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.

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Basil Watermelon Cooler

coolerJMProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

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

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

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

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

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

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

coolerAnd Here’s David’s Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Week (proposed by David):

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

The Pear Culture

pear cultureProposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

After tasting the La Marque a few weeks ago, I was more than somewhat intimidated at the idea of inventing a drink of my own. Followers of this blog will know my history of proposing drinks is a little spotty, so creating one seemed even more risky. Nonetheless, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and this week, I feel compelled to try.

My inspiration comes from two sources—the desire to use pears, my favorite fruit this time of year, and a pear tart I’ve tasted combining Bartlett (or Williams) pears with spicy ginger and rich vanilla. By itself, a pear can be merely sweet, and maybe that’s why the world doesn’t seem to demand much in the way of pear liqueur or pear-infused spirits, but their mellowness and subtle astringency can be drawn out by other flavors.

For the ginger, I chose The King’s Ginger I love the taste of this liqueur—it’s great on its own—but, for the spice, I’ve also included Powell and Mahoney Old Ballycastle Ginger, a mixer that might match Jonathan’s Bleinheim. As I experimented, I started out with the vanilla vodka we used in the La Marque. After re-trying the vodka, however, I decided instead for Bourbon because it evokes vanilla overgenerously and seems to give the drink more depth. As for the prosecco, I thought it might effervescently echo the pear flavors while also cutting some of the density of pear juice or puree. Plus, I got the idea of combining champagne and bourbon from The Seelbach, a cocktail invented at the Louisville hotel. The Angostura is to give the cocktail a bitter edge and save it from cloying sweetness.

I know, you’re saying, “Listen to you, getting all Food Network-y!” Well, these cocktailian forays are serious business! We’ve learned the names of so many famous drink inventors. I wouldn’t want to be known as the originator of something vile like (I’ll restrain myself, Mr. Campari).

The name of this cocktail, by the way, is pure caprice. I like the idea of a secret pear culture, which I picture as a nerdy group of devotees worshiping one of the less vaunted fruits. I would be one of said devotees.

pearculturealso2Here’s the recipe:

1.5 parts pear juice or puree

1 part bourbon

1 part ginger liqueur (or syrup)

.5 parts spicy ginger ale (Old Ballycastle for me)

3 dashes Angostura bitters

Prosecco

Shake first five ingredients with ice. Add some to a fluted glass and top with prosecco. Garnish with a slice of pear or lemon.

pearculture3Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

It already seems that the best of our proposed drinks rely more on the additional ingredients than the spirits. The peanut orgeat, fresh squeezed juices, a variety of simple syrups and homemade grenadine are just a few of the examples. So when David proposed a new drink with a base of pear puree or nectar, the first thing that came to mind is how we could doctor that ingredient to accentuate it.

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This drink as proposed also used a spiced simple syrup. As an alternative, I took the pear nectar and mulled it with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom pods, and added a bottle of spicy Blenheim ginger ale. The ginger ale was a last minute change because I couldn’t find a piece of ginger root that I thought we had (I actually thought the dog had eaten it, but fortunately was wrong). The resulting pear juice was thicker and spicier than it had started out and provided a nice cross between puree and nectar.

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The final recipe I used was two parts mulled pear juice, one part bourbon, angostura bitters and something close to two parts Prosecco. I mixed the first three ingredients and shook them with ice, strained and added the Prosecco. The cocktail that resulted was a great hit with a large group. The pear gave it a really unique taste, and the Prosecco (I had neglected to use it an earlier cocktail) lightened the thickness of the mulled and chilled liquid. It was also another example of how the simple addition of bitters cut some of the fruit sweetness.

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There is new whisky popular with folks much younger than me called Fireball Cinnamon Whisky that mimics the old fireball candy. The Blenheim ginger ale had already made my mulled pear juice spicy, but I made a second version of the drink using the Fireball. I have to admit that I did not taste that version, but those who did liked it even better. That is saying a lot considering how much they liked the first version.

Jonathan’s take: The last time we talked, David had not decided on a name for this drink. You could call it Bobski and I would be ready to make some more.

David’s Take: Being the inventor, it’s untoward to say I really liked this cocktail… so I won’t say it… but you get the idea, right?

Next Week (Proposed by Jonathan):

It is Thanksgiving week and since we will have a large group at our house I am proposing a Fall sangria. There are scads of recipes for sangrias, but I have reputation for cranberry concoctions at Thanksgiving to uphold and the recipe will have feature them prominently.

The Horse’s Neck

Horse's Neck

Beside the cocktail is a combination zester and channel knife

proposed by: Jonathan

reviewed by: David

This week’s drink is a Horse’s Neck, which dates back to the 1890s and was once popular in the British Royal Navy as a drink for officers. At Naval cocktail parties the stewards might offer pitchers of gin and tonic and Horse’s Neck and ask, “H-N or G&T, Sir?” The following recipe is included in the “Old Guard Cocktailschapter of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All:

1 lemon

2 ounces bourbon

3 dashes Angostura bitters

Ginger Ale

Carefully peel the zest from the lemon in one continuous spiral with a channel knife.  Coil the zest around a bar spoon or chopstick to encourage a bouncy spiral.  Place the lemon zest in the bottom of a chilled high ball glass, hanging the end of the coiled garnish over the side of the glass.  Fill the glass with ice.  Add the bourbon and bitters and top off with ginger ale.

There is quite a bit (pun intended) of conjecture and speculation about the origins of The Horse’s Neck, but what seems to be true is that the original Horse’s Neck was just ginger ale, a few dashes of bitters, and the long garnish of lemon rind for which the drink is named. The addition of bourbon or brandy made it a “Horse’s Neck with a kick.” There are other versions made with specified bourbons and many of those have their own name. The use of a true Kentucky Bourbon, for instance, is called a Kentucky Gentleman.

I decided to use a form of brandy instead of bourbon since last week’s cocktail was bourbon based. I went with Laird’s Applejack thinking that apple and ginger was a good combination. I also have the good fortune of living in an area with an excellent regional ginger ale – Blenheim. Blenheim comes in a standard but still spicy version and the even more spicy hot version. I went with the standard which had plenty of kick to complement the Applejack kick.

Here’s David’s review:HN.David.cropt

Perhaps it’s too early in my relationship with cocktails to say I’m in love, but a Horse’s Neck is the sort of drink I could see ordering all the time—uncomplicated, distinctive, and refreshing. I shared the drink with my wife and mother-in-law during a visit to Louisville after a hot day wandering around the Kentucky State Fair, and it seemed the perfect relaxer after all the parking hassles and crowd weaving. I even made a non-alcoholic version for my daughter that substituted ice tea for bourbon, and she seemed to enjoy it.

I’m a bitter person but not a bitter drinker, so I’d never tasted Angostura. The balance just a few drops added to the sweet spiciness of the ginger ale surprised me. For me, it really made the cocktail. Jonathan’s version sounds much more exciting than mine—I created the drink with Kentucky bourbon and regular Canada Dry—but I’d serve this cocktail to guests even in a pedestrian version. It’s a great balance between the familiar and new.

The lemon strip presents an exotic touch, but I’m not sure its purpose extends beyond aesthetics. Perhaps if you added a twist of lemon or kinked the string tightly before placing it in the glass—I wrapped mine loosely around a wooden spoon handle—it might influence the flavor profile of the drink, but I don’t think so. That said, creating one string from cutting around and around the lemon provided a great pre-drinking challenge. I wouldn’t want to handle a channel knife afterward.

pork rindsMy mother-in-law suggested pork rinds as the snack of choice to accompany our libations—she even hung one on the edge of my glass—and, oddly enough, their saltiness seemed a contrasting but chummy complement. And, wouldn’t it be fun to serve pork rinds in a genteel setting and make people eat them?

David’s verdict: Someday a Horse’s Neck might become my signature drink. At my funeral, someone might say, “And he would always order those damn Horse Necks and explain exactly how he wanted them”… in an endearing way, of course.

Jonathan’s verdict: Already predisposed to like Blenheim Ginger Ale, I thought the addition of bitters, lemon and Applejack offered a noticeable complexity. This is a pre-meal type of cocktail so forget the food pairing.

Next Week (proposed by David):

Besides being the state cocktail of Louisiana (since 2008) and described by Wikipedia as “perhaps the oldest American cocktail,” the Sazerac is my son’s consistent cocktail choice and quite popular in fancy restaurants these days. Everywhere we go together seems to prepare its own variation using exotic bitters and different anisette substitutions for the original Absinthe. I’m going to try it with Pernod (or Herbsainte, if I can find it) and Peychaud bitters, named after Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a Creole Apothecary who created it around 1830 in Haiti. Like Angostura, it’s also a gentian-based bitter, but sources describe it as lighter, sweeter, and more floral.

By choosing a rye-based drink, I know I’m not straying far from the brandy-cognac-bourbon theme of the last two weeks, but part of the appeal to me is the drink’s history—if it IS the original American cocktail, don’t we have to try it? Also, it’s jealousy. When my son orders a Sazerac, I wish I were so savvy. My fancy beer suddenly looks gauche.

So next week, it’s a Sazerac.