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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Orange Wheat Shandy

beert1Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Giving up some of your other favorite libations, Jonathan might agree, is the sacrifice of being a devoted cocktailian. Before we started this journey toward savvy-dom, I considered myself a “Beer Snob.” Actually, the name of a local bar—Beermiscuous—might be a more accurate descriptor. The opposite of brand-loyal, I’ve tried and tested just about every style of ale, lager, stout, porter, and barley wine. I’ve read up on methods of drying and toasting malt, encountered many varieties of hops, and studied the brewing traditions of regions and nations. I’ve even brewed beer myself—terrible, undrinkable stuff… but still.

Beer and wine make odd companions for spirits, but we’ve found a number of valuable ways to incorporate them. The trick seems to be finding what goes with what, recognizing which spirits echo, enhance, and complement beer and wine. This week’s recipe, however, aims to put beer first, pairing a hefeweizen (wheat beer) with orange juice to create a “beertail.” In this case, beer is the star.

As purists would have it, wheat beer is a bastard child. It steps outside the four essential components of beer—water, hops, barley malt, and yeast. Those four variables were plenty for the authors of the Reinheitsgebot, the German purity law of 1487. Wheat contributes to a cloudier and slightly denser brew, with esters redolent of apples or bananas. These qualities make orange a suitable accompaniment, something tart to balance the dry quality of wheat beer. Blue Moon, a Belgian Wit beer, takes advantage of this combination, balancing citrus against the gravitas of wheat.

The recipe calls this cocktail a “Shandy,” a combination of beer and juice (or soft drink) that’s appealing for its low alcohol content. In some parts of Europe, shandies are exempt from laws that apply to other alcoholic beverages, but the convention of combining beer and something sweet isn’t strictly a way of evading the law to sell to minors. The earliest versions, called “shandygaffs,” appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, long before people figured out maybe the consumption of alcohol isn’t so good for youngsters’ noggins.

For this week’s cocktail, I chose a Great Lakes Wheat Beer, Sharpshooter, described as a “Session Wheat IPA,” a little hoppier and less potent than a typical hefeweizen. The subtle addition of the orange peel added to its bitterness and, I thought, might cut some of the sweetness of the freshly squeezed orange juice. Just as with the primary spirit of any cocktail, however, this one could be very different with a different version of hefeweizen.

Here’s the recipe:

  • 6 parts wheat beer
  • 1 part freshly squeezed orange juice (from 3 to 4 oranges)
  • a dash of almond extract (optional)
  • Thinly sliced oranges

Combine beer, orange juice, and almond extract in a pitcher. Stir; serve with sliced oranges.

When we visited in San Antonio a few weeks ago, Jonathan’s wife mentioned she liked the cocktails best when they weren’t “100% alcohol.” A drink like this one aspires to a lighter, more refreshing concoction suitable for summer afternoons.

Here’s Jonathan’s review:

beertail.jbmI love beer. Hefeweizen, or any wheat beer, is not my favorite as the subtlety is lost on me, but it’s still beer. I also love orange juice. Fresh squeezed, from the waxed carton, or from concentrate, I start every morning with it (fortunately I cannot say that about beer) and would miss it as much as coffee if I tried to do differently. Put those two together and what could go wrong? Not much as it ends up.

The beer of choice was a Hefeweizen from Charlotte’s Olde Mecklenburg Brewery. It is called Hornet’s Nest after the name given to Charlotte during the Revolutionary War. The British commander, Lord Cornwallis, called Charlotte a “Hornet’s Nest” after encountering fierce resistance from the populace.

The beer is anything but fierce. It is a classic of the form – unfiltered, mellow and smooth. The orange juice was fresh squeezed as the recipe dictated but I did differ from a couple of points. First, I made each Shandy individually by mixing one bottle of the Hefeweizen with 2 ounces of orange juice instead of making a full batch and stirring like Martha Stewart told us to do. Martha also called for a small amount of almond extract and instead of figuring out how much to add to a single drink I skipped it. The Shandy was missing something though, so I added a couple of dashes of orange bitters for some contrast. It could be my imagination, but trying it before those dashes and after I think they added something.

I do need to note another small thing. My picture is a homage to our sisters. One glass is from a microbrewery/restaurant in Boerne where one sister lives, and the second is a pint glass from Virginia where the other lives. I picked it up in Charlottesville where our sister and brother-in-law spend fall afternoons rooting for the Cavalier football team. That can be a struggle, depending on how Virginia is playing, but the UVA baseball team just won the College World Series (baseball) and the glass is another way to say “congratulations.”

Jonathan’s take: It was surprising once it was all put together, but I really like this.

David’s take: I may keep experimenting with shandies—the concept of mixing different types of beer with different juices is as interesting as this individual example.

Next week (Proposed by Jonathan):

I really hate to make David make another syrup, but I have to do it. At least this one, like the strawberry syrup from a few months ago, can be used on pancakes if there is anything left. The cocktail is from Better Homes and Gardens, of all places, and is a Blackberry-Bourbon Lemonade. Blackberries are part of our youth so it seems fitting that we incorporate them in a drink in syrup and fruit form.