Watermelon Cocktails

Proposed By: David

Pursued By: Jonathan

You may not know (unless you’re Cliff Clavin) that the watermelon appears in ancient Hebrew, Egyptian tombs, and medieval texts. Its history stretches 5,000 years, which means it’s about time Jonathan and I made it the focus of our cocktail-making efforts. This time, our charge was simple: make something with watermelon.

Mark Twain called the watermelon, “What angels eat,” but, thinking of the watermelons of my youth, I can’t believe anyone would say that. Those watermelons were crowded with annoying seeds to spit out. Though, in the tradition of older brothers everywhere, mine told me swallowing a seed would start a watermelon growing inside me, I can remember giving up after a wedge or two. Current watermelons are so much more civilized—seedless and full of juice.

That juice—more Clavin-esque information—may explain part of watermelon’s longevity. Some scientists believe watermelons were first cultivated in the Kalahari desert as sort of primitive water storage devices. Watermelons are 92 percent water (and 6 percent sugar).

Anyway, it’s the water of the watermelon that seems perfect for drinking. It’s relatively low calorie (less than most mixers anyway), and has a distinctive and fresh flavor very unlike the Jolly Rancher or Laffy Taffy bastardizations.

The natural spirits for watermelon are probably vodka (we’ve made a watermelon drink before) or tequilla, but I thought it would be fun to try it in a Tiki style drink, so I adapted a recipe called the Tiki-ti Five-O and substituted watermelon for orange juice. The original recipe from comes from an LA tiki bar, the Tiki-Ti, and was created by a tiki scholar named Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. I found it in Imbibe:

2 oz. aged rum
1 oz. Five-0 syrup (see below)
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. watermelon juice
1/4 oz. ginger liqueur

Muddle the watermelon in a bowl and then pour the appropriate amount of juice into the shaker, add the other ingredients and ice, then shake well. You might need to strain into the glass because the watermelon is pulpy. As you might see in the photo, I powdered the top with Chinese five-spice (very sparingly) and garnished with a cherry and a watermelon cube. I also added an inedible slide of rind for color… wishing I had a watermelon pickle or a piece of candied ginger instead.

So the watermelon was a wonderful element of this drink. Paradoxically, however, it was not the star. I purchased some Chinese five-spice powder for one of our previous cocktails and am happy to have found another mixology use for it. To make the syrup combine equal parts honey and water and 1 tablespoon of Chinese five-spice powder for every cup of water. Stir constantly, bring to a boil, remove from heat, and then let cool. Though I sort of hate any appearance of cheesecloth on this blog, you will need three or four layers to strain out the grit of the spice. And shake the syrup before you use it. If all that seems a lot of trouble, it’s worth it. Five-O syrup seems a perfect tiki flavor, and it’s so much easier than buying or making a bottle of falernum. I’m going to make more Five-O syrup.

Here’s Jonathan’s Entry:

Watermelon is not my favorite fruit. It’s not from lack of trying though, and as long as I can remember, it has been a staple of summer. Thumping to find the perfect one, icing it down, finding a spot to flick or spit the seeds and slicing it up. The idea is great while the fruit is usually disappointing. Maybe it’s comes from starting with the sweetest and most ripe section and working towards the rind and least sweet part. It just never lives up to the hype.

It is a fruit that goes well with so many things though. Many drinks ago we tried a watermelon and basil drink that was wonderful. Before the and since I have tried watermelon with cucumber, mint, and peppers in both food and drink and all of those were great combinations. So this was a challenge I was ready to accept.

My research found far more drinks with white liquors combined with watermelon than dark liquor ideas. The first drink we tried combined the botanicals of gin, cucumber accent and the featured fruit, the Watermelon Cucumber Cooler:

1.5 ounce gin
2 slices cucumber
1.5 ounce watermelon juice or 3 one inch chunks of watermelon
.5 ounce simple syrup
.75 ounce lime juice
Pinch salt
1.5 ounce soda water

Muddle watermelon and cucumber (I went with fruit chunks instead of juicing a watermelon), add other ingredients except soda, shake with ice, strain into iced filled highball glass, top with soda and garnish with a slice of cucumber.

This drink reminded me of all the past experiences with watermelon—sounds great but only okay. It did meet the promised Cooler aspect, which is good for summer, but none of the flavors asserted themselves. Surprisingly the gin even got lost in this one.

The idea of the second drink was to find a good whiskey and watermelon combo. I will admit that the previous experience with using basil and watermelon led me to the Murricane. The drink was supposedly created for Bill Murray and christened with one his nicknames that refers to his mercurial personality:

2 ounce watermelon (I still used muddled chunks rather than juicing)
4-5 basil leaves
1.5 ounce bourbon
.75 ounce lemon juice
.75 ounce St. Germain liqueur
Ground pepper

Muddle watermelon and basil, add all other ingredients, shake with ice, strain into old fashioned glass with fresh ice and garnish with a small chunk of watermelon.

The basil and watermelon mix did not disappoint. This was a cocktail that combined the best parts of summer with the distinctive taste of bourbon. I’m not sure what the St. Germain did but I will credit it with blending everything into one harmonious drink.

Jonathan’s take: I’ll keep eating watermelon and given the choice I will have it with basil and bourbon.

David’s take: I know I’m supposed to sneer at the hipsteriness and trendiness of Tiki drinks, but this is one I’ll return to.

Next Time (Proposed by Jonathan):

One liqueur we have missed, or avoided, is Peach Schnapps. For some reason, most of the drinks using the liqueur have names that are double entendres. The proposal is to make one of the more mainstream of those that also has one of the more tame names – Sex on the Beach. If you don’t believe that is a tame name check out the list of Peach Schnapps drinks on the Bar None web site. Heck, just check out the ones that start with F.

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Bushwick Spice Trade

IMG_1725Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

When it comes to cocktail books, Jonathan is a bigger collector than I. After I try his proposed drink, I trawl the internet nervously, inserting various spirits I have (or want to have) in hopes of finding something interesting for our next post. People give me cocktail books, and, as an English teacher who’s supposed to love books, I ought to be poring over them. I’m not.

This week is the exception. I pulled out a book my wife gave me for Christmas last year, Shake, by Eric Prum and Josh Williams. It’s full of nifty pictures. It includes an opening statement of purpose, “Cocktails should be fun. Cocktails should be simple. Cocktails should be social.” It offers a section on “Cocktail Crafting” and then moves on to seasonal recipes, each with its own (pictorial) line-up of ingredients. This week’s cocktail is the first in the section labeled “Winter.”

Funny, the process seems a little more celebratory when someone devotes pages of photos to libations. This drink—described by the authors as only a little something to have on a night you are eating Asian take-out—seemed pretty fancy to me. Perhaps the pink peppercorns in the photo gave this drink a professionally exotic look, or the lovingly placed garnish, or the gleaming glassware, or the artfully blurred tabletop.

Here’s how you make two:

4 ounces gin

4 cubes cane sugar (I used demerara)

1.5 ounces lemon juice

4 slices fresh ginger

1 teaspoon pink peppercorns

4 basil leaves

Muddle the sugar cubes, lemon juice, ginger, pink peppercorns and basil in the bottom of a shaker. Add gin and ice and shake vigorously. Strain into coupes.

I’ve been to Bushwick in Brooklyn, detected no spice trade there, and can’t say the drink and the place are both so swanky. So what is it exactly that makes this drink say Bushwick? I think it must be the hipster aesthetic, the (seemingly) careless coolness of it all, a cocktail that’s fancy without trying too hard.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

Bushwick.jbmIs it possible that a cocktail blog can be challenging? Of course it can. There are techniques that the professional bartender makes look simple that seem beyond my grasp. For instance, I am not sure I have properly garnished a drink yet. Some of the cocktails also require preparations that would push the skills of a chef. We have only made a couple of orgeats, yet I recall the difficulty of trying to filter them without ending up so sticky that I would be unable to move. Then there are ingredients, orange blossom water comes to mind immediately, that just don’t seem to be available. David offered that type of challenge again with pink peppercorns.

The odd thing about the peppercorns is that I was sure I had seen them a number of places before. If I had though, they had gone into hiding. Fortunately, I was able to track them down at the third place I looked (should I have been so lucky with orange blossom water) so I am not really complaining. Our sister, Laurie, had called just before my quest and was looking for a recommendation for a cocktail to go with an Asian inspired dinner club meal. This drink seemed perfect so I sent her the ingredient list and last I heard she was still looking for the elusive pink fruit and/or considering alternatives. There was a secondary theme, monkeys oddly, so hopefully she had better luck with the Monkey Gland mixers and had fun telling the backstory to that peculiar drink.

The other challenge to this drink is a really different one. Last week one of our neighbors came over to exchange some IPA’s, which she does not like, for some type of beer out of our mixed selection that she does like. Her explanation was that the next day would be the beginning of no-alcohol January for her and her husband. After she left, my wife and I decided that sounded like a worthy endeavor and we should join them. The challenge, of course, is that it is hard to do that and hold up my end of the blog.

The good news is that our neighbor, Rob, folded faster in the pursuit than Cosmo Kramer did in “The Contest.” His story is that he went for an early run yesterday and felt he deserved a beer. The even better news in all of this is that he is one of my more regular samplers which gave me the opportunity for a guest taster. So here’s Rob’s review (I did prepare the drink) of the Bushwick Spice Trade: it’s very basil-y. That’s pretty much it. He does like gin, he got a little spice from the peppercorns, or the ginger, and the sugar was not off putting. Mostly, it was very basil-y. I don’t think he would put it very high on the list of drinks that I have served him but maybe he just felt bad drinking it in front of those us who are still masters of our own domain.

Jonathan’s take: It is a lovely drink especially with all the floaties and I enjoyed making it. Sorry, all I got this time.

David’s take: The heat of the ginger and pepper played well with the gin and lemon juice.

Next Time (Proposed By: Jonathan)

Like David, I got a new got a new cocktail book for Christmas. This one is Southern Cocktails: Dixie Drinks, Party Potions & Classic Libations. We have already used the book for an alternative version of the lucky New Year’s meal, more on that in the write up, and there are some intriguing cocktails and cocktail variations that caught my eye in reading it. The one I am proposing is The Crusta. Invented in New Orleans, it can be made with cognac, bourbon or you can try one each way. There is a slight challenge left. It will still be January so I will need another taster. No camping out allowed and I will not buy pizza for everyone in the line.

Lemon Basil Cocktail

lemonade 11Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Occasionally envy hits me when I visit friends with gardens. Our patio gets sun, but it’s city sun, subject to deep shadows much of the day. In years past, we’ve always been able to grow some herbs in small pots, but that’s about it… and some years even those were anemic, besieged by the windy storms that hit Chicago this time of year. Still, it’s nice during the summer to boost a recipe with fresh oregano, thyme, or rosemary.

Basil is an herb well worth cultivating. It smells wonderful, and, with very little care, issues forth leaf after deep green leaf. This year, having moved to a new place about a month ago, we’ve relied on farmers for fresh basil, but it’s the same stuff, only grown by a much greener thumb.

This week’s drink isn’t the first we’ve tried with basil. Next to mint, it may be the most popular herb to add to cocktails. But it isn’t at all like mint. In cocktails like Juleps, mint seems part of the drink’s sweetness. Basil contributes something different, a spicy edge. When it comes to cocktails, “Botanical” may not sound so good to some people, but, in this case, the basil is botanical in being fresh and immediate. Depending on how much you use, it can be the star.

When I wrote the proposal last week, I described the Lemon Basil Cocktail as “another lemonade,” but it isn’t really that. It contains lemon, but the same level of citrus and potency you’d expect from a margarita or mojito rather than the sweet (and not that tart) accompaniment for hot dogs and hamburgers.

The short version: it’s a grown-up drink.

On muddling: like many of the drinks we’ve tried, this one relies on mashing ingredients with a muddler. I have what looks like a little baseball bat for that purpose, and I used it to destroy the basil and lemon to release their flavors. For this recipe, you’re supposed to muddle in the glass, adding triple sec, tequila, ice and club soda only after you’ve used your muscle to render the rest detritus.

I confess I didn’t. Perhaps there’s a limit to how much freshness I can handle, maybe I’m too much of a neatnik, but experience tells me it’s unappetizing to get to the end of a drink and discover a bolus of pulverized pulp. I’ll offer the recipe as it was written, but I squeezed the lemon and did the muddling in a cocktail shaker that strained out all evidence of my muscle. Knowing that I was tossing the remainder, I also used more basil than listed.

Here’s the recipe:

2 parts Silver Tequila
1 part premium triple sec
1/2 lemon
3 basil leaves
1/2 part simple syrup
Club soda

Muddle lemon, basil and simple syrup in a chilled glass. Add ice, triple sec and Silver Tequila. Top with club soda. Garnish with a lemon wheel.

And Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

drinkjbmThis drink follows one of the main themes I have espoused for cocktails. There are simply horses for courses. The literal meaning is that certain racehorses perform better on tracks that match their skills. In the figurative sense the expression is used throughout sports to describe performers who excel since the field, track, course or whatever corresponds well to their strengths.

Whew, that’s a long way to say this cocktail is made for the hot, humid weather in which we are mired.

Last week I watched the beginning of a Chicago Cubs game and some of the spectators were wearing jackets or pullovers. Seriously – long sleeves in July? It is a wonder that people are not heading out to work in shorts and t-shirts here in North Carolina. There have been more days that have reached 100 degrees than any summer since I moved here, and the ones that don’t get that hot come close. For some reason, it refuses to rain but the air hangs heavy like it should. We need long sleeve weather.

The cocktail is a variation on the mojito with basil and lemon tones that acts like a cool breeze. Given the same drink in the fall or winter and I am sure I would find it way too subtle and diluted. In the throes on this summer though, it is the ice bucket challenge, a trip to the mountains, toes in the creek or that special morning in June (the one) when the temperature finally dips to the mid 60’s that we miss so much. The highlight is the basil, which we have used a few times, and it marries with the tequila in a way that mint doesn’t. Instead of accentuating the spirit by adding similar flavors, it contrasts in a savory way that makes the tequila more distinctive and better.

There are two final notes. One of these was plenty. I could have had more, if only for the cooling effect, but something about the mix made it seem more potent than the recipe implies, so one was enough. The second thing is that I would recommend a slight adjustment to the recipe. Unless you are using really large lemons, substitute half of the club soda for sparkling lemonade (there was some left from last week). It boosts the lemon without losing any of the effervescence.

Jonathan’s take: I should have had one to drink and then poured one on my head. That would show this summer.

David’s take: Redolent of summer. How that for vocab?

Next week (Proposed By Jonathan):

Maybe I’m still searching for that cooling effect, but it is time for a frozen drink. We haven’t tried one yet and it seemed like the perfect time to do so. There is one slight problem. I have a name for the drink, The Monkey Incident, but I don’t know what is in it yet. I promise to let David know sometime this week. Just as soon as it comes to me.

Julep Varietals

JulepDMProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

When Jonathan and I went to the Kentucky Derby with our wives in the mid 80s, we parked our infield picnic blanket next to some proto-bros with a water balloon catapult. A couple of races in, they found their range and pinned a poor racing form seller inside his tin hut. An official-looking person arrived with commands to desist, but by then they were out of ammo anyway. Around three in the afternoon, they began launching their uneaten ham sandwiches instead.

People drink a lot at the Derby.

Churchill Downs’ mint juleps have a reputation for being a little watery, but I think I remember downing a few that day. And it makes me laugh when people talk about juleps as a genteel drink. At three parts bourbon to one part simple syrup, home versions can be quite strong. The idea is to sip them, allowing the ice to dilute their potency, but I enjoy them so much I seldom manage it.

A mint julep is technically a “smash,” a group of drinks defined by spirit (not necessarily bourbon), crushed ice, and macerated mint (or basil, or something leafy). The idea is to coat the glass with the oils of the leaf and lend an aromatic quality to the libation. In the classic julep, mint simple syrup is the short cut. In one of the julep alternatives I tried, “The Wild Ruffian,” (here’s a link to the recipe) the syrup is made of peach preserves, and the mint is pulverized with a muddler. That drink also called for cognac instead of bourbon, so I doubt anyone would recognize the concoction as a “julep.” Nor do I think Churchill Downs would ever serve one… or certainly not in the infield.

Another of the drinks both Jonathan and I tried was the Oaks Lily (recipe link), named for the featured race for fillies highlighting the day before the Derby. When I lived in Louisville, seeing the Oaks in the grandstands was actually affordable and accessible for commoners—no more, apparently—and the Oaks Lily is also suitably direct, relying on vodka over bourbon and cranberry and lime juices, plus a splash of triple sec, instead of simple syrup. Not a sprig of mint is to be seen anywhere, so it wouldn’t really qualify as a smash, just a way to preserve Saturday for the real julep.

As Jonathan explains below, he tried yet another julep alternative called a Bufala Negra, but, despite our experimentation, we both needed to make real juleps too. It’s not that they’re fancy—what could be plainer than 3:1 bourbon to syrup?—but they are tradition. And, if they are good enough for infielders, they are good enough for us.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

JulepJMIt has been my impression that there are many places where the idea of a mint julep is met with disdain. The drink is decidedly a bourbon concoction, but if you love bourbon you don’t need, or want, the dilution and sweetening of the mint or simple syrup. If it is the latter that you like, there’s a good chance that bourbon is not your favorite. All of that is a shame because of how well the flavors go together.

Many years ago David and I had a very bad bourbon experience, and I had sworn off the stuff. A beach trip with our siblings and families helped with my gradual tolerance, and eventual embrace, of the brown liquor. Each sibling had a night when they were responsible for dinner and a cocktail and David chose to make juleps. The key to his mix was a well-crafted mint simple syrup that, to me, makes the difference in a julep. By mixing mint in the syrup, there is no need for dissolving sugar in water, muddling of mint or waiting for the inevitable melding. The two ingredients just mix with their friend crushed ice and a long sip later make for a wonderful combination.

This week was about alternatives though and we tried a couple of them. The first was a drink that was suggested in Southern Living that both David and I tried. I trust that David has provided the recipe for the Blush Lily which is the magazine’s take on the classic drink. It is a nice alternative for those who don’t like bourbon although some may find it more tart than sweet with lime and cranberry as the juices. We tried adding a splash of Blenheim ginger ale and that seemed to address that aspect as well as extend the drink.

My second alternative julep is called the Bufala Negra. I have no idea where that name came from but it is a mix of bourbon and basil with an interesting twist:

4 basil leaves
1 tsp aged balsamic vinegar
½ ounce simple syrup
1.5 ounce bourbon

Muddle 3 basil leaves, balsamic vinegar, and simple syrup. Add bourbon, crushed ice and stir. Garnish with the remaining basil leaf.

The interesting part of this drink is how well the flavors mix. I was wary of drinking even a small amount of vinegar, but mixed with the basil and syrup it was a great match for bourbon. The end result was a less bourbon forward cocktail that still had the sweetness and herbal qualities of a classic julep.

Jonathan’s Take: The classic julep is still the best, but the Blush Lily is great for those who don’t love bourbon and the Negra is an interesting alternative for those who love variety.

David’s Take: The classic is still king, but the others are welcome variations

Next Week (Proposed by Jonathan):

I have been getting some grief about proposing the drink of Wimbledon well before the sporting event. The Pimm’s Cup is a classic drink of summer, however, and there seem to be a number of varieties that showcase different fruits. It is strawberry season all over the country and I wanted a drink that used that fruit without being a return to the sweetness and rum of tiki week.

Tabernacle Crush

Tabernacle3Proposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

First, a little business. This blog is approaching its one year milestone, and Jonathan and I (no surprise) plan to celebrate. On August 9th, we’re going to write about what we’ve learned during this year of being a two person remote cocktail club, but then we’ll need your help. The next week (8/16) we want to write about what we consider the hits and misses in our selections. You, Dear Reader, might have something to say about that too. Jonathan and I recognize the same names as frequent fellow travelers on this adventure, and we would love to hear what you’ve tried, what you’ve liked, and what you’ve loathed. Please let us know. We promise to make you semi-quasi-proto-famous (just like us) by mentioning you.

Now onto this week’s business. Peaches—good peaches—don’t appear in Chicago until late July and disappear by the end of August. During that window, if you’re lucky, the grocery may present a few that actually smell like peaches. Those ripen. The others might as well be stones that, over time, soften to paste. A good peach is so good, a pasty one seems a particular crime.

The peaches I used for this recipe came from my wife’s visit to a farmer’s market on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Lincoln Park, and proposing a drink dependent on such a rare and special fruit was a leap of faith. To be honest, I’m not sure where those peaches originated before that, but, around here, the common answer is “Probably Wisconsin.” I owe my wife… and Wisconsin… a debt of gratitude for the wonderful peach her visit produced.

To be candid, the name of this drink defies me—Tabernacle… what? Crush… what?—and I almost stopped right there, but, as a thrill-seeker and a summer-lover, I figured, why not turn my favorite sweet of summer into a drink. We can’t grow many things on our porch in Chicago, but basil is one plant that doesn’t mind the shade of taller buildings, so that was another plus.

Then I said a little prayer… “Oh please peach, be good.” I hope Jonathan had similar luck.

Here’s the recipe:

1/2 large peach, sliced

6 small basil leaves, plus more for garnish

1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 ounces gin

1 ounce Lillet

1/2 ounce simple syrup

Ice

Club soda

In a tall glass, muddle the peach with the 6 basil leaves and the lemon juice. Add the gin, Lillet and simple syrup. Add ice cubes and top with club soda. Garnish with basil.

And Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

JBM

Spent the whole week trying to remember the name of this drink. I could tell you what was in it, how it was prepared, and drinks that, I assumed, were similar. I just could not remember the name because despite some muddling that could become crushing with a little more vigor, the name makes no sense. I sure hope David has offered some enlightenment.

South Carolina is my common destination of choice for the spirit of the week. As I have described, they operate under a private ownership system as opposed to the state run system in North Carolina. The price difference is not that great from what I can tell, but there is often a much greater selection and the employees are much more willing to offer advice and recommendations. Of course this far into the endeavor, it is always more a question of which gin I will use rather than a need to buy more.

The southern Carolina is also the location of choice for peaches. A distant second to California in annual production, it is still a major producer, and there are roadside stands within 20 minutes of our house. Summers become a game of waiting for the first ripe peaches, then waiting for the different varieties—all with the goal of finding that perfect peach so sweet and juicy that a single bite can lead to peach nectar dripping from hand to elbow. This drink was just another excuse to go in search of that perfect peach.

This is also the third drink within the last month that used basil, but the description made me think it might well be the best combination. I’m not sure that part was true, but the use of the muddled peach was not a disappointment. The botanicals of the gin clouded the basil taste, while the peach shone through. It is very important to pick a peach for the drink that is ripe to the point of being mushy. The ripe fruit breaks up in the muddling and while that makes it more difficult to drink it gives the cocktail a wonderful color and full peach taste. This may be one of those drinks that a purist would snub, but in the heat of summer, and at a time when the perfect peach is a worthy pursuit, it is great refreshment.

Jonathan’s take: Odd name, wonderful drink to celebrate summer and peaches.

David’s take: I’ll try to recall this one next summer… though I’m sure the name will slip from memory.

Next week’s proposal (proposed by Jonathan):

It doesn’t seem to matter what I am reading, there is one classic that keeps coming up – the Pisco Sour. Pisco is a South American brandy made with grapes and the sour is the classic drink of the spirit. In fact, it is the national drink of both Peru and Chile. More on the arguments about that next week.

LIbertea

iteaProposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

As far as I’m concerned, the southern intonation of “sweet tea” can’t be rendered phonetically in prose, as it contains bent notes divergent from most American English. Though sweet tea as a concept entered my consciousness long ago, my clearest memory of hearing the term was during college at Wake Forest, late one semester when I was flush with unspent meal credit. That was the only time I’d think of visiting the Magnolia Room, the most upscale of all the dining options, complete with white tablecloths, baskets of rolls before dinner, and student servers. I remember scheming to make our server, a friendly classmate from Charlotte, use the words “sweet tea” over and over just to hear them spoken properly.

I like to hear Jonathan’s wife Debbie say the words as well—she knows, as a true North Carolinian, how they ought to be delivered. Maybe sweet tea isn’t exclusively a North Carolina thing, but it receives proper reverence there, and rightly so. It’s can’t be good for you, but, if you have a sweet tooth as I do, it’s a treat.

All of which is prefatory to saying this week’s cocktail, Libertea, feels like a variety of sweet tea to me… only alcoholic. I found the recipe online and thought it’d be appropriate for July 4th celebrations. Despite the name, I seriously doubt Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or Patrick Henry invented this cocktail. It must have originated with the folks who make Wild Turkey, as it involves both the bourbon and a cordial called American Honey made by the same company. Add lemonade and black tea to the liquor, and you have an Arnold Palmer—who also went to Wake Forest, by the way—only with a kick.

The recipes, in fact, demand you make the stuff in quantity. I couldn’t find any versions that whittled the contents down to a single serving. So, like Jonathan, I split it between a mint and basil version. While it looks intimidating to pour in alcohol measured in fractions of a cup, the potent part of the recipe is proportionally small—which is to say, you can drink a lot before you realize it’s creeping up on you… sort of the way your weight creeps up on you if you subsist on sweet tea. I’ll leave the full review to Jonathan but will offer at least this warning—yes, the bourbon is in there, wait.

And I’ll tell you the recipe, of course:

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups water
  • 4 cups lemonade
  • 4 black tea bags
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves (I made half a batch with basil and half with mint)
  • 1/2 cup bourbon
  • 1 1/2 cups American Honey Liqueur

Preparation: In a large saucepan, boil 2 cups water.Remove from heat; add 4 teabags of black tea. Steep 8 minutes; discard teabags. Add 2 cups cold water and lemonade; transfer to pitcher and chill. Add fresh basil (or mint) leaves. Using a wooden spoon, crush leaves until fragrant. Stir in bourbon and American Honey.

liberteaalsoAnd here’s Jonathan’s Review:

David has felt that he has been on the schneid in his cocktail choices. A quick review of the last couple of months shows that it is not true, although I might suggest that he avoid suggesting oddly colored drinks. I also don’t believe that tasty or even enjoyable mixes were ever part of our mission. It makes perfect sense that we would hope to suggest and try something we could enjoy, but our mission was to explore”… exotic, classic and forgotten mixed drinks.” Whether he was on the schneid or not doesn’t matter this week, as this is one of the best cocktails that we have tried.

The recipe has a lot of steps like many of the ones we have sampled recently. This one began, as I am sure David has described, by making tea, adding lemonade and infusing with basil. We both decided, following David’s suggestion in his introduction, to try infusing half with basil and half with mint. I gave up on the idea of working out proportions and decided instead to make the full batch (split for the infusions) since there are usually others who want to taste the week’s creation and it probably keeps pretty well. Plus there is always the hope that our follower, Jerry, might show up in town with cup in hand.

The highlight of the Libertea is the perfect amount of enough sweetness to the drink. Between the lemonade and the American Honey, the sweet combines perfectly with the bourbon, basil (or mint), and black tea spices. I am inclined towards iced tea as a beverage anyway, and often mix it half sweet and half unsweet, so this is the alcoholic version of that. Add the lemonade and I have to wonder why someone hasn’t worked out how to make this a bar staple. Since we tried two versions, it should be noted that the basil version, to me, was the better of the two.

Jonathan’s take: Tea, lemonade, bourbon and spice mixed to perfection.

David’s take: Nostalgic and intoxicating… perfect.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

I wanted to go back to rum as the base. There are quite a few exotic and tropical alternatives, but I decided to go with another classic of the tropical set – the Mai Tai. Some recipes require two mixes, grenadine and orgeat, which need to be made in advance but the version I am leaning towards skips the grenadine. All recipes require small paper parasols.

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.