One Year Drinking With My Brother

embarrassingAs announced, we’re celebrating a year’s worth of posts by putting aside our usual practice to reflect on all the lessons we’ve learned as not-so-savvy cocktailians:

Jonathan:

One of the many benefits of growing up in a large family are the things you learn from your siblings. Some are more important than others, but all add to who you are. David and I are the fourth and fifth children, respectively, of five in our family. As the two youngest we shared rooms, seats next to each other in cars, places at the table and spots on couches. More than that we shared a lot of time with each other, and even today I hear myself using expressions that I know come directly from him. One of my absolute favorites is and has been the description of someone as “a master of the startlingly obvious.” And that is what I feel like I am with my observations and lessons gleaned from our first year of this blog. That won’t stop me from sharing my thoughts though.

1. A close observer/reader should know that fresh ingredients and homemade mixers are the key to better drinks. To make cocktails I have juiced lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, pomegranates, and kumquats. Simple syrups have been created from sugar, brown sugar, demerara, sorghum, maple syrup and honey. Those syrups have been flavored with herbs, spices, nuts and more fruit. Store-bought sweet and sour, grenadine and orgeat? Why, when you make your own during the week. The end result may take longer, but the difference is well worth it.

2. It is often repeated in our weekly write up, but prior to this blog, beer and wine were pretty much the extent of drinks I enjoyed. I always assumed, however, that I knew the basics of liquors and the drinks made with them. Wrong, very wrong. Gin might be the best example of a liquor with incredible variation and types, so much so that using the right one in a drink can drastically improve the taste. Then there are the liquors that I never knew existed (a few of which I could still get by without knowing Mr. Campari) like aquavit, cachaça, and pisco. The stories of these unique distillations is in itself a lesson in history and culture. Every time I think we are reaching some level of understanding and knowledge, there is another one that appears and begs to be used. I hope David is ready for Cynar because it, and a pronunciation guide, will make an appearance soon.

3. We compared notes this week and the next lesson is one that overlaps for us—taste. There have been more drinks that we have both enjoyed, and a few where we both did not, than there has been disagreement. Next week we will get a better idea of that when we choose our hits and misses, but, before that, there are some generalizations to be drawn. The classic cocktail, in my mind, is the standard sour. Liquor, sweetener and sour element are the basics of that drink. Almost any mix that has followed that simple idea has met my approval. I especially like those with interesting sweeteners like maple, or odd sours like grapefruit. There are other categories of drinks besides the sour, such as those with effervescence from sparkling wine or club soda, that also stand out but in a pinch I fall back on the sour.

4. Another general rule of taste is the use of bitters. It is an odd ingredient in most drinks because, to my taste, it never stands out. In fact you can rarely identify that one has been added, but, like salt, it seems to intensify and improve the other parts of the drink. The drinks that are all liquor, bitter elements and actual bitters have not been my favorite, but take a simple drink like bourbon and ginger then add some Angostura and you can taste a transformation.

5. My final lesson is one that I did not really learn so much as re-learn. Drinking is a social experience. The first and most obvious part of that is the very basis of this blog. David and I started this as a way to interact more, even if it was a virtual interaction. Along the way, my wife has joined me in almost every weekly tasting, as David’s wife has in his. Our children are adults so they not only try some of the drinks, but are great sources for suggestions. There have been tailgates, family visits, happy hours, celebrations and random get-togethers with friends and neighbors. It has reached the point that even as the specific drinks escape memory, the events do not. Of course there is also the virtual interaction with readers who comment on-line, or through text and e-mail. It is a rare week when I do not receive some feedback, suggestion or drink recipe in some form or another. Those of you who keep sending pictures and menu snippets, and you know who you are, keep sending them and I will keep looking for edible glitter.

booksDavid:

I few weeks ago, when we were thinking about ways to celebrate our 52nd post on this blog Jonathan speculated how long we’d keep it up, then asked, “Until we’re famous?” That sounds good to me, mostly because we aren’t famous yet and therefore must continue. This enterprise is too much fun to give up. Beside the benefit Jonathan has mentioned—our increased communication—a weekly cocktail gives me something to look forward to, and, yes, I’m learning. Sure it’s not the same as learning differential equations, but growth is growth. Don’t judge. Though I’m not yet a savvy cocktailian, I’m certainly savvier. Thinking about the lessons of the year, many occurred to me, and as Jonathan said, most won’t be surprising. Still they’re important… just the way this blog is important even if we aren’t famous (yet).

1. Get to know someone. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the helpful and friendly people who answer my every silly question about the difference between Cachaça and Rum and Rhum and Rum. Echoing Jonathan, this blog teaches me how much there is to know, but it also teaches me how many patient, generous, and funny teachers are out there. I don’t get a “Norm!” when I visit my local upscale grocery, but I do get, “What’s the cocktail this week?” and some thorough and thoughtful advice.

2. The alcohol isn’t everything but it’s something. Let me say for the record that inebriation isn’t a good hobby, but Jonathan is right, part of the joy of cocktails is that they announce an intention to relax and a desire to put aside much too crowded and busy lives to share relaxation with others. Were my brother and I involved in a remote popsicle club, I’m sure that’d be fun too, but, in moderation, spirits are much more fun.

3. De gustibus non est disputandum: I’ve memorized few Latin phrases, but I know that one. It means, “There’s no disputing about matters of taste.” Week to week, I’m struck by how differently people react to cocktails. Just when I think no one could possibly stomach an Aviation, my wife asks for another. Human organisms must experience taste (literal and figurative) in so many different ways. And, not to be too philosophical, but what’s worth celebrating more than that?

4. On a related note, smell matters, and not just smell but all the senses matter. I’ve discovered every sense is critical to a cocktail—its look and its taste and its smell and its “mouth feel.” Okay, so maybe its sound doesn’t matter so much, but really enjoying a cocktail requires engaging your whole sensory self. Maybe, in fact, that’s the secret, pausing long enough to appreciate the extraordinary apparatus with which we’re blessed.

5. Don’t overcomplicate the complications. A few times during this journey—okay, more than a few—I’ve thought “Why all the steps?” Yet trouble is part of the investment you make in the result. Although I worry sometimes about all the hoops I make Jonathan leap through—particularly in the spirit-backward state that is North Carolina—anything wonderful is worth working for. I have nothing against simple and elegant cocktails, but as in many matters, the journey endows the destination with special meaning.

Next Week:

Jonathan and I will be examining the hits and misses we’ve encountered this year. It’s not too late to let us know what you think!

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Mai Tai

20140713_180821_resizedProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

I am afraid. Very afraid actually. Who could have known, before doing research on this drink and the background, that people are so into and argumentative about all things tiki. The disputes run deeper than the origin of the Mai Tai, there are debates, web sites and input all over the board about tiki decoration, tiki food and especially tiki cocktails. I can’t prove it, but am fairly sure that someone sent an attack yellow jacket to sting my hand yesterday to leave me incapable of typing. Despite the swelling and itching, though, in the name of all that is right in cocktailia, I am pushing forward.

The Mai Tai is included on virtually every list of the top 100 cocktails of all time. It meets the basic definition of two parts spirit (rum in combination of types), one part sour (lime) and one part sweet (the mix of orgeat and orange liqueur) at least in the basic recipes. The odd thing is that there is no simple, basic recipe.

This cocktail is less disputed as to the creator than it is about actual ingredients. There is little doubt that Victor Bergeron created a drink that is now known as the Mai Tai at his Trader Vic’s restaurant and bar in California. That drink highlighted an extremely well-aged rum (J. Wray & Nephew which is no longer available) and paired it with lime, orange curaçao, orgeat, and simple syrup. Sometime before that, however, Ernest Gantt (perhaps better known for his name alteration – Don the Beachcomber) had also made a drink ultimately called a Mai Tai. It is a much more complicated mix of ingredients which included grapefruit juice, Pernod, and bitters among other things. Search Wikipedia and one can find a link to wikibooks with no less than 11 recipes for the Mai Tai. I am perfectly happy to give both of them credit.

Not surprisingly, David and I exchanged messages this week about what recipe to use. I settled on this one, but even that changed a couple of nights later when I made the pictured drinks. From Speakeasy Cocktails: Learn from the Modern Mixologists:

1 ounce aged rum
1 ounce heavy rum
½ ounce Grand Marnier
1 ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce orgeat

Combine the rum, Grand Marnier, lime juice, orgeat and ice in a shaker. Shake and pour, unstrained, into a rocks glass, add a half of the previously juiced lime and a sprig of mint. Of course, I added the parasols since we are talking faux tiki here.

The first test version, which I made after creating the homemade orgeat (still quite a task but worth it), included Pusser’s Navy Rum and an aged rum along with a Grand Marnier knock off. That drink had too many parts that came to the forefront. The official tasting version included the same aged rum, but substituted Muddy River Rum and triple sec for the Navy rum and Grand Marnier. It was a much better blend. The rest of the debate about all things tiki? You’ll need to take that up with Martha Stewart. Just watch out for yellow jackets

Here’s David’s Review:mt2

As a category, tiki drinks have an ironic appeal for me. The crazy glasses, the pastel colors, and the fruity profusion of exotic secondary ingredients make tiki drinks the circus clowns of the cocktail world. I might drink one just to grin at the monstrosity before me, just to inform the world I’m not afraid of stepping out and standing out.

As Jonathan notes, the Mai Tai may be the greatest of the tiki drinks, the granddaddy of the them all and, as such, bartenders have created many lurid and gaudy variations. Like Jonathan, however, I went with the classic Mai Tai to test the theory that serious cocktails can make do with elegant simplicity. I had to have the little parasols too, but otherwise I meant to do Trader Vic proud. Nor was I disappointed.

My appreciation of fresh squeezed lime increases each time we use it. Depending on the context, a lime can add sweetness, tartness, or a citrusy spiciness. In this setting the lime seemed to do all three, mixing with the caramel overtones of the aged rum to give the drink depth as well as freshness. Curaçao is a little sweet—I always wish it were more like marmalade than candy orange wedges. And my version included a “rock candy simple syrup” that is two parts sugar to one water. I’m unconvinced of the necessity of the extra sweet simple syrup, as Jonathan’s version includes no simple syrup the simple syrup I had, which was not so sweet, was too sweet. The orgeat, however, contributed an interesting weight and smoothness, almost like adding egg whites. I wish I’d made mine from scratch as Jonathan did, but the version I found was quite good… even if it was a little expensive. Plus, I have more, should I find other recipes calling for it.

I was tempted, of course, to put the concoction in a party-store-purchased pink plastic hurricane “glass,” decorate the rim with pineapple, and add a twisty straw along with a sword skewer of cherry, grape, and melon ball, but I’m older now. It would not befit my age and station any more than the Hawaiian print shirt still hanging in the back of my closet. Besides, any addition to this recipe would be gilding a lily. The secret of the Mai Tai, a couple of glasses tell me, is its assertiveness… no equivocation allowed.

My sister (who, coincidentally, is also Jonathan’s sister) and her husband visited Chicago this weekend, and, though they gave me no lengthy reviews, they seemed to appreciate the sour attack of this sweet and substantial drink. As my brother-in-law noted, it’s also a potent drink, and that’s sure to pave the way for greater enjoyment still. An accomplished and famous cocktail, the Mai Tai is clearly the product of careful and sensible proportions and blending.

David’s Take: I would have another… and another… though I’d ask how the bartender makes his Mai Tai if I ever order one out.

Jonathan’s take: I came into this week thinking fruit juices and rum when I thought Mai Tai, but leave fairly confident in Trader Vic and his simple orgeat version.

Next Week (proposed by David):

I’d like to stay on the summer theme by suggesting the Tabernacle Crush, a cocktail featuring a fruit I love—peach—and an ingredient I’ve wanted to return to—Lillet. This one will also call for basil, but it’s an herb that even we Chicagoans can grow in the summer.

The Tallulah

proposed by: Davidcok-whiskey-peanut

reviewed by: Jonathan

source

If you are from the south (and of a certain age), you might remember old men at the local gas station funneling salted peanuts through their fists into the neck of their coca colas. The idea was simple—to combine sweet with earthy and salty.

This recipe comes from a Birmingham, Alabama, gastropub called Ollie Irene. The drink is named after a co-owner’s aunt, apparently quite a bourbon lover.

I proposed it because—like most humans I guess—I like sugar and salt. But I especially like them together, and this cocktail gave me a chance to do that intriguing thing only old men seemed to be allowed to do.

The Tallulah combines bourbon with a sugary mixture of coke and an orgeat (OR-zjhot) of peanuts, sugar, vodka or brandy, and a teaspoon of orange blossom water.

1.75 oz. Jack Daniel’s
1 oz. peanut orgeat*
Coca-Cola

The most laborious portion of the recipe is creating the orgeat, which involves boiling unsalted peanuts in a simple syrup then allowing the mixture to sit. When you strain the peanuts from the liquid with cheese cloth, it’s a mess.

Peanut orgeat
makes 1 ¼ cups

2 cups roasted, unsalted peanuts
1 ½ cups sugar
1 ¼ cups water
1 tsp. orange flower water
1 oz. brandy or vodka

Pulverize peanuts in a food processor. Meanwhile, combine sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Allow mixture to boil for three minutes, then add peanuts. Lower heat, allowing mixture to simmer for several more minutes, then gradually increase the temperature. When mixture is about to boil, remove from heat, and cover.

Let mixture sit for at least six hours. Then strain it through cheesecloth, discarding peanuts. Add orange flower water and brandy or vodka. Keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.

The toughest ingredient to find is proportionally the smallest, the orange water. Jonathan found alternatives, but the description of orange water on Serious Eats intrigued me:

To the uninitiated, orange blossom water’s flavor is a surprise. It transports the clean brightness of orange groves to a field of wildflowers on a muggy day. The finish on the tongue is pleasantly bitter, much like chewing on orange peel. Okay, so it kind of smells like old lady perfume. But those blue-hairs are on to something. A wee dash of it gives food (and cocktails) an almost otherworldly quality.

Otherworldly? I don’t know. Blue hair? Absolutely… and now I have a lifetime supply.

Here’s Jonathan’s review:

The only time I tried mixing salty peanuts with Coke, despite a lifetime in the south, was during a college break summer spent as a septic tank inspector. My partner in the internship tried to convince me that RC Cola and peanuts was a delicacy. I’m not sure whether it was the situation or the oddity of the mix but it never caught on with me.

This drink achieves the peanut part with a peanut syrup that was an adventure to make. I had to substitute orange liqueur and an orange rind for the orange blossom water, but I think I got the concept right. The other challenge was filtering the peanut syrup which despite some sticky effort ended up a little chewy. The end result worked in the drink and would probably be tasty over ice cream which I will certainly test since I have some left.

The Tallulah itself was excellent even without a nostalgic tug. I fact, it made me wonder if bourbon wouldn’t have made septic tank inspection a little more fun. I did end up adding more Coke and salted peanut garnish after drinking half of it and thought it was better that way.

The last thing I will add is that I am always looking for food and drink combos. This drink seemed to be most appropriately combined with something classic so I had it with barbecue chicken, or more accurately while I barbecued the chicken.

David’s verdict: I’d have another another year from now.

Jonathan’s verdict: The Tallulah was a nice change, but I prefer sweet mint to adulterate my bourbon over peanut syrup.

Next Week (proposed by Jonathan):
You may not be able to tell a book by its cover but a great cover can sure be an attraction. I kept coming across Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All by Brad Thomas Parsons while I was looking for something new to read. Each time I saw it the cover pulled me in, even though I had never had any interest in bitters (probably from the negative reaction to a really bitter Manhattan years ago). The book is a great compilation of history, instruction, recipes and how-to for those who want to make their own.
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Next week, we’ll continue with the bourbon theme and try a Horse’s Neck, a drink made with bourbon, lemon, ginger ale, and Angostura bitters. You’ll need a channel knife.