Serendipity

SerendipityProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

We don’t post as often now but having reached the three year mark it is increasingly difficult to come up with a proposal. While driving to the coast to meet friends, I was thinking about the gin and tonic alternatives I’d be serving them and wondering what I would suggest for the next drink. Nothing came to mind, but one of those friends was talking about a drink he had tried at a bar in Greensboro, N.C. He knew I liked cocktails topped with sparkling wines and thought it was one I would enjoy. The word escapes me but it was almost as if I had discovered my proposed drink by accident.

The Serendipity cocktail is a somewhat recent invention of the bartender Colin Field at the Hemingway Bar in the The Ritz Paris. The history of the drink is short, but that bar and others in Paris have long histories and are credited as having been the source of some of the classics. French 75, Sidecar, Monkey Gland, and (erroneously as it ends up) the Bloody Mary are just some of those.

The two bars were locations where the famous chose to drink also. Ernest Hemingway, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Humphrey Bogart, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were all known to drink at Harry’s New York Bar and The Ritz in Paris. Even James Bond, thanks to Ian Fleming, had a drink at Harry’s.

Despite the fact that the Serendipity is not that old there are various recipes. If we only had a time machine (pronounced in true Dr. Evil fashion) we could get an exact recipe from The Hemingway Bar. Or we could simply fly to Paris and ask since that bar and The Ritz recently reopened after a major renovation. The time machine sounds more fun though. Here are two similar options:

6 mint leaves
1 teaspoon bar sugar
3/4 ounce Calvados
1 ounce clear apple juice
3-4 ounces brut champagne

Mint
1 ounce apple juice
1/2 ounce Calvados
1/2 ounce pear brandy
3-4 ounce champagne
Slice apple

For both recipes you bruise the mint, add other ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into a glass with ice, top with champagne and garnish (the apple slice in the second recipe or mint and peach slices for me). I also used mint simple syrup instead of sugar and a peach/pear brandy instead of Calvados.

This is a simple, subtle yet refreshing drink. The original concept was to use apple juice from Normandy with French Calvados and champagne. Since I couldn’t get apple juice from France I chose another (less expensive) option for the brandy and garnished with peach slices to make it a true fruit salad. I would suggest the sugar or syrup if using a brut champagne.

David’s Review:

SDMA friend in college famously combined unlikely foods in his dining hall meals. He like mashed potatoes with his tacos or a side of jello salad with spaghetti. He loved to squeeze a packet of Chinese mustard into his macaroni and cheese. When we commented, he always offered the same answer. “Hey,” he’d say, “it’s all going the same place.”

I’m still not sure I know what that means (or don’t want to think about it), but I get the spirit of his approach: only unimaginative people avoid crossing categories. It’s all food.

When it comes to cocktails, some people don’t like mixing beer with spirits… or wine with spirits… or beer with wine. Okay, I get the last one, but it seems a shame not to give an occasional beertail a try, and it’s a particular shame to avoid cocktails like the Serendipity that top the concoction with a splash of champagne.

What does champagne add? The current political climate leads me to believe there’s no convincing anyone of anything, but I’ll try anyway. Here are the pluses:

  • Effervescence: I’m sure it’s a trigeminal thing, but the the bubbles definitely contribute to creating a refreshing experience.
  • Subtle sweetness: The longer this blog goes on, the more my taste for sweet abates. Sparkling wine seems to add just enough.
  • A different sort of intoxication: Beer brewers sometimes add champagne yeast last in order to digest the last bit of unmetabolized sugar. There must be something to that.
  • An unacknowledged (and unnoticed) relation between ingredients: The connections between spirits are often hidden, but champagne and Calvados both come from fruit, apples and grapes.
  • Deep associations: Somewhere in my lizard brain is the notion that champagne is somehow more celebratory… though I doubt many lizards realize the connection.

I didn’t try the peach version Jonathan discussed, but I loved the common version of this cocktail. As is often the case with a classic, everything about it seems subtle. The mint is bruised, not muddled (and, like Jonathan, I tried mint simple syrup… but thought it was too much). Calvados, while obviously apple-y, isn’t cloyingly so. When Jonathan told me about the Serendipity, he apologized for sending me to the liquor store for another ingredient—both of our bars are now full with enough choices for a block party—but he needn’t have worried. Calvados has a more versatile taste than I expected and, in future experiments, will make my tasters say, “What’s that other flavor?” Finally, the apple juice adds a fresh element to this drink without overwhelming it. If fact, in my opinion, you could do without sugar or simple syrup altogether.

David’s Take: One of my favorites, though it seems too special to drink all the time.

Jonathan’s take: Another wonderful drink thanks to a champagne topper.

Next Time (Proposed By David):

Here in Chicago we are just getting some relief from some hot days, but, on the east coast, it’s hotter today than anything we experienced. It seems time for a blender drink, so I’m proposing the Rock Lobster. Since we’ve already had B 52s, it seems appropriate, but I’m ready for some fruit. It will also be fun to use that banana liquor languishing in my cabinet.

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Hangman’s Blood

HangeronProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Anthony Burgess was a British novelist, librettist, and composer, but he’s most famous for Clockwork Orange, the book that became a controversial Stanley Kubrick movie and assured Burgess’ lasting fame. That… and Hangman’s Blood, of course.

Hangman’s Blood was Burgess’ signature concoction, and if you’re a regular follower of this blog, perhaps you noticed the comment section stir (well, relative stir… we have about 25 regular readers) caused by my proposing Burgess’ favorite indulgence, a cocktail he said “tastes very smooth, induces a somewhat metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover” but which everyone else sees as the spirituous equivalent of a “suicide,” that fountain drink mixed from orange, Coca Cola, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, and Nehi Grape your seventh grade friend Mark (or Bobby or Steve or Jeff) dared you to drink:

1 1/4 oz gin
1 1/4 oz rum
1 1/4 oz whiskey
1 1/4 oz brandy
1 1/4 oz port
5 oz Guinness® stout or stout beer
4 oz Champagne

Add all five shots to a pint glass. Top to desired level with stout beer, 5 oz is just about right. Fill to top of glass with champagne.

Okay, so call me a fool if you like. I prefer to see myself as a thrill-seeker willing to stand apart from the genteel martini drinkers also after a spirituous experience but reluctant to say so. I could, of course, claim I meant to add to our list of literary drinks, the Hemingway Daiquiri, the Bobby Burns, etc. That, however, would be a lie. Mostly I wanted to see if something so crazy could possibly be good. I mean, it’s possible. Maybe I just grew tired of threatening and wanted to make good on the threat.

Was that a good idea? I’ll leave the review for later, but, well, hey, all hopes are somewhat foolish.

Jonathan and I both chose a collection of bottles to depict this drink—though he suggested it might have been more appropriate to show him stretched out on his den floor—and a row of spirits may be the best (and only possible) tribute to Burgess’ invention.

In any case, here’s Jonathan’s Review:

IMG_0204-2Nothing says Happy Valentine’s Day like an ice cold Hangman’s Blood. Most people were thinking about a nice bottle of bubbly, a glass of red wine, or perhaps an innocent cocktail like a mimosa. Not us, we were emptying the liquor cabinet, throwing in half a bottle of stout and for an ounce, or four, of redemption adding some champagne.

There’s an image of the rough guy who sits at a dimly lit bar. No one sits near him as he orders a beer with a shot a rye. He drops that shot in the pint glass and downs them together. He is the most basic and roughest drinker. That is until someone walks in, takes the bar stool right next to him and orders a Hangman’s Blood. Fifteen minutes later the bartender finishes grabbing half the bottles he has available, throwing on some beer and bubbly and presents the drink. The new drinker winks at his bar mate and downs the concoction in one long draught. The only options left for Mr. Boilermaker are to relinquish his status as the toughest fool there or wait ten minutes for Mr. Hangman to fall off that bar stool and take his rightful place on the floor with the peanut shells and pretzel crumbs.

I have dim memories of a punch that was popular among college students who had tired of mixing grain alcohol and fruit juices into PJ. Battleship Punch, and I am going from memory here since I can’t find it on the internet, is a mix of grain, vodka, brandy, and champagne among other liquors. There were some non-alcoholic ingredients but the concept was that the champagne hit you first followed by the brandy, vodka and grain in that order. By the time you had drunk too much it was too late. Your battleship was sunk.

This is that punch in cocktail form. I mixed up a half batch, shared that with my wife and still didn’t come close to finishing it. The effervescence helped the drink and brightened it, but nothing could erase the thought that I had just poured four liquors, one fortified wine and beer together before I had topped it with that champagne. My mind wouldn’t let me taste any subtlety, judge the color, or even start to think why someone would drink a full cocktail of this. Sorry David, I am not the meanest son of a gun at the bar.

Jonathan’s take: Champagne can redeem a drink. Not this one.

David’s take: Really awful. Sorry, Mr. Burgess. Sorry, everyone.

Next time (Proposed By Jonathan):

Ever since David proposed the current drink I have been trying to think of the sweetest drink, one that was mostly Irish Cream, or how I could mix crème de menthe and blue curacao. Guess what? There is drink called the Frostbite (perfect for the Chicago winter I suppose) that is tequila based but includes blue curacao, crème de menthe and a sweet element – chocolate liqueur. I hate there is no Irish Cream but you can’t have everything.

 

Year Two: The Best and Worst

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

Jonathan

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

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

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

Best name/worst drink: The Monkey Incident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King and Queen of the Prom: Prickly Pear Margarita

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

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

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

David

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week (Proposed By Jonathan):

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

 

St. Germain Cocktail

St Germain.JBMProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

There are times when I feel like my introductions are more eighth grade book report than history… if I was reading alcohol literature in eighth grade, that is. The book in this case has been mentioned before and is Jason Wilson’s Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits. The author is described as a columnist on travel, food and drinks, which is quite the career description. Darn, have to go on a business trip to France, drink and eat well and then write about it. Woe is me.

The fourth chapter of his book discusses the marketing and romance of the liqueur part of the spirit industry. The better and more mysterious the back story, it seems, the better the liqueur. In the case of St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur, the author relates the tale of the simple, yet magical, gathering of the flowers necessary to make the elixir. This gathering story includes a very limited time and place when the flowers are ready to be picked (a few short days in May in the French Alps), mustachioed gatherers dressed in berets, and the simple transportation of bags of the harvested blooms borne by bike to be processed. The actual production of the liqueur is also said to be based on a special maceration process that gently elicits the honeyed sap of the flower without bruising and damage. It is all a marketing tale that the cynical, like me, will quickly dismiss yet it is still so evocative that I have always felt the need to have this liqueur. And now I do.

This is simple cocktail that features the St. Germain liqueur. There are two versions that I have found – one in Collins glass form and the other served in champagne flutes. I chose the former and mixed 1.5 ounces St. Germain, 4 ounces Prosecco and 2 ounces sparkling water. That was served over ice with a twist of lemon as garnish. If you want the more elegant fluted version, it calls for 1.5 ounces St. Germain poured into the glass with 2 ounces of sparkling wine. The liqueur is delicate, from all that careful gathering and maceration of course, so a simple sparkler works best.

Here’s David’s Review:

St Germain C.DMMy memories of Easter when Jonathan and I were growing up don’t include any special celebration on my parents’ part—certainly no Easter cocktail—and no deviation from the usual routine of church-going other than perhaps some “new” handed-down clothes and candy for breakfast. This Easter my wife and I are in the throes of a property search. We’re empty-nesters no longer responsible for hiding eggs or filling baskets, and this place has grown too big for us.

And the Saturday afternoon before Easter, which once involved dying eggs, was decidedly more quiet. The St. Germain cocktail, in fact, seemed an ideal accompaniment to our circumstance. It also is quiet, the liqueur being as subtle as the prosecco and the seltzer diluting even that. The lemon actually seemed assertive, and we added only a slice.

We enjoyed it. St. Germain is wonderful stuff in any concentration and who doesn’t like bubbly? The liberal quantity of seltzer made the cocktail super carbonated, but not many cocktails can be described as “refreshing” as this one can. Maybe I’m becoming an inveterate drinker, but my only complaint about was that it seemed almost too subtle. The combination of liqueur and white wine is wonderful by itself. A couple of Christmases ago, our son bought us a bottle of St. Germain and added it to champagne for dinner. You could create something less effervescent (and more striking) by choosing the champagne flute over the Collins glass, skipping the ice, and topping the cocktail conservatively with a splash of seltzer, if you add any at all. You might also substitute tonic, as I did on the second go-round, to cut some of the sweetness. The idea of introducing a second liqueur would also be interesting to me.

As holidays go, Easter has always seemed a little melancholy to me, coming as it often does before spring has really sprung and usually affording less of the relaxation offered by Christmas or even Thanksgiving. You might get Good Friday or Easter Monday off, but it’s a holiday generally taken in stride, a pause instead of a break. Perhaps the frantic search for a new home has infected me, but the St. Germain cocktail matches that on-the-run feel of this holiday—a pleasant celebration but nothing that will stop the world for long.

Jonathan’s take: The drink is simple and spring ready. It could probably use a tiny bit of one of its cousins, Benedictine or Chartreuse, to jazz it up though.

David’s Take: I know it sounds like I have faint praise for this cocktail, but that isn’t no praise at all. It’s quite drinkable (deceptively so), just muted.

Next Week (Proposed by David):

In honor of Washington DC’s cherry blossoms, which should reach their peak sometime in the next week or so, and my affection for all things Japanese, which inspires me to compose a haiku a day, I’m proposing a Cherry Blossom Tini. Though the name suggests a variation on a martini, the cocktail actually combines orange liqueur with sake and a little lime and cranberry juice. Another delicate cocktail of spring, it at very least promises to be beautiful.

Vanilla Bourbon Champagne Cocktail

VBCCProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

The romantic films of the late fifties and early sixties taught me champagne goes to your head more quickly than other types of alcohol. Count on it, once the cork pops Doris Day spills affection she means to keep bottled. Inhibitions vanish with an understanding only possible between the ungirdled. Then unlikely love blossoms, naturally.

Sorry if you continue to attribute special powers to champagne, but, chemically, alcohol is alcohol, and the inebriating potential assigned to champagne’s fizz is, sadly, dubious and perhaps imaginary.

Not that imagination is to be trifled with—science doesn’t support the existence of aphrodisiacs either, but people still invest in the idea.

However, in any case, Valentine’s Day seems like a great excuse to break out the bubbly and indulge imagination. Let’s be honest: husbands often approach this holiday with a special dread. Stakes are high, and my own record of making the day memorable is spotty. I like to think my wife and I have plenty of ungirdled love and understanding—champagne or not—but I’m all for celebrating with the good stuff if it gives me a way to express affection and supplies my wife with an answer when coworkers ask, “So, what did your lousy, good-for-nothing insensitive slob of a husband do for Valentine’s Day?”

They won’t exactly put it that way, of course, but that’s the gist.

As a category, champagne cocktails often aspire to beauty as well as flavor. The first, THE champagne cocktail that appeared (where else) in “Professor” Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book Bon Vivant’s Companion, combines champagne with cognac, angostura bitters and a sugar cube that produces lively bubbles when you drop it in the glass. Visit Martha Stewart’s site and you’ll find many other versions, each with a pleasing garnish and secondary ingredient that makes a celebrant say, “Now, what is that I’m tasting?”

This version, which has a great deal in common with the French 75, substitutes bourbon for that drink’s cognac and omits the simple syrup and lemon juice in favor of a vanilla syrup. Making syrups has become a sort of sub-hobby for me, and, though we’re running out of vessels to contain them all, I’m looking forward to adding this syrup to other drinks.

Here’s the recipe:

To Make Vanilla Syrup:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 vanilla beans
  1. Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a saucepan.
  2. Split the vanilla beans lengthwise into halves and place in a heatproof jar or bottle.
  3. Pour the hot syrup over the vanilla beans and let stand for 8 to 10 hours.
  4. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

To Make the Drink:

  1. Mix the bourbon and syrup in a Champagne flute.
  2. Top with Champagne.
  3. Garnish with a vanilla bean.

As usual, I’ll save my response to this cocktail for the end of this post, but I’ll give this much away—an aspiring husband on Valentine’s Day could do worse than a Vanilla Bourbon Champagne Cocktail and a heart-shaped box of sushi.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

jbmvbcc

There are cat people and dog people, morning people and night people, those who prefer chocolate to vanilla and versa vice. I would say I am firmly in the dog, night and chocolate categories. Of course there are exceptions. I’ve met a lot of cats that are great, morning is not so bad if I am going fishing or playing golf, and I think I understand the subtlety of vanilla better as I grow older.

This cocktail is an odd mix of bubbly, bourbon and the subtle vanilla. It seems like any liquor that is wood aged is described as having “vanilla notes” even if that is a difficult taste to discern. The bourbon that is called for in the recipe, Woodford Reserve, is no exception so it is hard to tell if it is the super simple syrup with its added vanilla bean or the spirit. That taste is there though, and it is that subtlety that distinguishes the drink. Bourbon and champagne are an odd mix but something, maybe that vanilla, ties them together.

The other thing to note about this drink is the combination of champagne with a liquor. I have always felt, with no scientific proof whatsoever, that the physiological effect of champagne is noticed more quickly than other alcohols. It makes no sense, alcohol is alcohol after all, but it seems to hold true and, when combined with a higher proof spirit like bourbon, seems to be even more pronounced. Maybe I can get some foundation to help me study that further.

The last thing to note is that David proposed this as a Valentine cocktail. I do appreciate the fact that my wife puts up with this blog and am grateful that David’s suggestion notes our wives’ role in this endeavor. It seems like it should be all fun, but keeping up with it each and every week, the sometimes odd ingredients, and the strained shelves of our liquor cabinet is not all roses.

Jonathan’s take: The cocktails with effervescent spirits are almost always good. This one proves that rule.

David’s Take: I wish I had an excuse to drink this cocktail more often.

Next week (Proposed By Jonathan):

We have tried a drink called the Caipirinha de Uva, but I am proposing the traditional caipirinha. It is a very simple mix of cachaca, sugar and lime and is the national drink of Brazil. If David doesn’t have any more cachaca, a sugar cane rum, he is welcome to substitute a similar cocktail called Ti’ Punch made with Rhum Agricole (another sugarcane rum), sugar and lime.

The Old Oaxacan

Proposed by: Jonathanoxan

Reviewed by: David

It has been my observation, and I am sure I have written it before, that people come up with some interesting things to use in the making of alcoholic beverages. Surely the agave plant is one of those. Agave is a succulent, don’t call it a cactus, that grows primarily in Mexico and has a number of uses. Among those uses are a variety of spirits that range from the fresh, quick pulque made from the sap to this week’s spirit, mezcal, which is made from the roasted heart (pina) of the plant. In between those lies tequila which is arguably the most common and popular of the agave liquors.

I have heard it said that all mezcal is a tequila, or all tequila is a mezcal but that makes little sense to me. Tequilas are made from a variety of agave plants, but primarily blue agave. The distillation of the spirit is centered around the town of Tequila, does not involve roasting the pina, and can include some aging. Mezcal on the other hand is made from Agave Americana, must come from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and gets its characteristic taste from roasting the heart of the plant (after a great deal of work to make sure it is full of sugar/sap meant for the flower) in ground ovens. That roasting gives it the distinctive smoky flavor that is both a benefit and curse.

My sons were home this week and I let one of them do the shopping for the mezcal. There is not a great deal of selection, especially compared to tequilas, which says something about popularity and taste. A number of sources describe the smoky and complex character of mezcal to that of a fine scotch. With that in mind, we tried the pina liquor simply poured over ice as a test. Either it, or we failed. The complexity came across more like a fuel than a fine spirit, strong and distinctive but tasting of solvents with no sweetness.

That left my proposed drink a challenge to see if there was a way to mix that distinctive taste and find something that meshed. The proposal was for a drink called the Old Oaxacan which is as follows:

2 ounces mezcal
1 ounce simple syrup
.75 ounce lime juice
4-5 shakes angostura bitters
8 mint leaves
2 ounces champagne

Mix all ingredients, except the champagne, in shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a coupe, add the champagne and garnish with mint. I used a chocolate mint because it made sense to me when I considered the desert south of Mexico.

The end result was oddly harmonious and so much better than the spirit by itself or even in a simple mix with citrus and sweetener. It may be the champagne talking, but I finally understood the odd complexity of the roasted agave, and perhaps the idea to use it to make hooch in the first place.

David’s Review:

OldOaxWhen Jonathan and I were young, we launched model rockets, and, oddly, this drink made me remember those launches, not just the smoke but also the thrill of watching them streak into the sky nearly before you noticed.

If you read carefully, that’s the sum of my review. Mezcal seems an entirely different beast from tequila in its charcoaled taste, and, for reasons I can’t quite explain, this drink seemed particularly potent and particularly sudden in attack. It may be the champagne, which every celebrant knows goes to your head, but it could be that the other ingredients—angostura, lime, and a little simple syrup—hardly slow the drink down.

My daughter, the most instinctually culinary in our family, suggested I boil a lime peel with the sugar and water, but the smokiness of the mezcal subdued any subtlety that step may have imparted. The lime juice seemed muted too, and the angostura, though it gave the drink color, added a bitterness well in the background. My liquor purveyor described mezcal as the Islay of tequilas, and that description fits but there’s something western in it, more mesquite than oak.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. The Old Oaxacan is interesting, a perfect accompaniment to guacamole and chips, a suitably more serious substitute to that sweet margarita you’ve gotten used to. One caution: if you’re expecting the familiar tequila-laced confection, overcome that anticipation. You’ll find something quite different here, an in-your-face confrontation with fire and sugar that speaks more to char than caramel.

David’s take: I loved it, though I suspect it’s not for everyone.

Jonathan’s take: A good tequila would still be my preference, but this didn’t kill my curiosity about the subset that is mezcal.

Next Week (proposed by David):

We’ve celebrated the Derby. We’ve celebrated the Preakness. So far, California Chrome has responded. With the Belmont next week, we can’t pass up a Belmont Breeze. Though part of me bristles at a drink so obviously and cravenly promotional, the ingredients and combination sound wonderful. And if it will help the horse, well, that’s a bonus.

The Blue Sky Cocktail

Proposed by: Davidblue

Reviewed by: Jonathan

My cousin Alan Bourque and I were particularly close because, besides being exactly the same age, we went to the same college. For a time, it appeared Jonathan’s son Josh and my son Ian might too. Alas, Carolina wait-listed Ian, but he and Josh have always enjoyed being together and have sought every opportunity to meet. And, even if they’re graduating from different schools over the next couple of weeks, they do share the same school color, which you can call Columbia Blue or Carolina Blue as you wish.

This week was all about color, and celebration. Remembering The French 75 fondly, I though it’d be fun to have a champagne (or prosecco) cocktail to commemorate our boys’ achievement. Blue Curaçao provided the color for the Blue Sky Cocktail, which, besides being properly named for our boys’ futures, I hoped might mimic a color that, after living in North Carolina, I can almost see with my eyes closed. Color isn’t my brother’s strong suit, but I want to say, “It’s the gesture. It’s the gesture.”

Once in college one of my roommates said I should add milk to his coffee until it exactly matched the shade of the cup it was in, and it took twenty minutes of careful calibration to get it right. When the coffee arrived cold, he wasn’t amused, but I like a challenge. The recipe for this drink is below, but—confession time—I was more focused on achieving the right tint than the right combination of ingredients. In fact—an uglier confession—the photo I’ve posted above isn’t this drink at all, which, with yellow champagne and lemon juice and brown amaretto, was aqua, the color of no sky I’ve experienced and not nearly faint enough to achieve the pastel glory of Carolina and Columbia. To create the concoction pictured, I combined only the blue curaçao with the champagne and added a little water and then some absinthe to create a milky hue.

The resulting drink was horrible, but it was, I think, a decent approximation of the right shade. There’s that, at least.

Here’s the recipe for a Blue (not really so blue) Sky Cocktail:

  • 1/2 oz blue curacao
  • 1/2 oz amaretto
  • 1/2 oz champagne
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice

Combine everything except the champagne in the glass. Add the champagne and stir gently.

photo-90Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

Last week, David had many well founded reasons to avoid reviewing the Mint Julep. This week I feel almost the same. The proposed cocktail was to be part of our celebration of graduations – first my son, Josh, and then my nephew, Ian. I don’t want a negative review to seem like a sour note in what was in all ways a glorious weekend and series of graduation events. So to handle that, I will consider the drink and the celebrations separately.

We have tried a few different cocktails that have included sparkling wines, and I have learned the type of sparkler matters. This one called for champagne, whereas some of the ones we have had in the past have been very general (sparkling wine) and more specific (Prosecco). The Caiparinha de Uva recipe indicated sweet wine, but David was more successful in substituting Prosecco. I used all of that experience to decide on Cava as the sparkler of choice, and that was part of my undoing.

This cocktail seemed more like a battle than a blend. The Cava and the Amaretto both wanted to assert their will, if spirits can in fact make assertions. It was hard to get past the two of them and even begin to taste where the curacao and lemon juice came in. Even the color was a bit off, with more of a teal than the hoped for light blue. Despite my lovely nieces modeling the drink, one can see the color just wasn’t right or appetizing. I had to wonder if a simple dry champagne would have helped with both taste and color.

The celebration on the other hand was a harmonious blend of events. A party with roommates and their families, dinner with family, a gorgeous Sunday morning graduation ceremony and finally a luncheon to toast the graduate, mothers, and a bonus birthday (my oldest son’s) all made for the perfect weekend. My wife and I feel very blessed that both our sons are graduates of the university from which we received our degrees. Even more importantly, it is obvious that they each had their own great experiences and received a wonderful education all while learning to love the place just as we had.

Jonathan’s take: The cocktail, not so good, but the rest of the celebration, couldn’t imagine better.

David’s Take: I wish I were as happy with this cocktail as I am about Ian and Josh’s graduation. Too bad the Blue Sky Cocktail is okay, but not brilliant.

Next Week (proposed by Jonathan):

Two weeks ago we had Mint Jules with the Derby. This coming weekend is the second race of the Triple Crown, the Preakness. The official flower and cocktail of the Preakness is the Black Eyed Susan. The recipe has changed over the years (oddly in perfect correspondence with the liquor sponsorship), but last year I simply found the version that sounded best to me. Since David and I are our own sponsors, I propose we each do the same and pick the flower which we find the most appealing.