Top 100 Cocktails

drink.jbmProposed By: Jonathan

Proposed By: David

The proposal that each of us try a top 100 cocktail should have included a link to a definitive list. The problem, of course, is that there is no definitive list. Sure there are plenty of opinions, lists by drink category and even more scientific lists that purport to determine popularity by internet searches but all of them have differences based on their perspective.

David had sent me a list many months ago from a restaurateur in Houston. Bobby Heugel’s top 100 is from his restaurant Anvil Bar & Refuge. It has gone through the occasional revision but has remained mostly consistent in representing the best from various categories of drinks. Since I was going to be traveling, including in Houston, that seemed like a good list to use. It also seemed serendipitous and my plan was to go to Anvil to try the top 100 cocktail there. Only problem was that I read somewhere that Anvil is not open on Sundays (the day I would have a chance to go) so the best I could do was go by on the way to a couple of places near there on Westheimer Road.

We’ve written that David and I spent our formative years in Texas and that resulted in my being a lifelong Astros fan. My two sons and I were in Houston to see a couple of games, and my nephew picked us up on Sunday night to have dinner with him and my niece. We ended up in on Westheimer at a couple of wonderful places for a beer and then dinner and Anvil was in between. Anvil was open. Sometimes serendipity is a booger, but I sure am glad we got to spend some time with my niece and nephew.

It all worked out the next night though when my oldest son and I found a classic cocktail spot in San Antonio. The Last Word is not too far in distance from the Alamo but its location below street level is a long way from the standard tourist spots downtown. They have their own short list of classic cocktails, including some on tap and some of their own creations. After a long day of walking and a great meal, I chose the classic Boulevardier as both a digestif and a way to unwind and relax. Their version is served on the rocks (nice medium square ones) rather than strained into a coupe. Something worth trying for the Negroni in my opinion.

The Boulevardier is the older cousin of the Negroni. The latter may be the more famous with its mix of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, but the former predates it based on published recipes. It substitutes whiskey, either bourbon or rye, for the gin and depending on taste includes more of that base rye or bourbon.

The drink dates back to the famous Harry’s New York Bar in Paris that is credited for the creation of a number of classics. Harry McElhone of that bar is sometimes given credit though it seems more likely that Edward Gwynne was the one who came up with it or inspired the drink. Gwynne had moved to Paris around prohibition and had started a magazine called The Boulevardier that was intended to mimic The New Yorker. The term “boulevardier” is synonymous with flaneur and indicates, on very simplistic terms, a stroller, lounger or man about town. That seems very apt for a sophisticated drink that combines the depth of whisky, the bitter of Campari and the smoothing properties of a quality sweet vermouth.

David’s Drink:

Bramble2One of the first questions people ask when I tell them about this blog is, “How long have you been doing it?” Recently—now that we’ve written about over 100 drinks—another question follows, “Are there any drinks left?”

Well, obviously. I’m not sure how many cocktails exist. That may be a Neoplatonic question, after all, more a matter of asking “What IS a cocktail and is it a material thing or an ideal that exists apart from the physical universe?” I’m sure, however, of more than 100. In fact, as Jonathan said, there seem to be more than 100 Classic cocktail lists for the top 100 cocktails. Using the list above, we’ve tried 27 (I counted) and that leaves 63 (times the number of other lists).

In choosing which of the remaining classics, I let my liquor cabinet do the talking. I looked for what was possible given my supplies, and I discovered a recipe, The Bramble, that asked for Crème de Mure (a blackberry liqueur), half a bottle of which I just so happen to possess, thanks to the generosity of a friend… and cocktail abettor.

There are many Bramble recipes online, but here’s a link to the one I used.

Like many of the classics, the Bramble is a simple concoction, relying on gin, simple syrup, lemon, and the Crème de Mure, but—also characteristically classic—it requires a certain sophistication in its use of these ingredients. If it’s to work really well, you need two types of ice, cubes to cool the cocktail (minus the liqueur) in a shaker and crushed ice for the glass. You also have to be pretty good at pouring patiently, as drizzling the blackberry over the gin—and lemon and simple syrup—soaked ice creates a cascading effect as the heavier liqueur drips through.

Alas, as you might see in the photo I’m not savvy enough to capture that moment in my photo. Nonetheless, take my word for it, for a second or so the drink was beautiful.

The non-egg-headed explanation for the proliferation of cocktails, of course, is that so many variables (and variables of variables) make a drink what it is. We’ve tasted a number of fruit based drinks recently, for instance, but what makes a Bramble different is the refinement of the liqueur. It isn’t fresh blackberry or blackberry syrup but closer to a brandy, so it gives this the mixture depth and gravity. In fact, the simple syrup is optional, as far as I’m concerned, because a Bramble is sweet enough without it, and the lemon doesn’t overwhelm the Crème de Mure, which has sufficient density to even things out.

As Jonathan explained, one reason for this week’s post is that he was in Houston and wanted a drink he might order out. I’m not sure many bars have Crème de Mure on hand, but, if they do, it’d be worth asking for a Bramble. You’ll certainly look like you know what you’re doing, and you’re likely to enjoy it too.

Jonathan’s take: It could just be the drink, or the good company with whom I enjoyed it, but I am ready to give Campari a try again after the delicious Boulevardier.

David’s Take: The Bramble is a genteel drink, and, as the Crème de Mure ran through the ice, I felt just a little savvy.

Next Week (proposed by David):

My break from teaching is waning. As I approach returning to class, I’m up for a final celebration of one of my favorite fruits of summer, the fig. The recipe I’ve chosen seems the ideal transition to the fall ahead.  My proposal is a Roasted Fig Cocktail using the fruit cooked in balsamic vinegar, then puréed, then combined with bourbon, lemon juice, and a little maple syrup. I hope the prep won’t be too onerous… or at least worth it.

 

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Hits, Misses, and Otherwise

It's water... really.

It’s water… really.

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve received a few wonderful comments in the last couple of weeks responding to our request for favorites from our year of cocktailianism. If you want to contribute, please comment on THIS post. We would love to hear from you. In the meantime, here are our lists of hits and misses.

David:

Our task this week is to identify drinks that pleased us and those that… well, then it gets complicated. I thought of many methods of approaching this assignment but finally decided on three categories—the discoveries, the stalwarts, and the duds.

Some of the proposed drinks, I already knew I liked—the Mint Julep, for instance, has always been a favorite of mine—and others like the Manhattan, LiberteaVieux Carré or the Horse’s Neck couldn’t go wrong because they combined ingredients that, separately, were already favorites. Jonathan will take his own course, but the only feasible method of deciding, for me, was to settle on cocktails that surprised me and cocktails that horrified me. Everything else was in-between.

In-between isn’t so bad. In another rating system, these cocktails might be called “honorable mentions.” They were good either because they’re classics or because they couldn’t go wrong. I’ve mentioned the Mint Julep, which carried so many positive memories it’s bound to be freighted with joy, but also Long Island Ice Tea, which I’d never tried but readily understood. Others, like the French 75 and Fall Gimlet, seemed great combinations, designed to assemble wonderful ingredients in something equal, if not greater, than their parts.

I also enjoyed the Sazerac, but maybe that was because my wife left just as I ‘d finished making two and so I was forced—forced!—to consume both.

The duds weren’t hard to choose because, invariably, they failed the ultimate test—I regretted the expense and trouble of making them. In this category are the Tom and Jerry (it seemed altogether too dense, both in conception and texture), the Aviation (my wife likes them and a colleague at school considers it his favorite cocktail, but the taste just seems bizarre to me), and Bloody Marys (maybe I’m just waiting for a good version, but, you know, I really don’t like tomato juice finally).

The worst of the worst? That would be the Blue Sky Cocktail (note to self: never choose a mixed drink for its color) and the Negroni (Campari really is wretched as far as I’m concerned, more lurid and bittter even than Malört—just be grateful you’ve been spared that).

Which leaves only reporting the best (IMHO).

As I said in my lessons of last week, there’s no accounting for matters of taste. My final selections arise from very personal and no doubt idiosyncratic preferences, but I’ll chose, in a sort of order, fifth to first: the Bengali Gimlet (because I’d never thought a cocktail could be so complex and distinctive), the Tabernacle Crush (because, more than any other cocktail we tasted, it seems most immediate and fresh), the Tallulah (because, while I’m sure I’d never have the courage to try something so complicated again, it really does speak to a cocktail as evocative of memory and experience, the Caipirinha de Uva (because, while it seemed exotic, it also seemed an old friend), and the La Marque (because my brother invented it so expertly… and how could I help being proud of him?).

Give me another week, and I might make new lists. Nonetheless, I stand by my choices… for another year, at least.

Empties

Empties… the inevitable result

Jonathan:

Who knew how hard this would be? The first challenge is going back and looking at each week’s cocktail. And of course, the second is trying to remember the specifics about those drinks. I finally decided to create a list labeled with the headings great, good, okay and bad. Once I had placed the sampled concoctions in those categories, it should have been easy to narrow from there. Oh well, wrong again

It should be apparent that, at least in my opinion, there are drinks that fit occasions, times and situations. One drink may be great as part of a meal, while another lends itself to quiet reflection and relaxation. As a result, I hate to rank the top five so I will simply say these are the ties for top spot

Libertea. This beverage is an excellent mix of herb, citrus, tea and bourbon flavors. The week we tried it, I made a mint version to go along with the recipe’s basil version but the recipe creators had made the correct choice with basil. One of the best parts of this cocktail is that it is made in a large batch, steeped tea first, and lends itself to gatherings (think tailgate parties because I am) and lasts a while in the fridge. Perfect for the neighbors who like to try the weekly creations but can’t make it every week.

French 75. This probably would not have made the list if I had not used the right sparkling wine. Early on in the blog, I had made a cocktail that called for white wine and made a very bad choice on type. With the French 75 I used a Cava and it was perfect. The only drawback is that once you open a bottle of bubbly you need to use it all so this drink demands you invite friends to enjoy it with you. Never mind, that’s not a drawback.

Horse’s Neck. The second drink of the series, this is a go-to cocktail now. It could hardly be more simple with bourbon, ginger ale, angostura bitters and lemon peel but the taste is complex and satisfying. The recipe requires a long strip of lemon peel for the name sake “neck” but a simple peel works just as well. Obviously, the better the ginger ale the better the drink.

Vieux Carré. David and I are of Acadian descent on the maternal line. If fact, our Mother grew up speaking as much, or perhaps more, in French than she did in English. You would think, based on that, it would be no problem for me to pronounce the name of this classic. Not so. I love the drink and all its complexities and nuances but for the life of me I can’t say it correctly in classic French or in the more apt New Orleans fashion. That won’t stop me from ordering one though, even if I have to say it over and over.

Hemingway Daiquiri. Last week, I said one of the things I have learned is that the classic sour cocktail (sweet, sour and spirit) is almost always pleasing to me. The Hemingway Daiquiri is a nice twist in that it uses maraschino liqueur for the sweet element and a mix of grapefruit and lime for the sour. Hemingway was a well-known imbiber and so far everything we have tried that was listed as one of his favorites has been worth it.

There a lot of other drinks that almost made the list. Some of them may have been tried in the wrong place or at the wrong time or else they would have been described above. David’s creation of The Pear Culture is one of those. We tried it in the Fall, which was the right time, but it needed a quieter place to enjoy the interesting mix of flavors. Another is the Vesper which begged for a relaxing evening and cooling sea breezes, at least in my mind. That could have been because it was one of the more stout mixes that we have tried and demanded slow, patient sipping.

The misses were few and far between thankfully. The common element for me seems to be oddly colored liqueurs – crème de menthe, blue curacao, crème de violette and Campari among those. Neither my wife nor I could, or would, finish the Greenback which is the best example of drink that did not look or taste appetizing. The Aviation had one of the best back stories and reasons why it was proposed. Added to that was the idea of Crème de Violette which seemed to be just the exotic ingredient that we were seeking in this quest. Unfortunately, the result was odd, the flavors conflicting and the color off putting.

David is much more adventurous in his suggestions and inspirations than I am, but he also brought us the Cinquecento and Blue Sky and those fall squarely on the never again list too. My greatest misses have used Scotch as the primary spirit. Maybe I picked the wrong Scotch or maybe Scotch should be enjoyed neat, but either way the Toast of the Town and classic Rusty Nail didn’t move me or make me want another.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

How can we be partially of French Canadian descent (the Acadian and Montreal connection) and not have tried Canadian Rye? La Belle Quebec uses Canadian whisky, brandy, cherry brandy, lemon juice and sugar. I sure hope I don’t kick off the second year with a dud.