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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The Great Calabaza

Proposed by: Jonathanj.calabaza

Reviewed by: David

Ed walked into the bar, looked for a stool in the back corner and sat down. He had driven past this place fifteen minutes before and probably would not have noticed it if the “O” in the “Cocktails” sign had not been burnt out. Something about that and the nearly empty parking lot had nagged at him until he finally turned around and drove back.

It had been a long week at the end of a long year. Ed was a clown by profession. Things had gone well for a long time with birthday parties, parades, events at senior homes and even the occasional office party, but then the economy collapsed. Everyone’s entertainment dollars dried up, and the clown budgets were one of the first things to go. He tried not to blame his woes on an increasing fear of clowns among kids too, but he knew that was out there.

In desperation Ed had started doing magic shows, selling novelties and finally had resorted to being a rodeo clown. The rodeo circuit was tough with events often far away, and safety not even an afterthought. One night he went to protect a rider from a bull named Calabaza, for its oddly colored gourd shaped head, and when he went to jump in the barrel at the last second, he found it already occupied by some other clown. There were still days and nights when he could feel Calabaza goring him from behind.

As Ed sat down the owner, Sam, wandered over. “Looks like you need a drink. What can I get you?”

Ed thought for a moment and decided it was time to confront his demon. “I’ll have The Great Calabaza.”

“Never heard of that. You’ll need to tell me what’s in it, or at least what the liquor is.”

“It’s made with equal parts of mezcal and fresh orange juice.”

“I have bottled orange juice that we use for screwdrivers and the best I can do on the spirit is tequila.” Sam turned to get those, but he turned back and asked what a “calawhatzit” is.

“It’s actually a type of gourd like a pumpkin,” Ed answered, “but I was a rodeo clown and it’s the name of a bull that tore me up.”

“Okay then. Is there anything else besides the tequila and orange juice?”

Yeah, the rim of the glass needs to be moistened and a mix of Chinese five spice and salt coated on it.”

“I’m not sure you noticed,” Sam said, “but most people in here drink Budweiser and a shot is the most popular cocktail. I don’t keep Chinese five spice, and I don’t rim glasses.”

“Okay you can skip that, but it does need a little bit of lime juice.”

“Fine, anything else?”

“Pumpkin butter. A couple of tablespoons of pumpkin butter.”

“Get your ass out of my bar, clown.”

This bad fiction is sponsored by a cocktail with no history and no back story. Sure, one can assume that the name is a word play on The Great Pumpkin since a Calabaza is a West Indian gourd that looks like a pumpkin, but other than that, it is an obscure cocktail created by the aptly named writer – Autumn Giles. The exact recipe is:

1 teaspoon five spice powder
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 ounces mezcal
3 ounces fresh orange juice
4 tablespoons pumpkin butter
.5 ounce lime juice

Moisten the rim of a glass with lime, and press it into the mix of five spice and salt. Mix together the mezcal, orange juice, lime and pumpkin butter in a shaker with ice. Shake with ice and strain (I used a fine strainer) into the glasses filled with more ice.

As it ends up, and as my picture shows, I skipped the salt and five spice. That was a mistake since this drink can be sweet and needs that contrast of salt and spice.

And Here’s David’s Review:

IMG_0436I don’t begrudge most people’s pleasures. There are books and movies and music and food that seem terrible to me, but if you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, Nashville, Up With People albums, and stewed sea urchin, fine. I’m not judging, just skeptical.

Pumpkin mania particularly mystifies me. This time of year, they’re everywhere—not just on porches and stoops but in the groceries attached to cookies, air freshener, chips, cider, shampoo, pasta, gum, yogurt, hummus, and beer. To me… no judgment, remember… the beer is a particular affront, but each year, I discover more absurd pumpkin products. Why does Trader Joe’s need to sell pumpkin-flavored dog treats, and what’s the appeal of Pumpkin Spice Four Loko (or regular Four Loko, for that matter)?

The one use of pumpkin I approve of entirely is the (up to this year) annual Punkin-Chunkin’ in lower Delaware. There’s something quite astounding about watching gourds soar.

So imagine my shock when, prepared to scoff, snort, and sneer at The Great Calabaza, I discovered how good it is. I attribute part of its success to the mescal, which gives it an earthy and smoky base, but the spice in the pumpkin butter harmonizes well with it, the orange juice and lime cut the drink’s density, and the pumpkin is just sweet enough to hold it all together. The recipe I used called the cocktail “An autumnal riff on a margarita,” and that seems apt. Like a margarita it relies on a carefully tuned combination of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy.

The five-spice salt may seem an extra step—and you don’t need to make as much as the recipe calls for—but that element seems important too. Otherwise, the drink might evoke liquefied and spiked pumpkin pie. In fact, when we discovered we only had three (rather than four) tablespoons of pumpkin butter in the refrigerator, we made do, and it seemed plenty. With so many other flavors asserting themselves in The Great Calabaza, I almost forgot the key to it all was supposed to be my friend the pumpkin.

Would I ever order this drink in a bar? Probably not—because of my pride, and because of my disdain for the pumpkin bandwagon rolling down every grocery aisle—but it was a pleasant way to end a fall evening and, for at least a moment, made me appreciate the pumpkin phenomenon a little more.

David’s Take: A quite pleasant surprise and a blow to my pumpkin prejudice.

Jonathan’s Take: The color and ingredients speak of autumn, but the drink says “get your ass out of my bar, clown.”

Next Week (Proposed by David):

Sometimes, in thinking about the next cocktail, all I have is a glimmer of a hint of a day dreaming notion of a possibility. As a second grader in La Marque, Texas, I learned all about how people make maple syrup—I know, weird, right?—so I looked for a cocktail recipe using that flavor and found Medicine Man, a cocktail promising fall’s warm flavors and heat in the form of paprika.