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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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.