Local Micro-Distilleries

img_0292Proposed By: Jonathan

Pursued By: David

Bigger is better, right? In the world of spirits one could think that must be the case. Name a well-known liquor or liqueur and it is probably owned by one of the ten largest conglomerates of all things alcoholic. The biggest of the big is Diageo. Their collection includes scotches like Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff in the vodka category and Baileys for a smooth liqueur touch. Throw in Guinness and a very long list of others and they are a one stop company.

There are plenty of others like them. Pernod Ricard is number two, Beam Suntory three and the most well-known name in rum, Bacardi, four. Bacardi doesn’t just limit themselves to rum though. Their varied stable includes Grey Goose, Dewars, Bombay and even the liqueur with one of the best marketing stories  – St. Germain.

The point is not that bigger is worse. These are well established brands that are using the recipes that made them popular, and they have to stick to industry requirements. Scotch, bourbon, and tequila as categories all include deep ownership from these large companies, but they still have to meet the laws that define that spirit.

The idea with the current proposal was to try something local in a classic or inventive cocktail. David was to use spirits found in and around Chicago and I have used some found in the Charlotte region.

It is actually an easy challenge that is getting easier. Two years ago North Carolina had around 30 micro distilleries. Today, the trail includes over 40 stops. Those spirits are heavy on moonshine but include a number of other liquors. The moonshine is understandable to anyone who has ever heard the history of stock car racing in the Carolinas. Early racers honed their craft of making race cars from publicly available vehicles (stock) in order to out run authorities when hauling illegal hooch. Of course, moonshine is really just raw unaged liquor and if you are going to start a distillery that is a good way to get started. The growing maturity of the industry is beginning to show with those white liquors being flavored (gin), aged (all sorts of whiskeys), and crafted (aged gin, brandy, sweet potato vodka and the like).

I made two cocktails but only tasted one of them. The first was a classic of sorts using single malt whiskey called The Modern Cocktail:

1.5 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon bar sugar
1.5 ounce Rua (Great Wagon Distilling) single malt
1.5 ounce Sloe Gin
Dash Absinthe
Dash orange bitters

Mix lemon juice and sugar in shaker, add ice and all other ingredients, shake and strain into a coupe. Garnish with cherry.

The second was a suggestion included on the web site of the distillery called the Maple Cooler. Oddly, Muddy River Distillery is one of the few I found that offered unique ideas for their spirits.

3 dashes bitters
1.5 ounce Queen Charlotte’s Carolina Rum
1.5 ounce fresh orange juice
.5 ounce maple syrup
1 ounce club soda

Mix everything but soda in a shaker with ice, shake, strain into an old fashioned glass with ice and top with soda. Garnish with orange peel.

The Scotch drinkers that tried the Modern seemed to like it. Maybe even enough to have another before going back to Scotch on the rocks. I forgot to taste it myself but I did try the Maple Cooler. It was a nice crossover drink that people who like a little sweet, interestingly maple syrup sweet in this case, and those that like a non-sweet drink cocktail could agree on. It is a very nice use of the more complex spirit that Muddy River offers.

A few more things: I wanted to use Southern Artisan Spirits Cardinal Barrel Rested Gin in a drink. I did that back when we made gin and tonic variations, however, and decided not to repeat in a part as punishment  for them for not keeping their web site up to date. Al Gore invented the web to advertise craft spirits didn’t he? Carolina Distillery makes an apple brandy perfect for the Fall season. At our last tailgate a number of guests enjoyed a drink that was equal parts of that brandy, Barritt’s ginger beer and fresh apple cider. Made a bunch but never tasted those either.

David’s Entry:

img_1777Some believe cocktails are a waste of good spirits. If the bourbon, scotch, gin, or even vodka is good enough, they say, why adulterate it? That perspective certainly seems crucial to micro-distilleries hoping to attract connoisseurs willing to pay for the extra costs of small-scale production. Like many boutique-styled markets catering to those in the know, the process sometimes matters as much as the product.

Like Charlotte, Chicago seems to have a new micro-distillery popping up each week. For this post, however, I chose Koval, one of the first and the first distillery founded in Chicago since the mid-nineteenth century… if you don’t count prohibition bootleggers. Their website describes a “grain-to bottle mentality” that includes locally-sourced organic ingredients, milling and mashing on-site, and signature packaging and bottling. You’re as likely to encounter Koval at a Lincoln Park farmers’ market as at your neighborhood liquor store. They mean to establish themselves as a Chicago thing, and their marketing, though quiet, has been quite effective. Their product is also much respected. Since its founding eight years ago, Koval has won many gold, silver, and bronze medals at international whisky competitions.

The website points out that, in many Eastern European languages, “Koval” means “blacksmith,” but they prefer the Yiddish word for “black sheep, or someone who forges ahead or does something new or out of the ordinary.” I’ve tried a number of Koval products (they also make imaginative liqueurs), but for this post I’ll talk about their Rye Whiskey. Their rye is unusual because it’s made from 100% rye, but that’s not why I chose it. Rye is a spirit I may possibly maybe might know somewhat well enough to judge. Truth is, all those unadulterators have me at a distinct disadvantage—my palate has never been so advanced that I can speak confidently about what anything tastes like.

And I always sound ridiculous when I pretend I understand how to describe spirits. But here goes: people who know rye might expect spiciness and little of the mellow or corn-y warmth of bourbon, and this rye doesn’t have that sort of body either. But Koval’s approach isn’t to make a spicy rye. Theirs is clean and crisp—more white than brown sugar—and has a bright, light, and unusual quality. If you’re thinking about rye bread when you have a sip, you’re going to be surprised… this isn’t that.

Not that this isn’t good for sipping. Wine Enthusiast gives it a 91 and says, “This rye has aromas of vanilla and coconut. A faint sweetness shows on the palate, with initial notes of coconut and almond, while the finish is gently spiced and drying.”

And to that, I say, “Yeah, what they said.”

As this proposal asked, I also tried this rye in a classic cocktail, the De La Louisiane, which you loyal readers may remember is equal parts rye, red vermouth, and maraschino liqueur (with Peychaud Bitters in an absinthe-washed coupe). I figured that would give me the plainest picture of how Koval might stand up to other ingredients, and I was right. To be honest, however, the Koval nearly disappeared, which made me wonder whether it’s too refined for mixing.

Or maybe it’s just too refined for me. The expense of most micro-distillery offerings means they aren’t likely to supply my usual bourbon, rye, scotch, gin, or vodka. It’d be nice if local micro-distilleries could compete with multi-nationals on price, but alas and of course not. They’re a nice treat, yet remind me that, when it comes to boutique spirits, I’m just not worthy.

Jonathan’s take: I understand global companies but it sure is nice to support creative people making local product.

David’s Take: Like Jonathan, I support local commerce and spirituous ambition… though Old Overholt is probably too good for me.

Next Time (Proposed by David):

So, it’s that time of year again, and I googled “Unconventional Holiday Cocktails.” Disappointingly, many of the old stand-bys turned up (Mulled Wine, Eggnog, Hot Buttered Rum) as did many wretchedly sweet drinks (Peppermint “Martinis” and Spiced Coconut Hot White Chocolate). Finally, I discovered something that might be warm enough and light enough to enhance rather than drown the good cheer, Spiked Pear Cider.

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Jane Russell Cocktail

JanetoblameProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

We have tried cocktails with great provenance, some with disputed backgrounds and a few with only sketchy details. The only ones that I can recall with no back story, however, were ones we created. The Jane Russell cocktail is an exception. Other than a description as “voluptuous” like the eponymous star, there is no explanation why her name is associated with this drink. I couldn’t even find a reference that she did drink and would warrant a guess that spirits were not a large part of her life.

The drink itself is another Manhattan variant like we tried a few weeks ago. In this case the bitters change from Angostura to chocolate and the sweetening agent is a mix instead of the simple sweet vermouth. The exact recipe that I used:

2 ounces rye whiskey
¼ ounce Benedictine
¼ ounce Grand Marnier
¼ ounce sweet vermouth
Dash of chocolate bitters (I used Fee Brothers Aztec chocolate)

Mix all ingredients, stir with ice until chilled, strain into a coupe, and garnish with orange zest.

Like the Monte Carlo which used Benedictine for the sweet vermouth to great success, the mix of three spirits in this drink provides an interesting range of flavors and background. I can’t say that I could taste the chocolate bitters directly, but there was a roundness to the drink that invoked the comfort of that confection.

The question that remains is, “Why there are drinks named after Rosalind Russell and Jane Russell and along with that what about other famous Russells?” As I said in the introduction, there doesn’t seem to be answer to the first question, and I may be the only person that cares about the second. In hope that I can change the latter, I am going to propose some ideas for other Russell cocktails:

The Bill Russell. Arguably the greatest shot blocker in the history or basketball, this drink has to be the opposite of a shot. It needs to be a long tall drink with some type of whiskey, seltzer and bitters. Take that weak ass shot out of here.

The Kurt Russell. I read that he is libertarian so any drink that follows a set recipe makes no sense. Just take whatever is on your liquor cabinet, throw it together and drink until you begin to believe you need to escape a dystopian society.

The Leon Russell. Classic, long lasting and cream based. Leon is still writing and making music and presumably still sports the long white/gray locks. I’m thinking moonshine, cream and a little southern comfort on ice.

The Patrick Russell. What, you have never heard of the famous Scottish herpetologist who was an expert on the vipers of India? This drink tries again to make use of Scotch in a cocktail, but disguises it with something so sweet you never see the kick coming until it strikes like a serpent. I have some honey sweetened chai tea that might work well.

The Pee Wee Russell. This jazz musician might have drank himself to death and was known for rousing himself in the morning with drink, so an alcoholic beverage may not be appropriate. He also enjoyed brandy milkshakes, whatever that is, so I am proposing a simple vanilla milkshake with an accent of the same chocolate bitters we used in this week’s drink. A sure hangover cure.

The Nipsey Russell. With that first name how is there not already a drink named after him? It needs to be a small nip, good for the working man and invoke some wry humor. Maybe a rye, stout beer and Absinthe shot.

And Here’s David’s Review:

JanyI confess some suspicion about cocktail recipes like this one that call for specific brands of this or that—Grand Marnier instead of triple sec or two kinds of rye instead of just rye. For one thing, no one ever asks for Old Overholt or Dekuyper Triple Sec and, for another, they assume a refinement of taste I can’t always manage… particularly when I’m drinking.

That said, I can tell the difference between Carpano Antica and sweet vermouth and, whether a recipe calls for it or not, I rely on it. As I’ve not doubt written before (and forgotten… because of the drinking), Carpano Antica is a more bitter and, dare I say, more complex than Martini and Rossi. And it was the right choice for this cocktail because it cut some of the sweetness in the triple sec and Benedictine.

As for the Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters, they were a nice touch, and, being a bitters fiend, I happened to have some chocolate bitters on hand. Did I taste them, you ask, did they make a big difference? I wish I could claim they did, but see my earlier comments about drinking and reviewing. I’ll plead the fifth and say they added “Something quite subtle and refined” to the recipe, but they aren’t cardamom bitters, which is to say I’m not still tasting them two days later.

This variation on a Manhattan produced a wonderful collective effect. A successful cocktail, after all, might rest more on the harmony of its components, a harmony so complete that you can’t separate them… particularly after you’ve had a couple. This drink certainly fits that description. With the Benedictine and Carpano Antica (yes, I am trying to see how many times I can inject that name into this review), the herbal notes of this cocktail came forward but in a mixed way. If you make this drink, you may want to bump up just a touch the Grand Marnier—I had Mandarine Napoleon on hand, which is a wonderful alternative. And no, these people whose products I tout don’t pay me a cent.

Jonathan’s take: Sorry about the repetition of Manhattan variants. At least it was good and I skipped the cross my heart puns from so long ago.

David’s take: I’d have another. Wait… I did have another.

Next Week (proposed by David):

As Saturday is Valentine’s Day, I’d like to raise a toast to the two people who share in and, my wife might say, make this silly hobby of ours possible. To assure we appreciate them appropriately, I’m proposing a Vanilla Champagne Cocktail, which is a little like the French 75 except that it substitutes bourbon for brandy and will require Jonathan and I to make some vanilla simple syrup between now and Saturday. I’m counting on Jonathan being willing to make the sacrifice. I hope, like me, he doesn’t mind having another simple syrup on hand.

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 Martinez

Proposed by: DavidVersion 1

Reviewed by: Jonathan

Someday I mean to create a cocktail family tree akin to the Rock and Roll blackboard scrawl in School of Rock created by Dewey Finn (aka Ned Schneebly, aka Jack Black). It will be full of  Biblical “begats” and “knows,” crisscross fertilization and looping circumferential hints of influence. Some lines will have to be dotted, of course, and paired with question marks.

The lineage of the Martinez seemed clear at first, and a confident Y on my imagined family tree. But for gin, it might be a Manhattan—so clearly it followed that—and, after its creation, some bartender likely preferred dry vermouth over sweet (and left the dash of liqueur and bitters out) and created the Martini. Though a Martinez tastes nothing like a Martini, some of my sources said it predates the Martini by ten years, citing it as part of the 1887 version of—what else?— Professor Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders’ Guide. In this version of the story it was created for someone going to (maybe from, depending on the account) Martinez, California. Or maybe it was because they served it in the Occidental Hotel to people going by  ferry from San Francisco to Martinez, California.

But it gets more complicated. Cocktail historian David Wondrich believes the Martinez and the Martini developed in the 1860s, simultaneously, the former on the west coast and the latter in New York. He discounts Jerry Thomas as inventor of the Martinez, saying the 1887 edition of his Bar-tenders Guide, published two years after Thomas’ death, may have copied an earlier version described in O.H. Byron’s 1884 Modern Bartender’s Guide. Then again, you may remember that Byron may have been a composite rob-job of Thomas. You see how quickly all this resembles a soap opera full of dubious parentage and dark family secrets.

Because Byron connects the Martinez clearly to a Manhattan, instructing a bartender to mix a Martinez “Same as a Manhattan, only you substitute gin for whisky,” and because the Martini doesn’t appear in published guides until 1888, I’m calling the Martinez a precursor… until Maury Povich comes along to settle the dispute.

Whatever the order of things, the original Martinez called for Old Tom Gin, which, loyal readers of this blog will know, was an earlier version sweetened slightly to smooth out the rough edges in questionable distillations. The sweetness of Old Tom changes the drink, and including it makes the Martinez seem a very—use-your-binoculars—distant relation to the Martini. However, substitute dry gin, and the Martini and the Martinez will look like cousins. Choose the bitter Carpano Antica as the sweet vermouth and they may look like brothers.

I ran into a number of recipes that called for different bitters and different liqueurs. You might try it, for instance, with Genever for the gin, curaçao for the liqueur and angostura as the bitter (as one recipe does). I’ve listed the basic formula below, but nothing prevents you from playing around… and perhaps adding your own line to the family tree.

Here’s the Recipe:

2 ounces gin

3/4 ounce sweet vermouth

1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur

Dash of orange bitters

Lemon twist for garnish

Combine liquid ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake, strain, pour. Twist the lemon peel over the glass and drop it in.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

martinez

The gin lessons continue. We’ve tried cocktails with London Dry Gin, Old Tom Gin, and different botanical and complex gins. My favorite so far has to be the citrus infused Rangpur Tanqueray gin that was used in the Bengali gimlet. This drink specified the use of Old Tom, an older style that is said to have a touch of sweetness without all of the herbal complexity. That specification seemed odd to me considering there is also an equal part of sweet vermouth in the recipe. Of course, wondering almost always leads to experimentation.

The other part of the experimentation goes back to eating, and drinking, locally. Early on in the blog I tried a rum that was made nearby, Muddy River rum, and began to get interested in the local distillery movement that has followed on the heels of the exploding local brewery trend. I haven’t forgotten that interest, but there have not been that many opportunities to try other local spirits, especially since so many of those are vodka or more neutral versions of other liquors. This recipe, and my question about gin type, led me to Southern Artisans Spirits in Kings Mountain, N.C. and their botanical gin—Cardinal.

The first version of the Martinez was tested with neighbors and used the Old Tom. It had the expected sweetness and the gin was, at most, subtle. That does not exactly match the idea that this cocktail is the precursor of the Martini, although it should. Most Martinis are so heavy in gin that it has become a cliché to suggest ways to nod to the vermouth without actually using it. With the equal parts of gin and sweet vermouth this drink had a mix of flavors, and body from the vermouth, that was much more pleasant. A lesson that Martini makers may wish to consider.

The following day we tried the drink with the Cardinal gin, and, not surprisingly, the botanicals came forward. It had been my guess that this would be a welcome contrast to the slight sweetness, but in truth the Old Tom version was more harmonious. The cocktail improved as it warmed, but still fell short.

One last comment that is more accurately a confession. I have been using Maraska cherry liqueur in drinks that call for maraschino liqueur. It explains taste differences as well as some of the color variation between my drinks and the ones David has made. I also thought it might be the reason that I disliked the Aviation cocktail so much. Out of fairness, and because the Martinez reminded me of it, I decided to give the Aviation another try. The color was much better (it is included in the picture with the Martinez) and the drink an improvement from what I remember of the original tasting, but still not one I would put on the go-to list.

Jonathan’s take: Want to try a martini? Try this first and you’ll understand the interplay of vermouth better.

David’s Take: Keep the sweetness at bay with a bittersweet vermouth and this cocktail is complex.

Next week (Proposed by Jonathan):

It is autumn and thoughts turn to the flavors of the season. We’ve tried apples and pears so it needed to be something different. The drink is the Great Calabaza and the different ingredient is pumpkin. There are drinks that use puree, seeds or butter with the latter the case in this drink. Add mezcal to that and it should be interesting.

The Livorno

fireProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

One of the things I have worried about with this blog is excess. I am here to admit I have reached that point. Not in drink, but in literature. The basis of the cocktail blog is that we are tasting and experimenting which means that, except in very rare occasions, the weekly drink is only one or two cocktails. The books about spirits, though, have begun to mount especially in digital format. I had no idea there was so much variety to the genre of alcohol related non-fiction. The latest is Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits by Jason Wilson and it is the inspiration for this week’s drink.

The drink is the Livorno and the recipe is as follows:

1.5 ounce bourbon
.75 ounce Tuaca (tu’ a ka)
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Preserved or maraschino cherry

Fill glass with ice, add bourbon, Tuaca and bitters. Stir until cold and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry.

The main, and most interesting ingredient, is Tuaca an Italian liqueur with flavors of vanilla and citrus. Like many of the liqueurs, especially those from European countries, it has an interesting history. The original recipe goes back to the Renaissance period and was rediscovered by two Italian families the Tuonis and Canepas who lived in the city of Livorno. That recipe has evolved from what was once called Milk Cognac to a less alcoholic version that certainly contains no milk. Originally produced in Italy, the brand was purchased by liquor giant Brown-Forman of Louisville. It had reached a point that most of the product was made in Italy but exported to the U.S., so it is not surprising that the production has moved to the U.S. I should mention that to complete the Louisville connection, I chose a bourbon from the same company that is produced in that city – Old Forester.

Jason Wilson describes the liqueur in a chapter that focuses on St. Germain, Jagermeister and Tuaca. Each of these liqueurs has a fanciful history that stretches the imagination and one of them, Jagermeister, has reached a level of popularity through marketing and placement that far surpasses any history or tall tales. Tuaca was marketed and positioned to challenge Jagermeister in bars as a shot for the younger crowd, but I think the confused looks I received when I mentioned that to some recent college graduates speaks to the failure of that marketing. In fact, I would say the expressions of that same crowd when I served this cocktail speak to part of the reason for that.

Here’s David’s Review:

LivornoSaturday being my birthday, my wife and I invited guests for dinner and served them the Livorno. And, because I’ve become the Cliff Clavin of cocktails, I explained what Tuaca is, where the cocktail got its name, how the drink might be considered a Manhattan variation… yadda, yadda, yadda. I must have sounded pret-ty savvy because a guest asked me if I’d try the drink again prior to writing the review. I said “No.” Though I liked this drink, I didn’t need to take notes or swirl the cocktail around the glass or in my mouth.

When we tried whiskeys a couple of weeks ago, I watched some videos of tasters online and came away feeling inadequate. Perhaps you’ve had this experience watching a blu-ray DVD on your friends’ new floor-to-ceiling flat screen TV or listening to that super expensive sound system that sends waves through baffles or into an anchored sub-woofer or up into space and back. One whiskey taster online detected marshmallow charred over oak and mesquite smoke, and I thought the whiskey was kind of burn-y because I accidentally aspirated a sip.

So, if you’re not already, please regard my comments as the views of a well-meaning philistine. Tuaca, like many liqueurs I’d put in the TLAOL (Tippling Like An Old Lady) category, is quite sweet, syrupy even. The description on the bottle describes it as “A Vanilla Citrus Liqueur,” but I don’t really taste the citrus at all—certainly not the bitter citrus of a peel. Tuaca has a sort of amaretto or praline flavor, faintly nutty and matching mellow bourbon or complementing the sharp taste of Rye.

The spiciness of the Rittenhouse Rye I used and the warm, spirituous Tuaca, in fact, largely erased the Peychaud Bitters. One of my guests—who seems far more savvy than I—commented that this cocktail, lacking bitter elements, couldn’t stand up to the complexity and depth of a Manhattan. Though I like sweet drinks, that response makes sense to me.

One of the most interesting conversations at dinner was about the nature of cocktails, whether they are like cooking, which accommodates improvisation, or like baking, which sometimes punishes experimentation with abject failure. No doubt, invented cocktails can be utter flops (particularly when they include Crème de Menthe) but I like to believe cocktails are more like cooking because I have all these silly things in my liquor cabinet (minus Crème de Menthe) to fool around with. Maybe I just can’t taste failure, but, when it comes to mixology, I have an infinite capacity for hope.

If I do try the Livorno again, I may experiment with a lower measure of Tuaca to cut some of the sweetness of the drink, and make up the difference with a bittersweet vermouth like Carpano Antica or dry vermouth. The alterations might add another dimension, or—like that time I tried to bake cookies on the grill—only create another tragic tale.

Jonathan’s take: Bourbon overwhelms any subtleties of the Tuaca, but for a sipping drink by the fire it’s not too bad.

David’s Take: I enjoyed the Livorno. It could be I was swayed by the wonderful company, but it seemed a warm and wonderful way to start an evening.

Next Week (Proposed by David):

Moscow Mules have become a staple of bar menus. I’m not sure what those copper cups add to the drink, but I do think they give it an appealing festive feel. Up to now, I’ve stayed away from making Moscow Mules at home because I didn’t have the proper bar ware. No more! My wife gave me two cups for my birthday, so it’s time to try one (or some variation). If the cup is important, maybe Jonathan and his wife can have one out at a bar, but it’d be interesting to see what the cup adds (if anything at all). Shouldn’t it be the same drink, regardless of its container?

The Manhattan

photo-74Proposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

The colorful but unlikely story of the Manhattan’s origins says that, in the early 1870s, during a banquet in New York hosted by Winston Churchill’s mother (Lady Randolph Churchill), Dr. Iain Marshall invented the cocktail at the Manhattan Club. So popular was the drink that people started ordering it by the name of the club, hence “The Manhattan.”

Honoring Samuel J. Tilden is also in there somehow.

Because Lady Randolph was pregnant and elsewhere, many other stories abound, including one that places it in 1860 at a bar on Houston Street. Whatever. With libations, you begin to believe someone was bound to discover it eventually.

Whatever you guess about the Manhattan, it’s certainly one of America’s basic cocktails, appearing regularly in Mad Men and in bars all over. The New York Times calls it “The boss of all cocktails” (naturally) and says, “Unlike other cocktails that have recently been roused from long hibernation, the Manhattan never really slumbered, having been kept drowsily awake through the lean years of cocktaildom by French-cuffed businessmen and other habitués of old-guard hotel bars and private clubs.”

Sounds awfully snooty. However, here in Chicago we’ve having Manhattan Week (which, Chicago-style, has been going on since January 22nd), with several bars offering their own variations on the classic. I gave the classic to Jonathan, though, like me, he explored a bit.

Here’s the basic recipe:

3/4 oz sweet vermouth
2 1/2 oz bourbon whiskey
1 dash Angostura® bitters
1 maraschino cherry
1 twist orange peel

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Combine the vermouth, bourbon whiskey, and bitters with 2 – 3 ice cubes in a mixing glass. Stir gently, don’t bruise the spirits and cloud the drink. Place the cherry in a chilled cocktail glass and strain the whiskey mixture over the cherry. Rub the cut edge of the orange peel over the rim of the glass and twist it over the drink to release the oils but don’t drop it in.

The variety I tried (along with the classic… what can I say?) came from the Siena Tavern and replaces the Vermouth with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, which the restaurant calls, “The Rolls Royce of vermouths.” The recipe also adds 2 dashes of Regan’s orange bitters and a garnish of orange peel, but I didn’t have that (and it was snowing hard) so I substituted Scrappy’s Grapefruit Bitters and grapefruit peel. I’m not really sure, after all the changes, whether I had a Manhattan at all, but there it is.

And here’s Jonathan’s review:

-1Sometime back in the dark ages, the laws of North Carolina permitted the purchase of beer at age 18 but restricted hard liquor to those over 21. I was between those ages when I accompanied my friend, Barry, to New York to help his sister move. Not one to miss an opportunity, I ordered a Manhattan in a Manhattan restaurant. The problem was that I had meant to order a Long Island Iced Tea but didn’t know any better. I was also too proud to admit my mistake and slowly, very slowly, sipped the most bitter and strong drink I had tasted up to that point.

This is a cocktail that has continued to intrigue particularly after reading the guide to bitters and their use in cocktails. David’s link to Chicago’s Manhattan Week also piqued interest in all the varieties offered.  I decided that I would keep close to the basic recipe but try a couple of other combinations. The final selection (I shared with others) was the basic recipe using bourbon, the same basic recipe with rye and served on the rocks, and finally a version with wheat whiskey (Bernheim Original) and peach bitters instead of angostura.

All of the options successfully recreated the drink that I remember. It is a sipping drink no matter what your level of sophistication. The mix of spirit and vermouth was somewhat diluted in the rocks version, but those stirred with ice and strained demanded strict pacing to enjoy them. This drink is a classic for a reason, and allows the drinker to savor the base liquor. For that reason, it almost demands that a quality brand be used as opposed to drinks where the other mixers make the use of a basic spirit more than reasonable.

Jonathan’s take: Much better than my first experience with this cocktail. I look forward to a few more variations on the classic.

David’s take: I’m with Jonathan here. I like the idea that a cocktail might have so many iterations, so much potential for improvisation and discovery.

Next week Proposed by Jonathan:

One of my brothers-in-law is the biggest James Bond fan(atic) that I know. The classic Bond line is a vodka martini “shaken not stirred”, but the original drink came from the first book – Casino Royale. It was a cocktail made with gin, vodka and Kina Lillet that was ultimately called the Vesper.