El Pepino

Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Wish I could say that my delay in writing this post was that this cocktail, which, in my mind, is so close to a julep, is better offered closer to Kentucky Derby Day. Truth is, like a lot of people, I’m busier than I want to be and tired most of the time.

Here, however, is a drink that might pick people up. Having lived in Louisville for a while, I have a special affection for juleps. They remind me of spring itself, those sunny and temperate days that, over the past few months of gray rain and snow, you never quite let yourself believe possible. The new green of this time of year renews hope, and mint conveys that hope beautifully. Something about mint always offers a refreshing element in food and drink.

Two of the non-julep notes of this cocktail—lime and tequila—are borrowed from margaritas and offer festive and zesty flavors too. Here’s the recipe, which comes from Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails From the Lone Star State.

1/3 fresh diced cucumber

1 ounce Mint Simple Syrup

2 ounces 100% agave silver tequila

1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice

Fresh mint for garnish

Cucumber spear, for garnish

Mezcal (optional)

In the botton of a mixing glass, muddle the cucumber and mint syrup. Add the tequila and lime juice and shake vigorously with ice to chill. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with fresh mint and a cucumber spear. You can also float some mezcal on top, if you have it. Lamentably, I did not.

Cucumber seems a popular ingredient in food and drink recently. Though there’s nearly nothing to it in terms of calories and some people might think of it adding nothing but cellulose, it enhances the other fresh, botanical dimensions of this drink. As the description in Tipsy Texan suggests, this cocktail is suited to a warm day and touts, “You’d be hard pressed to find a cocktail more refreshing than this combination of tequila, mint, and cucumber.”

Here’s Jonathan’s review:

There is a general rule that I follow when gathering the ingredients for a cocktail. If there is an item that is difficult to find, secondary to all other parts of the drink ,or just missing from the pantry—I will skip that part. It is unusual yet there are examples where I have done that and noted it. I am talking about you Chinese five spice on the rim of the glass.

This proposal calls for muddled cucumber which is fairly unusual although not completely foreign. That said, it is hardly secondary when one considers all of the other parts of this drink, which are somewhat normal in mixology. The problem was, though, that I had everything ready when it came time to make the cocktail except a cucumber. There was just a moment of hesitation before I decided I could not accurately create the El Pepino without first going to get one. Good choice.

This is a drink that is the product of all its parts working together. The mint is subtle, the sugar in the syrup a smoothing agent, the tequila distinctive but not assertive, the lime juice a contrasting yet quiet acid as it should be. The cucumber jumps out. It makes El Pepino different and distinctive to the point that I think even those who are not fans of cukes would agree that without it the mix is fairly run of the mill. I am probably wrong but my guess would be that most bars don’t stock cucumber. That’s a shame because this is a drink I would actually order without hesitation.

Jonathan’s take: I hereby apologize to the cucumber and promise to find some Pimm’s in the back of my liquor cabinet so that the cuke may shine again.

David’s take: I won’t substitute this drink for my usual Derby Day julep, but maybe every other suitable occasion.

Next Time (Proposed by Jonathan):

I do not consider calories when ordering or making a cocktail. As a beer drinker that is probably a defense mechanism. There are those who do, however, and there are recipes with just that in mind.

Once again, the proposal is an idea rather than a specific drink. I am suggesting that we try cocktails with less calories. That does not mean making simple syrup with stevia leaves, although that is a consideration, rather it is to adjust the ingredients to trim the effect on the waist line. There is no calorie limit just a general concept to lower the total from the standard version of a cocktail or to create a new drink for those who are watching what they eat—or drink.

I feels some club soda coming our way.

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Equal Parts Cocktail

ughProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Mixologist author Kara Newman describes equal parts cocktails as, “Easy to remember but challenging to develop.” Well, I guess that depends on your standards, on both counts. If you’re just looking to balance sweet, sour, bitter, and spirit, a host of combinations will develop in interesting ways. However, if you’ve had a few of these cocktails, remembering might be harder than you imagine.

Newman’s book, Shake. Stir. Sip.: 40 Effortless Cocktails Made in Equal Parts, will come out in October. The book, she says, encourages versatility. She urges cocktailians not only to create new drinks but also to re-envision and re-proportion some favorites.

What appealed to me was simplicity. For once, I might make something I can remember when someone says, “How do you make that?

I’ve been experimenting with the equal parts cocktail for the last month or so—and sorry readers, our blog-silence is my fault, not Jonathan’s. I’ve reached important conclusions:

  • plan before you act—failing means failing entirely
  • don’t expect a single ingredient to establish itself as the star—maybe that will happen, but probably not
  • use ingredients you like by themselves
  • add some non-alcoholic elements; otherwise, the drink or it will be lethal

I made a number of these cocktails, and most I invented. I’ll offer two for your consideration—one sweet and one sour

Sam I Om (a Mimosa Variation)

one ounce each…

Gin

St Germaine

Lillet Rose

Orange Juice

Tonic

Shake the first four ingredients, add to glass and top with tonic

Whatever

one ounce each…

Lime Juice

Mezcal

Benedictine

Triple Sec

“Take a ratio that already works,” Newman suggests, “and just swap out elements one at a time until you end up with a drink you enjoy.” And maybe that’s all the advice you need to begin experimenting.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

IMG_0218-2The first thought when I read David’s proposal was that I should make a sweet and a non-sweet drink. The second thought was that this idea would also allow me to re-visit the concept of layered drinks and the fascinating, to me, use of specific gravity to figure out the order of the layers. Neither thought was realized with great success.

There were all sorts of sweet and semi-sweet drinks that came to mind. I knew that I did not want to proportion a group of different alcohols which meant that I needed fruit drinks, milk products, syrups and the like to mix as a non-alcoholic portion. All of those make the drink sweet. I just could not come up with the equivalent in a savory or bitter drink although I hope on reading David’s intro that he was able to do so. The ultimate choice in this category was my version of the key lime cocktail:

1 ounce vanilla vodka
1 ounce tequila
1 ounce half and half
1 ounce pineapple juice
1 ounce lime syrup (maybe it was cheating but I mixed key lime juice and simple syrup 50/50)

Shake everything together with ice and strain into a glass rimmed with crushed ginger snaps and garnish with a lime.

The result was an all too white, fairly sweet drink that fell well into the tiki category. Good but one was plenty.

One of the main purposes of the layered drink, besides testing specific gravity, was to use a liqueur from South Africa that seems to be gaining the popularity it deserves. Amarula is sweet cream liqueur from South Africa made from fruit derived from the marula tree. That tree is also known as the elephant tree due to the pachyderms fondness for it. Interestingly, elephants eat the fruit, bark and branches of the tree so they can be hazardous to its health except in the spread of fertilized seeds in their dung.

I made two layered drinks with amarula the first of which is called the Monk’s hood. That one, with specific gravity in parentheses is Kahlua (1.14), Frangelico (1.08) and amarula (1.05). The second one substituted white crème de cacao (1.14) for the Kahlua. The gravities are so close that separation was going to be difficult so I used chilled shot glasses, poured each liqueur over a bar spoon to introduce them delicately and chilled the drink to let them separate further. None of that worked very well but the drinks were great. As great as doing shots for a not too young person can be that is.

Jonathan’s take: I am sure that sometime this week I will wake in the middle of the night and realize a proportional drink with rye whiskey that I could have made. Then I will go back to sleep.

David’s take: Reviewing a whole class of cocktails? Clearly more empirical evidence is needed.

Next time (Proposed By Jonathan):

Vodka is not my favorite. It must not be David’s either since it is the major spirit that we use the least. The time has come, however, to try a cocktail with vodka at its core. There are plenty of classics that we could, perhaps should, try. There are also variations of those – such as the madras version of the screwdriver. It’s the beginning of blueberry season though so I am proposing the gravely named Razzle Dazzle cocktail.”

La Paloma

palomajbmProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

Paloma, La Paloma, the Dove or as one odd reference suggested Paloma Tequila. This is a cocktail I chose, in part, for its increasing popularity and many variations. It has those. What it needs is a name on which everyone can agree. For our purposes, and for history as you will read, I like La Paloma.

The link in the last blog post proposal takes you to a Feast Magazine write up that includes history for the cocktail and a couple of different recipes. That means readers should know the history, or does it? They write that the cocktail traces back to the town of Tequila in the Jalisco state. The bartender who can claim it was Don Javier Delgado Corona. Quibblers would want say that it is such a basic drink, essentially in the family of the Tom Collins, that there were probably many versions created in many places. Even the name is linked to questions about where it came from with the suggestion that it might be as old as an 1860’s folk song called “La Paloma.”

The recipes are fairly consistent with simple versions using grapefruit soda and others using fresh grapefruit juice.

2 ounces blanco tequila
.5 ounce fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt
Grapefruit soda

Mix the first three ingredients, add soda (4-6 ounces) and ice. Garnish with lime, grapefruit or nothing.

2 ounces reposado tequila
1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
.5 ounce fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon agave syrup or simple syrup
Club soda

Mix everything but the soda, then add that and ice. Garnish away.

There are recipes that say salt the rim of the glass instead of adding it to the drink. If you choose to use grapefruit soda expect lots of recommendations. The sodas list includes Fresca (it’s lighter but don’t do it), Jarritos (you’ll need a Mexican market), Squirt, Izze, or Whole Foods Italian grapefruit soda. Those are just some of the options.

There were lots of tasters so I made versions with blanco tequila, reposado tequila, Fresca (which is why I know not to use it), Squirt and Izze. A half ounce of lime didn’t seem like enough so there was probably more in each cocktail too. I didn’t make the fresh grapefruit version but if I was to make this a regular drink I think the combination of fresh juice and agave syrup could be just right. It would really be the Tom Collins of Jalisco then.

Here’s David’s Review:

palomadmWhen I mentioned to a friend that Jonathan and I were trying a Paloma for the next blog post, she said, “Isn’t that a sort of Margarita?” Certainly, some connections suggest so—tequila, for one, and also lime and salt. If you like your margaritas exotically flavored—prickly pear, anyone?—the grapefruit isn’t any serious adulteration. Blending grapefruit juice, agave syrup, lime, tequila, and ice with a machine… you might call that a margarita.

Yet, here’s a case where differences matter. I like margaritas, but I like this drink better. For one thing, preparing it does not require electricity. It’s shaken. Plus, though the Paloma has the sweet and sour (and salty) mix of a margarita, it doesn’t start, as many margaritas do, with a frozen mix that renders it an adult Icee. This cocktail did not seem nearly as sweet—grapefruit soda means you can skip the agave syrup—and, more tequila-forward, it presented itself as more than a way to hide spirit. A Paloma isn’t dessert. It feels… sophisticated.

Maybe this drink is the branch of the mixology tree margaritas ought to have followed.

In our experiment, we tried some variations Jonathan didn’t, choosing mezcal as the tequila and even substituting half the mezcal for gin in one version. Everything we tried was satisfying, but the mezcal added the most. Between sweet, sour, the salty, bitter, and smoky the Paloma seemed one of the most complex cocktails we’ve tried. The addition of botanical complexity of gin was perhaps a step too far, but why not test the envelop? The result was interesting, suggesting the range a basic recipe can cover when swaping one element for another.

Recently I wandered into a music review online. I don’t read them generally because they feature so many descriptors I barely understand. One I do understand, though, and one of my favorites, is the prefix “proto,” which I take to mean before what we have now, the more basic past some present relies upon. The Paloma felt like a proto-cocktail to me, a combination evolution can work with.

Jonathan’s take: You want summer? You deserve summer and this drink is it.

David’s Take: One of my favorites, in all its variations.

Next Time (Proposed By David):

Most cities likely have a cocktail column by now, a few paragraphs buried in the home section or weekly magazine. They can’t hide from me, and last week’s Chicago Tribune included an article that intrigued me—“Cocktails With Equal Parts Are Easy, Yet Sophisticated.” For next time, I’m inviting Jonathan to join me in inventing an equal portion cocktail. No specific ingredients, no history we’re beholden to, no famous and magical mixologist—just equal ingredients.

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.

 

Prickly Pear Margarita

Prickly.dbmProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

This week’s cocktail isn’t our first margarita… but it’s certainly our most exotic one. Our brother Chris sent us each two mason jars of prickly pear syrup, which formed the basis for a frozen margarita using mezcal and, as a bonus, some food item using his gift.

Our brother Chris loves plants, especially fruiting plants and cacti. I’m pretty sure he joined The Cactus and Succulent Society before he hit his teenage years. Early this summer, when Chris posted a photo of a pitcher of syrup from his prickly pear fruit harvest, I asked him in a comment what it tasted like. His response, “Like prickly pear,” didn’t tell me much, but now that I’ve tried it myself, I see the sense in his answer. The syrup reminds me a little of raspberries (though not so tart) and a little like aloe (though not nearly so bitter) and watermelon (though not so watery) and somewhat like kiwi (though mostly in texture). Any attempt I’ve made to triangulate (quadrangulate?) its flavor, however, ends with the simple assertion that it tastes wonderful. And it’s mild, lending a distinctive flavor while playing well with all the citrus in a margarita.

My version of this week’s margarita was frozen, and though we don’t have much experience with that method of preparation, I’ve noticed the cooler a drink is, the more dramatic its trigeminal effects. As I don’t have a margarita machine, the ice remained mostly chunky, not the slushy you might expect from a trip to your local Mexican restaurant. The ultimate goal of any margarita is refreshment… though it’s nice if it’s potent too. I’ll leave for Jonathan’s review whether prickly pear syrup helps achieve those ends.

Here’s the recipe (for two servings):

1/2 cup crushed ice
1 ounces freshly-squeezed lime juice
1 ounce undiluted frozen limeade
2 ounces Mezcal
1 1/2 ounces Triple Sec
1 ounce Prickly Pear Cactus Juice
1 tablespoon granulated sugar or corn syrup
Lime wedges for garnish

In a blender, add crushed ice, lime juice, Tequila, Triple Sec, prickly pear juice, and sugar or corn syrup; cover and mix ingredients (a pulsating action with 4 or 5 jolts of the blender works the best). Correct with additional sugar or corn syrup if it is too tart. Serve in Margarita Glasses with coarse salt or Margarita Salt on the rims of the glasses and a lime slice, and serve immediately.

As for food, I left most of that to my daughter, who suggested we marinate some shrimp in a few simple spices (old bay, mustard and garlic powder, salt and pepper) then grill them on the barbeque. Along with the shrimp, she made corn cakes featuring corn cut from the cob and a mixture of salsa plus chipotle pepper with adobo sauce and a liberal amount of prickly pear syrup. The combination was spicy, smoky, and earthy—like mezcal—without being too sweet. A hearty hors d’oeuvre rather than main course, it seemed a great complement to the margarita.

I still have another jar of syrup remaining. I have many other plans for it—other cocktails among my schemes—and perhaps those will make some appearance in later posts. In the meantime, the only remaining thing to do is to thank my brother Chris for introducing me to such an intriguing and enticing ingredient.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

prickly.jbmA few years back I found a go-to recipe for grilled salmon. It is as simple as sprinkling the fish with chili powder, grilling it and then finishing it in the last few minutes with a glaze of 50/50 bourbon and honey. You can add a cedar plank to the grill surface to cook it on for a little je ne sais quoi, but that is just complicating delicious.

The first thought I had when our oldest brother said he was sending prickly pear syrup, even though I had never tried it, was that I needed to find a way to use it in a recipe. That turned into a modification of the go-to salmon recipe. We switched the fish to wild caught mahi-mahi, used blackening seasoning instead of chili powder and then added a coating of prickly pear syrup mixed with tequila for the last couple of minutes of grilling. It’s still peach world in our house, so we also made a peach salsa to cover the grilled fish.

And then there was the drink. David had suggested a prickly pear margarita with mezcal substituted for the tequila. The recipe called for prickly pear juice and sugar, but since we had a syrup the sugar seemed unnecessary. I used tequila for round one then switched to mezcal for the second. The recipe calls for half a cup of ice, which is hard to measure in cubes so I kept adding more to try and adjust for the limeade concentrate. That, and it is hot and humid, especially when grilling, so more ice seemed like a good idea.

The end result were two of the best margaritas I have ever tried. The tequila version was very lime forward between the fresh juice and the concentrate though the prickly pear toned that down a little. The mezcal version had the smoky deeper taste of that spirit and, for some reason, seemed more in keeping with the prickly pear. If I had to decide between the two, the mezcal version was more complex and balanced, so that would be the choice. One other thing to add—once you start adjusting and increasing the ice, one recipe is plenty for two drinks.

David’s Take: A wonderful variation that makes what’s become a rather cliché cocktail into something new and exciting again.

Jonathan’s take: Still got plenty of prickly pear syrup so I think pancakes are next.

Next Week (Proposed By Jonathan):

I rely on David to do all the hard work for the blog. When we started the idea was that he would give me the sign in and I would learn to use the WordPress site to do my part. Feigning stupidity, or actually being stupid, ended that idea, and now I just send him my part by e-mail and he completes the post. Since I don’t do the posting, I also rely on him for statistics like how many visits we get and even how many posts we have done. It should be close to or just above 100 (David’s Note: it’s 103) and my proposal for next week is that we do a wild card week to recognize that. Each of us will independently try a top 100 cocktail (there are lots of different lists to choose from) that we haven’t tried for this blog and likely have never tried. It will be a good test of genetics to see if we end up trying the same drink. It will also be a good test of memory to see if we try a drink that we haven’t written about before.

 

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.

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.