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.

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The Rusty Nail

drinxProposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

When Jonathan and I started this enterprise, I’d given little thought to cocktail history we’d learn along the way. Every drink has a quirky, often disputatious, provenance. Some seem stranger than fiction, positively invented, and some, I suspect, are.

David Wondrich, cocktail historian—excuse me, how does one get that job?—says the Rusty Nail was born during the British Industries Fair of 1937 and called a B.I.F, which appeared over 20 years after the commercial introduction of Drambuie, a whiskey and herb liqueur some say originated in the late 18th century. After 1937, the Rusty Nail took on many aliases: D & S, Little Club No. 1, a Mig-21 (during the Vietnam war), and, in Chicago, a Knucklehead.

Other cocktail historians—wait, there’s more than one… and are there room for more?—locate the Rusty Nail in the early 1960s Manhattan 21 Club. In 1963, the chairwoman of Drambuie approved the recipe and, supposedly, the drink became popular with the Rat Pack, which included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. The rest of the world, wanting so desperately to be so cool, followed suit. People probably just liked snarling it at bartenders Sinatra-style.

As for the name that stuck, I could find little evidence of its origin, except for one account claiming a bartender in Scotland named it when he rewarded uncouth American patrons with the drink stirred with a rusty nail.

For the record, I cry bullshit on that story—nice to attribute the name to a Scotsman and all, and we know our countrymen can be obnoxious, but the drink is American through and through. I’m more prone to make up a story of my own… which I might… and disseminate… just to see if I can find my own way into cocktail lore.

Before the recipe, one more thing. The recipe comes with many varieties, the Rusty Ale (a shot of Drambuie in beer), the Smoky Nail (with Islay Scotch), the Clavo Ahumado (Mezcal instead of Scotch), the Railroad Spike (with coffee and Scotch and Drambuie and bitters) and The Donald Sutherland (Rye instead of Scotch). There are others, no doubt, but that’s enough to keep you trying variations for a while.

Now here’s the recipe:

Ingredients:

Preparation:

  1. Pour the ingredients into an old-fashioned glass with ice cubes.
  2. Stir well.
  3. Garnish with the lemon twist.

rnailHere’s Jonathan’s Review:

It seems like scotch should be in my taste palette both from its makeup and my own. The mash from which it begins is predominantly malted barley making it essentially distilled beer. There is also the Scottish heritage of our surname and paternal ancestry. Even our maternal line, although tracing from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, includes our great grandmother’s (nee Agnes McDonald) family tree which goes back to Thomas McDonald. He was from Ireland though so maybe that’s part of why I am always on the fence about this particular spirit. Then again it might not be ingredients or genetics.

The part of this cocktail that has been most intriguing from the first time I had seen the recipe is the Drambuie. Although its base is malted whisky, the addition of honey and herbs adds a sweetness and flavors that can’t help but enhance the taste of scotch in my mind. I tasted the Drambuie on its own, and it in turn needs the scotch to cut that sweetness.

Thanks to their use in other cocktails we have tried, there was a basic scotch blend and a smoky one available as choices for the main spirit. I made versions with both of course. The version using Johnny Walker Black was the more successful mix. The Drambuie enhanced the scotch and there was just enough sweetness without being too much. I got the second version (I was sharing this week with my oldest son) made with Black Grouse. I thought the smoke and sweet would blend well, but it wasn’t nearly as smooth. Should have switched them when my son wasn’t looking.

This cocktail also proved the benefit of edge smoothing that occurs with the dilution of water. Spirits are distilled to a much higher alcohol percentage and then cut or bloomed with water. The slow melting of ice in the Rusty Nail had the same mellowing effect and it improved as that happened.

Jonathan’s take: Looked forward to the Drambuie, but in the end, it and the scotch needed each other.

David’s take: Oddly, scotch may be my least favorite spirit. One recipe told me to cut the sweet Drambuie with the scotch, but, personally, I liked the sweetness best.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

I will be spending time this week with a large group of golfers, many of whom are old friends from college. Thinking we might try a cocktail associated with golf, I put the proposal to a vote. Instead we will be returning to those college days and the drink will be the alcohol heavy Long Island Iced Tea. Here’s hoping we remember our age when we do.