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.

 

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3GT

3GT2Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Inventing a cocktail should be the easiest thing ever—just stumble over to the liquor cabinet, pull out a couple of bottles and maybe a mixer, combine them, and gussy up the glass with some garnish. It’s true that it’s simple to select ingredients and, unless you’re looking to match a flavor profile or attempt some exotic preparation, it’s simple to stir, shake, or swirl them together. Getting the drink right, however, means the loving trial and error of choosing complementary spirits, determining their proper proportions, and, of course, coming up with a name not already claimed.

A tough job, though I suppose someone must do it. This week I volunteered.

The G’s in “3GT” stand for three ingredients we encountered elsewhere: Ginger beer (which we used in the Kentucky Mule and the Dark n’ Stormy), Gin (which, Jonathan tells me, is his favorite spirit, one that comes in many distinctive varieties), and Goldschläger (which we used before with champagne, and which is apparently more commonly ingested by crazy people as shots). The T is tonic because, well, everything else in this drink is alcoholic, and you can’t do much experimenting when you’re under the table.

And, since I get to tell my own origin story for this week’s drink, I’ll take the unusual tack of telling the truth: I like all these ingredients and wondered if they might taste good together. Crabbies Ginger Beer has become a favorite libation for me, nicely spicy and sweetish. Ransom’s Old Tom Gin, the variety I chose for this drink, lends a mellow and botanical tang. Goldschläger is really strange stuff to be sure, but the cinnamon taste adds a different sort of heat (and I have a whole bottle to use up). Tonic is the bitter element to keep the whole thing from being too sweet.

Yet the origin story isn’t over. Though I’m revealing this drink today, alas, additional research may be necessary to perfect it. It still may be too sweet and still may need more bitterness. I’ve experimented with including another half-ounce of a friend’s homemade Amer Picon (before I—tearfully—used it up) or Punt e Mes, a particularly bitter red vermouth. Both, I think, enhanced the drink, but I didn’t want to burden Jonathan with another hard (or impossible) quest.

So here is the recipe I devised (with the other variation in parentheses):

3 oz. Ginger Beer

1 oz. Old Tom Gin

.5 oz. Goldschlager

(.5 oz. Punt e Mes)

Tonic to fill

Fill an 8-10 oz. glass half way with ice, add the first three (or four) ingredients and a cherry. Pour tonic to fill the glass. Stir gently and serve.

Naturally, I’m apprehensive about Jonathan’s reaction but have decided to accept his comments as part of the next stage of the creative process. Maybe, Dear Reader, you can help too.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

jbm3GT

The proposal for this drink had me wondering if I am too critical. My first thought was that I had been hard on David’s other original drink, The Pear Culture, but I loved that drink and wrote so. Then I thought there was some disparity between my reviews of drinks that I proposed and those for which David was the proposer. It wasn’t a complete reading of all blog entries, but it appears I have been fairly equal in my likes and dislikes. That leaves me with one last idea – David was setting me up for a drink he had invented, tried, and didn’t like. That can’t be it either as this drink could make the cocktail list at any bar.

Last week was a great example of the difference in my taste and David’s tastes. Our list of beer by preference wasn’t completely inverse, but it was close. And it goes further than that. David is mostly vegetarian, and I am full on carnivore. Where he might prefer fruit and vegetables, I am likely to go towards a cheeseburger and sweet potato fries, the latter my nod to some semblance of nutrition. I do not eat that poorly, but if it wasn’t for the heartburn that increases with age, I could find a way to eat some form of nachos almost any night. In sum, it seems we should have conversely different tastes in cocktails too, but for the most part have agreed on the good, bad and in between.

This cocktail’s best quality is that it is can change with variations in each base ingredient and still be excellent. Here are some of the examples: I used Jack Rudy’s mix to make my tonic but it was apparent that strong to weak tonics would work; David suggested an Old Tom gin, which I used, although a second version with a more juniper forward gin made a less sweet version; and, the ginger beer I chose was non-alcoholic (mostly because it looked more interesting than the alcoholic version available) and that ingredient alone could completely change the profile of the drink so there could be endless versions. I kept the Goldschlager the same in each drink because the cinnamon was a great counterpoint to the herbs and ginger. I wouldn’t change that, but won’t be surprised if David did to great success.

Jonathan’s take: Seriously, this could and should be on cocktail lists far and wide.

David’s take: What can I say? I’m biased.

Next week (Proposed by Jonathan):

Easter is not a holiday one would associate with cocktails. Although I learned long ago that an internet search will return results for almost any insane search, I was surprised how many results there were for “Easter cocktails”. Even the ever present Pinterest page (I ignored that). David should have St. Germain liqueur, and I should have bought some long ago. That hole in my cabinet will be filled and we will be trying the St. Germain cocktail a mix of liqueur, sparkling water and Prosecco.

The Black and Gold Cocktail

graduationThe Black and Gold Cocktail does not have a long storied history. Jerry Thomas did not create it in a fit of gold rush inspiration, there is no liqueur derived from some a long held recipe of a secret sect, no literary figure demanded one be placed in front of him as soon as he entered his favorite bar, and variations of it do not appear in hipster establishments. It seems to have been created for its color and to meet a need to match the black and gold that matches many sports teams. The one thing that does set it apart, however, is that there are not many black spirits.

The recipe for this drink calls for vodka and Goldschläger which is noted for the gold flakes that float in the clear spirit. It is quite simply two parts of a black version of the former mixed with one part of the latter. The problem with all of that starts with the black vodka. There appears to be only one type of that vodka, Blavod, and it is not being imported to the United States right now. That means that the only options are to create a black vodka (10 drops blue food coloring, 10 drops red, and 8 drops green per fifth of liquor) or to find another black liquor.

This is a good time for an aside about vodka. There seems to be a love/hate relationship with the spirit. Watch the right event or show on television and you can be assailed with commercials for vodkas to be requested by name. The funny thing is that almost all of those ads tout multiple distilations or many filters for that particular vodka which means that it is rendered almost tasteless. The reviews for Blavod note that the tree extract, black catechu, provides the unique black color but also adds a slight bitter aftertaste that detracts from the neutral spirit. Unless, of course, the taster is blindfolded and then they don’t notice anything. It is no wonder that cocktail and spirit reviewers eschew vodka and that, should trends be believed, it is going out of favor. Oh yeah, unless you count the numerous flavors that have been invented to add taste to the neutral base. In that manner it is not only not going out of favor, but is taking over the liquor stores. Anyone need a shot of pecan pie vodka for dessert?

All of this leaves the maker of the Black and Gold with decisions about the black portion. There is the make your own vodka, the slightly black chocolate vodka, the mostly black coffee vodka, and the more off course black alternatives of other spirits. Since the Goldschläger is a cinnamon schnapps, we looked for a taste to match that flavor. That choice was a coffee flavored java rum from Sea Island. Sea Island is another small batch distillery located on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina.

The resulting drink was a nice dark color, although the gold flakes of the Goldschläger were not terribly apparent, with a pleasing after dinner taste of coffee and cinnamon. It had a good balance of sweetness combined with the bitter coffee element that could have been achieved with coffee vodka, but I like to think the rum gave it a body and background that gave the cocktail a little more gravity and depth. The real purpose of this cocktail was to celebrate an event and one of those black and gold affinities. In this case my niece’s graduation and Appalachian State University. For both those purposes the drink worked well.

Here’s David’s Review:

black and goldFirst, congratulations to Lauren. It’s her graduation this recipe is meant to celebrate. That cannot go unsaid and, whether she appreciated this cocktail or not, I hope she appreciates what she’s accomplished.

I did appreciate this cocktail… and not just in comparison to the wretched blue cocktail I proposed for the last graduation we celebrated. Some months ago, during some simple syrup experimentation, I made one with Vietnamese cinnamon and used it up in no time. The heat and singularity of the flavor appeals to me, and, though I’ve never tried Fireball whiskey, I understand the appeal. I’m not sure about the flavor of gold flecks—or I should say I’m sure I didn’t taste them—and I read on Wikipedia that there’s only 13 mg of gold in a Goldschläger bottle, which means, based on today’s rate, they are worth 51 cents. Still, they’re mighty pretty when you stir them up.

As for the black in the Black and Gold cocktail, Jonathan and I had different solutions. He chose java rum and I chose the Gosling’s Black Seal rum we’d used for the Dark N’ Stormy. My rum wasn’t truly black, and I thought about making it blacker by adding food color. As you can see from my photograph, my version of black and gold was more brown than anything else. And two other blacker alternatives occurred to us, Kahlua and—going back to the beertails a couple of weeks ago—Porter. However, rather than drink another, I satisfied for brown and gold. The gold flecks were less visible than they might have been, but the mixture of the molasses overtones of the rum and the spiciness of the cinnamon seemed a good combination, gingerbread-y and festive. Of course, who knows what complexity the food color might add, but I’ll let someone with a finer palate figure that out.

Regardless of what you add to make the black of this drink, it’s for sipping. The Goldschläger is quite hot and don’t forget that this cocktail is pure alcohol. The recipe I used called it a Black and Gold Martini. The rum and the liqueur were far sweeter than a martini, but, if I had any complaint, it was the martini-like paint-thinner waft of ethyl that met you with each sip. The taste overcame it quickly… and maybe you need something neutral like vodka to cut the sweetness of the liqueur… but I can’t see drinking more than one of these.

As it happens, my college colors were also black and gold (though we always put the gold first), and I was happy to raise a glass to Lauren and hope she was celebrating her milestone and carrying as full a store of memories from her college days as I do of mine.

Jonathan’s take: Don’t look for this to appear on cocktail bar menus, but for an affinity drink you could do worse.

David’s Take: A nice warmer by the fire and appropriately fancy and celebratory.

Next Week (proposed by David):

My proposal is to make some room on my liquor shelf (because who knows what Santa might bring and I’m also uncertain my shelf can bear much more weight). As it’s winter I’m proposing an adaptation of a warm cocktail, which I’m calling Cherry Pisco Hot Chocolate. In the original recipe, the “Cherry” was “Orange,” but then my wife remembered how much Jonathan used to like chocolate covered cherries. He may be over them by now—it seems every Christmas someone (and sometimes more than one someone) gave him a box. I’m using Cherry Herring and the Pisco, however, because both need emptying more than my Grand Marnier. Jonathan can fill in the first blank any way he wants, but the hot chocolate is a requirement that, I hope, will be right for the season.