besieged our neighbors in South Carolina, but it has been rainy and quite inhospitable for time outside. Especially on the usual cocktail Saturday and Sundays.

The Grand Autumn cocktail comes from Better Homes & Gardens magazine. I hope the fact that my wife is a subscriber makes it legal for us to use it with proper credit since you need a password to get the recipe on-line. Here is the recipe either way:

2 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce St. Germain
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
2 dashes angostura bitters
3 ounces ginger beer

Mix the first four ingredients and shake or stir with ice. Strain into a double old fashioned or mule cup, add the ginger beer and ice, and stir gently. It is an Autumn drink so Barritt’s or Gosling’s are a good choice for the ginger beer to get that nice Fall color. I also chose a rye whiskey for a more peculiar reason even if it loosely falls into the family part of this blog.

I am an Astros fan, which is typically painful to admit, but, this year, I’m proud of their progress. Growing up south of Houston it was the only reasonable choice to root for the home team, and my affection was cemented through free tickets provided to area students who made the honor roll. There was a point when all five kids in our family were eligible, and we had far more tickets than our parents had energy for trips to the Astrodome. Somehow my oldest son has the same affliction, and even our youngest seems to have a soft spot for a team that I most often reference as “The Sortas” for their ineptitude. This year was an exception (even if they did lose to the Royals), and the three of us enjoyed a weekend in Houston to see them in person. Now, what does that have to do with rye whiskey?

I went shopping for the whiskey at the same time the Astros were struggling to get one of the last spots in the playoffs. They didn’t have the brand I was looking for and I had settled on another option and headed to check out. At that point I spotted a display of Yellow Rose rye from Houston. It seemed like an omen and when it comes to sports I am very partial to omens. Since that purchase, the Astros have made the playoffs, dispatched the Yankees and are holding their own with the Royals. When you are an Astros fan and usually just hoping for relevance, that’s a lot. Thank you Yellow Rose.

Here’s David’s Review:

grand.dmSometimes, in odd Walter Mitty moments, I imagine this blog being picked up by some liquor company and climbing on a gravy train so full of gravy I don’t have to work anymore. That’s not likely to happen—though, if some liquor giant is out there, let me just say “Please?” Yet if it were to happen, one of my top candidates would be Crabbie’s Ginger Beer. I confess I love the stuff and would love having my consumption of it fully subsidized.

Which is to say I loved this drink. Rye (another favorite) and Elderflower liqueur (now in less expensive forms than St. Germain) add to the appeal, but really it’s ginger beer. Something about ginger’s zing complements spirits, adding interest to any concoction.

The lime and bitters, of course, are good too, but they almost seemed nods to other cocktails like bucks and Manhattan varietals. I suppose they add, but, really, you know, it’s the Crabbie’s Ginger Beer.

Are you listening, Crabbie’s? I’m not hard to find.

Now, why this is a Grand Autumn cocktail is a complete mystery to me. Even after each seasons of drinking, I’m sometimes unsure of why one drink settles in one time of year. I wouldn’t dare drink a gin and tonic in December, but I suspect that’s conditioning rather than any intrinsic summeriness associated with gin, or tonic, or both together.

Someone out there in cyberland may tell me that Rye is a warm spirit or that ginger is evocative of seasonal fare or that elderflower, redolent of blossoms now blown, adds a wistful longing for the just passed. I get all that. I do. Generally, as an English teacher, I’m all in favor of reaching after meaning (read: bullshit), but this drink just didn’t say autumn to me, not at all.

Not withstanding that somewhat peevish criticism, however, it was mighty good… thanks, Crabbie’s Ginger Beer.

Jonathan’s take: Sing with me – There’s a Yellow Rose of cocktails, that I am going to drink…

David’s Take: I think I’d like it in any season… I bet you can guess why.

Next Week (Proposed By David):

I’m still on this autumn thing, so I’m going to make another attempt at another concoction presented as a seasonal cocktail, a Melaza Punch, featuring molasses, the ostensibly autumnal ingredient. We’ve tried Maple syrup, so why the heck not? The wrinkle here is that this drink also includes Tequila and Pineapple Juice, so it’s really stretching the fall envelope. I’m interested in hearing what Jonathan thinks of this seasonal question, and what better way to elicit a fiery response but to put the issue to a big test.

Drinks With Amer Marshallon

AmerProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

A number of factors make this week’s post unusual. First, though I proposed the drink, it builds on a version of a spirit no longer available in the U.S.—Amer Picon—that David concocted from an internet recipe over the span of a month or so.

Second, the two of us are together… like, in one place… and at the same time… actual, not virtual.

We’re visiting our sister and mother in San Antonio, and, in the spirit of this too uncommon event, we thought it would be fun to construct this week’s post as a dialogue between our blog’s two cocktailian brothers.

Here goes:

JM: So, David, what is Amer Picon exactly?

DM: It’s an amaro. The word means “bitter” in Italian, but Amer Picon is a French variety no longer available in the states. A guy named Gaetin Picon developed it in the 1830s as an aperitif meant to aid digestion. The recipe changed in the 1970s—they altered the ingredients and lowered the proof a lot—so the current commercial version in Europe is very different from the original, Still, a lot of classic recipes call for it. You won’t find it at any liquor store, and, on the web, you’re more likely to encounter a discussion of what might substitute for it than a way to obtain it. That’s what I did. After a friend made me his version of Amer Picon, I returned the favor by making one of my own.

JM: How did you make it?

DM: I sent away from some dried orange peels—two ounces from bitter oranges and two from sweet orange—then put them in a big glass jug with some high proof vodka. They stayed together for a month. The recipe actually asked me to leave the jug two months, but I compensated by shaking the mixture up every time I passed by it. I think I was driving everyone mad with all the shaking. Then I added Amaro Ramazzotti, another amaro with gentian root and quinine and a little sweetness, some water to reduce the proof, and about half a bottle of orange bitters. I was supposed to use blood orange bitters, but I couldn’t find those. Instead I chose orange bitters aged in Old Tom Gin barrels.

JM: How do you know if it tastes anything like the original Amer Picon?

DM: I don’t, obviously. The internet recipe is a guess, and, changing the bitters and choosing the orange peels I did, I decided to call it Amer Marshallon. But I thought you might approve of the name.

So, anyway, it’s your turn. Why did you choose the Amer Picon cocktails you did?

seven drinks JMJM: Since Amer Picon (or Amer Marshallon) isn’t readily available, there are very few recipes that call for it. The classic cocktail is Amer Picon punch, which is the national drink of Basque, and we have Basque origins. Since we’re visiting our mother though, and she is the mother-in-the-law of our three spouses, I chose the Mother-in-Law cocktails. I also chose the Brooklyn cocktail because we were serving a lot of people and did a Bushwick version of the Brooklyn in honor of David’s son, who lives in that section of Brooklyn.

DM: And the recipes?

JM: The Mother-in-Law is the most complicated… and this version makes three drinks.

1 tsp. Peychaud bitters (but we couldn’t find any and chose Orange instead)

1 tsp. Angostura bitter

1 tsp. Amer Picon

½ oz. orange curacao

½ oz. simple syrup

½ oz. maraschino liqueur

9 oz. bourbon

DM: So what’d you think?

JM: I only tasted it, but the mild sweetness was more to my preference.

DM: For me, it was also the sweetest, and maybe the most subtle. There really isn’t a huge influence from any of the secondary ingredients, though. As it’s nearly all alcohol and the others complained it was too strong.

JM: The other drinks were a Brooklyn and a variation of the Brooklyn called the Bushwick… these both make one drink.

Brooklyn:

2 oz. rye

¾ dry vermouth

2 tsp. Amer Picon

2 tsp. maraschino liqueur

Bushwick:

2 oz. rye

¼ oz. Amer Picon

¼ oz. maraschino

DM: What was the difference, do you think?

JM: I only tasted the others, so it’s hard for me to say, but the dry vermouth made the Brooklyn less sweet, and it seemed even more potent.

DM: I thought so too, though I preferred it to Bushwick. I drank half of mine then switched with someone to try the Bushwick.

ad 1JM: I have a three-drink rule and succumbed to trying some Texas beers before we started.

DM: Me too, and maybe I should have had some rules, but… well… I didn’t. I had plenty of everything.

JM: So, what was the Bushwick like to you?

DM: It seems like we’ve used sweet vermouth a lot. Unless you choose a bitter form of it, sweet vermouth adds an almost punch taste.

JM: Punch taste?

DM: You know, like Tahitian Treat, or Hawaiian Punch.

JM: Ah, the drinks of our youth.

DM: Overall, I’d say I need to find some new uses for the Amer Marshallon. Your wife told me she doesn’t like these all-alchol drinks, and I’m beginning to understand her perspective. I may find some new ways to couple Amer with fruit… to balance its bitterness and echo its sweet elements.

JM: Or maybe just a splash with some lemon-lime seltzer. Or add it to something that calls for bitters.

DM: What would you think of it with tonic instead? You know how I love my tonic.

JM: If you love it, drink it. If you don’t love it, don’t drink it. There’s a rule for you.

DM: A good one. In any case, it was fun to actually make the drink together. Besides dividing the labor, I learned much more about how you operate as a cocktailian.

JM: Virtual has been great fun and accomplished our goal of communicating much more. Actual is a lot more fun.

DM: And those were our takes.

Next Week (Proposed by David):

Visiting our sister, I recognized that she has a half a bottle of cachaca from my last visit, so I looked for something that might make effective use of it. I chose the Amazonia, in part because the description said it’d be perfect for Sunday barbeque. Having tried some good barbeque on this trip, the recipe appeals to me. Summer has more than begun in Texas, but back in Chicago, we are just starting to de-winterize our grills.

Monte Carlo

monte carloJMProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

The cocktail this week is a variation on the Manhattan called the Monte Carlo. There is little history to be found on this drink other than it is one of many, although very simple in this case, alterations of the basic classic. The recipe substitutes Benedictine for sweet vermouth and specifies rye whiskey. As stated in last week’s proposal, the recipe comes from The Art of the Bar:

2 ounces rye
¾ ounce Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura or Peychaud’s bitters
Lemon twist for garnish

The recipe suggests that the ingredients be combined, stirred with ice to chill, strained into a glass and garnished with the lemon. There is a discussion included in the book about shaking versus stirring and my synopsis would be to follow a simple hint. If the drink is all spirit one should stir, but if it includes a non-spirit like fruit juice or an egg it needs to be vigorously shaken to combine. There’s more to it, but that is easier to remember.

There is a layer of taste to this drink that I think is missing in the classic Manhattan. It could be that sweet vermouth is simply too subtle for me, but there is little doubt that the herbal presence of Benedictine is more assertive. We tried it with rye one day and then with aged rum the next (why not vary a variation after all?) and in both the herbal sweetness dominated in a good way.

This cocktail also brings me back to the concept of the perception of taste and how it is affected by place or setting. There is the very real concept of terroir and its effect on taste, but I am talking more about psychology than geography.

Terroir is the effect of geology and geography on the qualities of something one consumes. Soil and climate may be the most common elements that affect the taste of such things as grapes (wine), milk (cheese), spirits (Kentucky bourbon) and many other consumable products. There are also differences in production methods, but anyone who has tasted something as subtle as a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand compared to one from California has experienced this.

Earlier this week I heard an example of what I consider the psychology of taste. A show on one of the food channels included a discussion how bagels are better in New York City, which they undoubtedly are. One of the people commenting in the story suggested that the water in the city provided the subtle, but distinctive, difference. I would argue (apparently about anything since I am arguing about bagels) that the difference in taste comes from years of experience and the repetition of making so many bagels. I also think that bagels are one of the classic foods associated with New York, and people simply expect them to better in that setting—so they are. Similarly, one can make beignets and café au lait, but will they be as tasty as they would be if you were sitting at Café du Monde in New Orleans? No, no they wouldn’t.

You don’t need to travel to Monte Carlo to heighten the taste of this cocktail, but the right place and time can accentuate its taste. To me, this is a drink for a dark bar or sitting in front of a nice fire. It is one to be enjoyed pre-meal, with quiet music, conversation and good company. Maybe even a smoking jacket and comfy slippers although the nice fire is a better setting for that than the dark bar. That’s up to you though.

Here’s David’s Review:

MonteCarloDMThe highest compliment my geometry teacher ever delivered was “Elegant.” She used the word only for some solutions to proofs. An answer with seven or eight steps might be just as correct as one with three, and a shorter but more pedestrian response was fine too. What made a proof elegant in her eyes was the combination of novelty and economy.

I would describe the Monte Carlo as similarly elegant. After last week’s overcrowded cocktails, it was nice to try a recipe with so few ingredients and so simple a preparation. However, what made the drink, in my estimation, was the dominance of a single spirit and the subtle—yet evident—contributions of the other parts. If you like rye (as I do) and Benedictine (as I do) and bitters (as I do), you will probably enjoy this cocktail.

The dominance of Rye—my recipe used 2.25 ounces, to only .5 for the Benedictine—also made the Monte Carlo a stiff drink. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Seawright, my geometry teacher, never used the words “stiff drink,” but potency may contribute to elegance as well. From the first sip (and you’d better sip), the purpose of this drink seemed plain, and, on another cold Chicago evening, it seemed particularly warming.

The recipe I used invited me to play with the proportion of Benedictine, warning that the drink might be sweeter than some imbibers like. I didn’t find that to be the case. I wouldn’t describe the Monte Carlo as an overly sweet cocktail. But, after one, I wasn’t tempted to try it again with different proportions. Some bitter element might add something—Carpano Antica or Amer Picon (if you can get some or have a generous friend who lets you have some of his homemade batch)—yet I wouldn’t want to play with the elegance of this concoction. Though it’s straightforward, it’s complex without any additions.

Jonathan’s take: sometimes the variation is better than the original.

David’s Take: I felt so sophisticated drinking the Monte Carlo. That must be good.

Next Week (proposed by David):

During my usual agony over what to propose next, I located something on Difford’s Guide to the Top 100 cocktails that has always piqued my curiosity, Blood and Sand. The name is the greatest appeal to me… though the origin of that name is interesting too, as I’ll tell you next week. Plus, it uses Scotch. I’m generally not a Scotch drinker, but I would love to rehabilitate the spirit. There must be something out there that makes good use of the bottles in my liquor cabinet. In any case, it’s time to find out.

The Chopped Challenge

drinksProposed by: Circumstances

Reviewed by: Brave Souls

David:

Two brothers, one cocktail, only one chance to win…

Though not really—Jonathan and I would have to be in the same city to go head-to-head in our Chopped-style cocktail challenge. Instead, we’re treating the spirits and peripherals we’ve gathered as cocktailians as mystery basket ingredients.

The challenge… to make an unforgettable drink from these mystery ingredients, before… time… runs… out.

We gave ourselves 30 minutes to draw the slips of paper bearing the names of our ingredients and make and serve the cocktail, which is plenty of time for mixology. It’s so much time that I made three versions of my cocktail before settling on the “best.”

Our distinguished panel of chefs will critique their work… and one by one they must face the dreaded chopping block…

In the end only my wife and daughter were brave enough to test my efforts. When I described this challenge to people, I heard the same refrain, “That sounds like a very bad idea.”

Who will win the $10,000 prize… and who will be chopped?”

The contestants on Chopped are always playing for something—redemption, professional credibility, familial respect, some (usually pretty narrow) charity, fellow suffers of odd maladies, getting the ball rolling on some project (like a board game, twice), or pride. I don’t know about Jonathan, but my goals were more modest. I wanted to avoid spit takes.

“Two contestants think they have what it takes to be a Chopped champion. Let’s meet them…”

I’m actually not sure I do have what it takes. A big part of being a not-so-savvy cocktailian is the protection of the label. If you advertise yourself as incompetent, how badly can you fail?

I was trying to apply what I’ve learned, which—as I’ve said—isn’t enough. Writing “Crème de Menthe” and “Spanish Port” on slips of appropriately colored paper, I understood why Chopped contestants sweat so profusely.

Cocktailians… here are the rules. There is one round with its basket of mystery ingredients, and you must use every ingredient in the basket in some way. Also available are pantry and fridge.

categoriesWe divided the contents of our liquor cabinets into four categories—basic spirits, liqueurs, fortified wines, and other non-alcoholic ingredients like bitters, simple syrups on hand, grenadine, and the like. It’s hard enough to make a harmonious drink from three alcoholic components (never mind some weird bitter).

I’d already decided to interpret “pantry and fridge” liberally.

When the clock runs out our judges will critique your drinks on presentation, taste, and creativity.

At least two of those criteria didn’t seem so tough.

Please open your basket.

I let my wife draw my four slips of paper and opened them all at once:

  • basic spirit: aquavit (a basic because I figured aquavit is like gin… giant mistake)
  • liqueur: crème de violette (which I’ve always thought must be what perfume tastes like)
  • fortified wine: Spanish sherry (goody, some earth tones to go with purple and ochre)
  • other: cardamom bitters (perhaps the bossiest bitter—it has to get its way)

First I thought, “This was a very bad idea,” and then I tasted each ingredient just the way the contestants on Chopped do… when they’re stalling. In cocktail class, I learned each cocktail is actually six ounces, with two being ice or mixer. When I combined equal portions of the spirits and a single drop of cardamom, it came out to 4 ounces of army green. Fail.

Try again. I thought the crème de violette had to be less and the aquavit had to be less and who in their right mind would ever drink anything grayish green? So I reduced the crème de violette to half an ounce, made the aquavit and sherry one ounce each and, from the pantry, used a half an ounce of lemon juice. Then my hand slipped, and I ended up with three drops of cardamom. The color was better. The drink was wretched. Fail.

Too much sherry, still too perfumy, and I thought, “I kind of hate cardamom… and caraway… and these silly things I think are a good idea.” With a few minutes left I came up with what I’m calling Pomegranate Chaos:

  • 1 oz. Aquavit
  • .75 oz. Sherry
  • .25 oz. Crème de Violette
  • 1 drop cardamom bitters
  • .5 oz. blood orange juice
  • 2 oz. sparkling pomegranate juice

Shake first five ingredients with ice. Pour pomegranate juice to taste.

You will note that pantry and fridge ended up being pretty damn important.

Cocktailian, you’ve arrived at the Chopping block…

If you watch Chopped regularly, you know the judges have clear predilections. Never serve Scott Conant raw onions, don’t call something mole if Aaron Sanchez in on the panel, Marcus Samuelson will accuse you of not preparing an ingredient properly, and Alex Guarnaschelli hates pretty much everything (unless someone else hates it, in which case, she loves it).

Here is what I imagine my judges saying (and pretty much what they did say), “I like the color, and the juice and sparkling pomegranate give the drink a real freshness, but the basket items are all lurking, hidden like an ugly chair in the corner when company comes over. It’s drinkable, but the part I like least, the funky aftertaste, comes from the main ingredients.”

Ted will ask (he always, always does): “Well, this is not a simple matter—do you think you’ve got it figured out?” The judges always answer, “I think we have.”

Like Jonathan I tried a second drink, which I’m calling the Pola Debevoise, with more reasonable ingredients: gin, maraschino, brandy, lemon… and I added grenadine to tie it all up. I learned from the first round to diminish the stronger flavors and used .5 oz of the lemon and maraschino. Trying not to rely on the pantry too much, I included only .5 oz of the grenadine too. I chose an ounce of Brandy but relied on the gin as the dominant flavor (1.5 oz). The judges liked that one better, though I doubt I’d make any round two.

So whose drink is on the Chopping Block?

David’s Take: Uh, I think I know.

bottles 2Jonathan:

bottles 1My name is Jonathan and I have little experience, no celebrity mentor and there is no drive to be the best mixologist here or anywhere. I operate out of my home typically, although I have been known to guest star at a sporting event tailgate with an audience that is mostly college students. Not to say that they are an easy group to please, but left to their own choices they are apt to choose Busch Light. The only classical training that I have has been provided by the internet, books, the rare video and observation in the form of television watching. In short, I know little, provide drinks to a very small sampling and am self-trained. I am ready for Chopped Cocktail, though, since I have a cabinet full of spirits, liqueurs, bitters, fortified wines and assorted additives.

It is also my hope that I can be an inspiration to anyone who ever thought they could home bartend but were held back by having a second toe longer than the first. Morton’s foot sufferers may not have ever been told they couldn’t be bartenders, but given the chance I am sure they would. Imagine the strain and pain folks like me must feel as the pronounced second toe shifts extraordinary pressure to the second metatarsal. There were so many days standing in the kitchen that I felt I could not hold the Boston shaker for one more second, but persevered to create the finest drink I could. If I win, it will be a true victory for my second, but longest, piggy.

The true chopped has rounds for appetizer, entrée, and dessert. I really hoped, even with two attempts, to get a drink that could be a dessert but no luck. So here are my drinks with the appetizer first and entrée second.

drink picThe first choices revealed Irish whiskey, absinthe, lillet (rose’) and angostura bitters. It sounded a little like a Sazerac, at least from what I remember way back when we made that, so I went that direction. The first step was rinsing the ice with a little absinthe and then dumping the excess. I added the whiskey (1.5 ounce), lillet (1 ounce), and 2 drops angostura. The pantry provided a splash of simple syrup and an ounce of lemon juice. I shook all of that with the ice and strained into a coupe with a twist of lemon. The simple syrup may have been too much. For an appetizer it needed the bite of the bitters combined with the whiskey and acid of the lemon. The lillet provided enough sweetness by itself. Not a bad drink, but not the aperitif I wanted. The invented name (we need one of those, right) – The English Channel.

The second group was the entrée choice. This draw revealed rum, tuaca, sherry, and grenadine. These were mixed in a highball glass (1.5 ounce, I ounce, .5 ounce and 1 ounce respectively) along with orange juice (2 ounces) and seltzer water from the fridge. I added ice and garnished with lemon. It seemed a little tiki-ish so I should have added one of my leftover paper umbrellas to finish the drink.

This one was more popular with every taster except me. It had a similar color (keep in mind I am still color stupid) to the English Channel, but was much lighter in body thanks to the seltzer. Part of the concept of true tiki is multiple ingredients and I think tuaca has a future in that genre when it makes its next resurgence. It provides that unknown back flavor that would help distinguish the drink and make it hard to determine the secret recipes that are another part of tiki. This one I am calling Don the Chopped Amateur.

Jonathan’s take: When Ted pulls the shaker shaped cloche, I think I am chopped. Darn that stubby first toe.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

Among the many drink related gifts I received this Christmas was a beautiful and well written book – The Art of the Bar by Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz. It is a great mix of information including more history and background on many of the cocktails that we have tried in the course of this blog. It also includes recipes for classics, twists on those classics (thus the subtitle “cocktails inspired by the classics”), and drinks that should be classics. After the chopped episode it might be time for one of those should-be classic cocktails called the Monte Carlo. It provides that important lesson that sometimes it is better to stir to chill instead of shaking to do so.

Metropolitan

metroProposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

I don’t really know who Jerry Thomas is, but every cocktailian turn I take, there he is in his white shirt, bowtie, vest, and sleeve garters throwing a drink from one glass to another. Fans of Jeremiah P. Thomas (also known as “The Professor”) consider him “The Father of American Mixology” and credit him with inventing most of the drinks we consume today. The rest, of course, are variations of libations he created.

The Metropolitan can be traced back to Thomas, even though, gasp, it’s not included in The Bar-Tender’s Guide (or How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion). The recipe first appears in Modern Bartender’s Guide by O. H. Byron in 1884, but, cocktailian historians—and, by the way, can someone tell me how you get that job?—say that Byron may have been a composite, a convenient name under which recipes might be gathered by some clever, profit-minded editor. And from whence did this editor collect these drinks, including The Metropolitan Cocktail? You guessed it—from a bar where Jerry Thomas (also known as the “Jupiter Olympus of the Bar”) worked. Other drinks in the Byron collection certainly came from Thomas, so some people want to attribute the Metropolitan to him as well.

Past a certain point, who invented a drink can become a little silly. When the ingredients are as basic as the ones included in a Metropolitan—brandy, vermouth, simple syrup, and bitters—its discovery seems inevitable. Somebody’s peanut butter was going to end up on someone’s chocolate, if you follow my ancient advertising history allusion.

Purists might argue, in fact, that the Metropolitan is little more than a variation on the Manhattan and hardly deserves a separate name. However, others—Impurists?—probably celebrate every variation as a subtlely new experience. One of the regular readers of this blog (I won’t reveal his identity, but his initials are Steven Coberly) wanted to know which bitters I had in mind for the drink. The original recipe called for “Manhattan Bitters,” which were likely, or like, Angostura. However, because this combination is so basic, using Peychaud’s or Orange or, my current favorite, Bittercube Blackstrap Bitters can move the cocktail’s taste dramatically one way or another. I tried a few bitters… but not all at once.

Just stay away from the cardamom bitters. I mean it.

One more note, don’t confuse this drink with the vodka cocktail also called The Metropolitan. Names, apparently, are also subject to secondhand discovery. The vodka Metropolitan is closer to a Cosmopolitan.

Another one more note—I ran into some sites that disagreed on proportions. Though the recipe I used calls for one and a half to one (brandy to sweet vermouth), some suggested two to one. If you’re using Carpano particularly, a little less vermouth will make a sweeter, more robustly brandy-y cocktail. But my advice is to experiment. I bet that’s what Jerry Thomas did, and he set the world record for the most honorifics awarded in one lifetime.

Here’s the recipe:

1 1/2 ounces brandy

1 ounce sweet vermouth

1/2 teaspoon simple syrup

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

metro2

There is a show on the Esquire network that I have been telling David about. Called the Best Bars in America, the show follows two comedians, Sean Patton and Jay Larson, as they travel and sample at bars that have been featured in Esquire. There are plenty of drinks featured that we haven’t tried and probably won’t, but others have appeared on our list or should. One of the cocktails I noted while watching is the Metropolitan.

The interest may stem from the name, the appearance, or the idea that it is related to two drinks that seem quite dissimilar. Those drinks are the Manhattan (that similarity should be easy enough to see) and the other is the Cosmopolitan. Okay, as David says, the second one is similar mostly in name.

I need to state up front that there have been few times that I can remember drinking, much leas enjoying, brandy. This week’s cocktail is alcohol forward, and, even with the sweetening effect of the vermouth and simple syrup, enjoying brandy is important. The wonderful thing is that the interplay of ingredients allows one to do just that. The brandy is still very present, and it’s important to choose a quality one that holds up to that dominance. The vermouth softens it and even has enough sweetness that the simple syrup really isn’t necessary. The bitters are the final measure that round out the drink. I used peach bitters, mostly because I thought this could use some fruit, but I need to go back and try it with Angostura. Especially since this is a brandy Manhattan.

Jonathan’s take: The subtle differences in cocktails are making more sense and this is proof.

David’s Take: The simplicity of this cocktail, for me, achieves elegance. This cocktail seems a warmer, grapier Manhattan, and I intend to continue refining its combinations.

Next week (Proposed by Jonathan):

We have accumulated a variety of whisky and whiskey. I think it is high time to explore some of those again in two ways. The first is an idea David had promoted which is a taste testing to directly compare the types and rate them against the other. After choosing a winner, the second idea is to use that spirit in another classic drink—the Old Fashioned. Sean and Jay always have my head reeling by the end of each show with the amount of drink they have consumed. Part of the trick next week will be to keep my head from reeling due to the testing.

One Year Drinking With My Brother

embarrassingAs announced, we’re celebrating a year’s worth of posts by putting aside our usual practice to reflect on all the lessons we’ve learned as not-so-savvy cocktailians:

Jonathan:

One of the many benefits of growing up in a large family are the things you learn from your siblings. Some are more important than others, but all add to who you are. David and I are the fourth and fifth children, respectively, of five in our family. As the two youngest we shared rooms, seats next to each other in cars, places at the table and spots on couches. More than that we shared a lot of time with each other, and even today I hear myself using expressions that I know come directly from him. One of my absolute favorites is and has been the description of someone as “a master of the startlingly obvious.” And that is what I feel like I am with my observations and lessons gleaned from our first year of this blog. That won’t stop me from sharing my thoughts though.

1. A close observer/reader should know that fresh ingredients and homemade mixers are the key to better drinks. To make cocktails I have juiced lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, pomegranates, and kumquats. Simple syrups have been created from sugar, brown sugar, demerara, sorghum, maple syrup and honey. Those syrups have been flavored with herbs, spices, nuts and more fruit. Store-bought sweet and sour, grenadine and orgeat? Why, when you make your own during the week. The end result may take longer, but the difference is well worth it.

2. It is often repeated in our weekly write up, but prior to this blog, beer and wine were pretty much the extent of drinks I enjoyed. I always assumed, however, that I knew the basics of liquors and the drinks made with them. Wrong, very wrong. Gin might be the best example of a liquor with incredible variation and types, so much so that using the right one in a drink can drastically improve the taste. Then there are the liquors that I never knew existed (a few of which I could still get by without knowing Mr. Campari) like aquavit, cachaça, and pisco. The stories of these unique distillations is in itself a lesson in history and culture. Every time I think we are reaching some level of understanding and knowledge, there is another one that appears and begs to be used. I hope David is ready for Cynar because it, and a pronunciation guide, will make an appearance soon.

3. We compared notes this week and the next lesson is one that overlaps for us—taste. There have been more drinks that we have both enjoyed, and a few where we both did not, than there has been disagreement. Next week we will get a better idea of that when we choose our hits and misses, but, before that, there are some generalizations to be drawn. The classic cocktail, in my mind, is the standard sour. Liquor, sweetener and sour element are the basics of that drink. Almost any mix that has followed that simple idea has met my approval. I especially like those with interesting sweeteners like maple, or odd sours like grapefruit. There are other categories of drinks besides the sour, such as those with effervescence from sparkling wine or club soda, that also stand out but in a pinch I fall back on the sour.

4. Another general rule of taste is the use of bitters. It is an odd ingredient in most drinks because, to my taste, it never stands out. In fact you can rarely identify that one has been added, but, like salt, it seems to intensify and improve the other parts of the drink. The drinks that are all liquor, bitter elements and actual bitters have not been my favorite, but take a simple drink like bourbon and ginger then add some Angostura and you can taste a transformation.

5. My final lesson is one that I did not really learn so much as re-learn. Drinking is a social experience. The first and most obvious part of that is the very basis of this blog. David and I started this as a way to interact more, even if it was a virtual interaction. Along the way, my wife has joined me in almost every weekly tasting, as David’s wife has in his. Our children are adults so they not only try some of the drinks, but are great sources for suggestions. There have been tailgates, family visits, happy hours, celebrations and random get-togethers with friends and neighbors. It has reached the point that even as the specific drinks escape memory, the events do not. Of course there is also the virtual interaction with readers who comment on-line, or through text and e-mail. It is a rare week when I do not receive some feedback, suggestion or drink recipe in some form or another. Those of you who keep sending pictures and menu snippets, and you know who you are, keep sending them and I will keep looking for edible glitter.

booksDavid:

I few weeks ago, when we were thinking about ways to celebrate our 52nd post on this blog Jonathan speculated how long we’d keep it up, then asked, “Until we’re famous?” That sounds good to me, mostly because we aren’t famous yet and therefore must continue. This enterprise is too much fun to give up. Beside the benefit Jonathan has mentioned—our increased communication—a weekly cocktail gives me something to look forward to, and, yes, I’m learning. Sure it’s not the same as learning differential equations, but growth is growth. Don’t judge. Though I’m not yet a savvy cocktailian, I’m certainly savvier. Thinking about the lessons of the year, many occurred to me, and as Jonathan said, most won’t be surprising. Still they’re important… just the way this blog is important even if we aren’t famous (yet).

1. Get to know someone. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the helpful and friendly people who answer my every silly question about the difference between Cachaça and Rum and Rhum and Rum. Echoing Jonathan, this blog teaches me how much there is to know, but it also teaches me how many patient, generous, and funny teachers are out there. I don’t get a “Norm!” when I visit my local upscale grocery, but I do get, “What’s the cocktail this week?” and some thorough and thoughtful advice.

2. The alcohol isn’t everything but it’s something. Let me say for the record that inebriation isn’t a good hobby, but Jonathan is right, part of the joy of cocktails is that they announce an intention to relax and a desire to put aside much too crowded and busy lives to share relaxation with others. Were my brother and I involved in a remote popsicle club, I’m sure that’d be fun too, but, in moderation, spirits are much more fun.

3. De gustibus non est disputandum: I’ve memorized few Latin phrases, but I know that one. It means, “There’s no disputing about matters of taste.” Week to week, I’m struck by how differently people react to cocktails. Just when I think no one could possibly stomach an Aviation, my wife asks for another. Human organisms must experience taste (literal and figurative) in so many different ways. And, not to be too philosophical, but what’s worth celebrating more than that?

4. On a related note, smell matters, and not just smell but all the senses matter. I’ve discovered every sense is critical to a cocktail—its look and its taste and its smell and its “mouth feel.” Okay, so maybe its sound doesn’t matter so much, but really enjoying a cocktail requires engaging your whole sensory self. Maybe, in fact, that’s the secret, pausing long enough to appreciate the extraordinary apparatus with which we’re blessed.

5. Don’t overcomplicate the complications. A few times during this journey—okay, more than a few—I’ve thought “Why all the steps?” Yet trouble is part of the investment you make in the result. Although I worry sometimes about all the hoops I make Jonathan leap through—particularly in the spirit-backward state that is North Carolina—anything wonderful is worth working for. I have nothing against simple and elegant cocktails, but as in many matters, the journey endows the destination with special meaning.

Next Week:

Jonathan and I will be examining the hits and misses we’ve encountered this year. It’s not too late to let us know what you think!

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.