The Chopped Challenge

drinksProposed by: Circumstances

Reviewed by: Brave Souls

David:

Two brothers, one cocktail, only one chance to win…

Though not really—Jonathan and I would have to be in the same city to go head-to-head in our Chopped-style cocktail challenge. Instead, we’re treating the spirits and peripherals we’ve gathered as cocktailians as mystery basket ingredients.

The challenge… to make an unforgettable drink from these mystery ingredients, before… time… runs… out.

We gave ourselves 30 minutes to draw the slips of paper bearing the names of our ingredients and make and serve the cocktail, which is plenty of time for mixology. It’s so much time that I made three versions of my cocktail before settling on the “best.”

Our distinguished panel of chefs will critique their work… and one by one they must face the dreaded chopping block…

In the end only my wife and daughter were brave enough to test my efforts. When I described this challenge to people, I heard the same refrain, “That sounds like a very bad idea.”

Who will win the $10,000 prize… and who will be chopped?”

The contestants on Chopped are always playing for something—redemption, professional credibility, familial respect, some (usually pretty narrow) charity, fellow suffers of odd maladies, getting the ball rolling on some project (like a board game, twice), or pride. I don’t know about Jonathan, but my goals were more modest. I wanted to avoid spit takes.

“Two contestants think they have what it takes to be a Chopped champion. Let’s meet them…”

I’m actually not sure I do have what it takes. A big part of being a not-so-savvy cocktailian is the protection of the label. If you advertise yourself as incompetent, how badly can you fail?

I was trying to apply what I’ve learned, which—as I’ve said—isn’t enough. Writing “Crème de Menthe” and “Spanish Port” on slips of appropriately colored paper, I understood why Chopped contestants sweat so profusely.

Cocktailians… here are the rules. There is one round with its basket of mystery ingredients, and you must use every ingredient in the basket in some way. Also available are pantry and fridge.

categoriesWe divided the contents of our liquor cabinets into four categories—basic spirits, liqueurs, fortified wines, and other non-alcoholic ingredients like bitters, simple syrups on hand, grenadine, and the like. It’s hard enough to make a harmonious drink from three alcoholic components (never mind some weird bitter).

I’d already decided to interpret “pantry and fridge” liberally.

When the clock runs out our judges will critique your drinks on presentation, taste, and creativity.

At least two of those criteria didn’t seem so tough.

Please open your basket.

I let my wife draw my four slips of paper and opened them all at once:

  • basic spirit: aquavit (a basic because I figured aquavit is like gin… giant mistake)
  • liqueur: crème de violette (which I’ve always thought must be what perfume tastes like)
  • fortified wine: Spanish sherry (goody, some earth tones to go with purple and ochre)
  • other: cardamom bitters (perhaps the bossiest bitter—it has to get its way)

First I thought, “This was a very bad idea,” and then I tasted each ingredient just the way the contestants on Chopped do… when they’re stalling. In cocktail class, I learned each cocktail is actually six ounces, with two being ice or mixer. When I combined equal portions of the spirits and a single drop of cardamom, it came out to 4 ounces of army green. Fail.

Try again. I thought the crème de violette had to be less and the aquavit had to be less and who in their right mind would ever drink anything grayish green? So I reduced the crème de violette to half an ounce, made the aquavit and sherry one ounce each and, from the pantry, used a half an ounce of lemon juice. Then my hand slipped, and I ended up with three drops of cardamom. The color was better. The drink was wretched. Fail.

Too much sherry, still too perfumy, and I thought, “I kind of hate cardamom… and caraway… and these silly things I think are a good idea.” With a few minutes left I came up with what I’m calling Pomegranate Chaos:

  • 1 oz. Aquavit
  • .75 oz. Sherry
  • .25 oz. Crème de Violette
  • 1 drop cardamom bitters
  • .5 oz. blood orange juice
  • 2 oz. sparkling pomegranate juice

Shake first five ingredients with ice. Pour pomegranate juice to taste.

You will note that pantry and fridge ended up being pretty damn important.

Cocktailian, you’ve arrived at the Chopping block…

If you watch Chopped regularly, you know the judges have clear predilections. Never serve Scott Conant raw onions, don’t call something mole if Aaron Sanchez in on the panel, Marcus Samuelson will accuse you of not preparing an ingredient properly, and Alex Guarnaschelli hates pretty much everything (unless someone else hates it, in which case, she loves it).

Here is what I imagine my judges saying (and pretty much what they did say), “I like the color, and the juice and sparkling pomegranate give the drink a real freshness, but the basket items are all lurking, hidden like an ugly chair in the corner when company comes over. It’s drinkable, but the part I like least, the funky aftertaste, comes from the main ingredients.”

Ted will ask (he always, always does): “Well, this is not a simple matter—do you think you’ve got it figured out?” The judges always answer, “I think we have.”

Like Jonathan I tried a second drink, which I’m calling the Pola Debevoise, with more reasonable ingredients: gin, maraschino, brandy, lemon… and I added grenadine to tie it all up. I learned from the first round to diminish the stronger flavors and used .5 oz of the lemon and maraschino. Trying not to rely on the pantry too much, I included only .5 oz of the grenadine too. I chose an ounce of Brandy but relied on the gin as the dominant flavor (1.5 oz). The judges liked that one better, though I doubt I’d make any round two.

So whose drink is on the Chopping Block?

David’s Take: Uh, I think I know.

bottles 2Jonathan:

bottles 1My name is Jonathan and I have little experience, no celebrity mentor and there is no drive to be the best mixologist here or anywhere. I operate out of my home typically, although I have been known to guest star at a sporting event tailgate with an audience that is mostly college students. Not to say that they are an easy group to please, but left to their own choices they are apt to choose Busch Light. The only classical training that I have has been provided by the internet, books, the rare video and observation in the form of television watching. In short, I know little, provide drinks to a very small sampling and am self-trained. I am ready for Chopped Cocktail, though, since I have a cabinet full of spirits, liqueurs, bitters, fortified wines and assorted additives.

It is also my hope that I can be an inspiration to anyone who ever thought they could home bartend but were held back by having a second toe longer than the first. Morton’s foot sufferers may not have ever been told they couldn’t be bartenders, but given the chance I am sure they would. Imagine the strain and pain folks like me must feel as the pronounced second toe shifts extraordinary pressure to the second metatarsal. There were so many days standing in the kitchen that I felt I could not hold the Boston shaker for one more second, but persevered to create the finest drink I could. If I win, it will be a true victory for my second, but longest, piggy.

The true chopped has rounds for appetizer, entrée, and dessert. I really hoped, even with two attempts, to get a drink that could be a dessert but no luck. So here are my drinks with the appetizer first and entrée second.

drink picThe first choices revealed Irish whiskey, absinthe, lillet (rose’) and angostura bitters. It sounded a little like a Sazerac, at least from what I remember way back when we made that, so I went that direction. The first step was rinsing the ice with a little absinthe and then dumping the excess. I added the whiskey (1.5 ounce), lillet (1 ounce), and 2 drops angostura. The pantry provided a splash of simple syrup and an ounce of lemon juice. I shook all of that with the ice and strained into a coupe with a twist of lemon. The simple syrup may have been too much. For an appetizer it needed the bite of the bitters combined with the whiskey and acid of the lemon. The lillet provided enough sweetness by itself. Not a bad drink, but not the aperitif I wanted. The invented name (we need one of those, right) – The English Channel.

The second group was the entrée choice. This draw revealed rum, tuaca, sherry, and grenadine. These were mixed in a highball glass (1.5 ounce, I ounce, .5 ounce and 1 ounce respectively) along with orange juice (2 ounces) and seltzer water from the fridge. I added ice and garnished with lemon. It seemed a little tiki-ish so I should have added one of my leftover paper umbrellas to finish the drink.

This one was more popular with every taster except me. It had a similar color (keep in mind I am still color stupid) to the English Channel, but was much lighter in body thanks to the seltzer. Part of the concept of true tiki is multiple ingredients and I think tuaca has a future in that genre when it makes its next resurgence. It provides that unknown back flavor that would help distinguish the drink and make it hard to determine the secret recipes that are another part of tiki. This one I am calling Don the Chopped Amateur.

Jonathan’s take: When Ted pulls the shaker shaped cloche, I think I am chopped. Darn that stubby first toe.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

Among the many drink related gifts I received this Christmas was a beautiful and well written book – The Art of the Bar by Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz. It is a great mix of information including more history and background on many of the cocktails that we have tried in the course of this blog. It also includes recipes for classics, twists on those classics (thus the subtitle “cocktails inspired by the classics”), and drinks that should be classics. After the chopped episode it might be time for one of those should-be classic cocktails called the Monte Carlo. It provides that important lesson that sometimes it is better to stir to chill instead of shaking to do so.

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The Belmont Breeze

Proposed by: DavidBelmontage

Reviewed by: Jonathan

In 1998, Dale DeGroff replaced the old official Belmont drink—the White Carnation—with a new cocktail. The Belmont Breeze isn’t a breeze to make, but some alchemy dictates its formula: one sour, two sweet, three strong, and four weak. If you study the recipe closely, and designate rightly, you can see how it fits, and DeGroff got the idea from colonial punch.

The biggest innovation from the White Carnation was the substitution of bourbon (or, as some recipes have it, American blended whiskey) for vodka, and sherry for peach schnapps. The White Carnation, apparently, was an acquired taste, as it also included orange juice and cream, making it the sort of Orange Julius of the cocktail world.

Being a mint julep fan—and a Derby snob—I don’t know what to think of a cocktail named after the track. These days, every stadium bears the name of an underwriting corporation, and you can hardly swing your head left to right without inadvertently scanning logos, brand names, and overt or covert advertising. I imagine when The White Carnation stopped selling, the powers-that-be sought another drink with this space for sale.

Sorry to be so cynical. My experience with this blog suggests two cocktail worlds: The older, more mysterious one features murky, almost magical, provenances, archival ingredients, and word-of-mouth transmutations and evolutions. The newer one is available online in videos of muscular and/or beautiful people mixing insert-alcohol-sponsor-name here and various other variable parts to create something trademarked.

Perhaps you sense which I prefer.

I don’t want to speak for Jonathan, but my experience (coming up on a year) tells me there’s something quixotic in mixology. You’re always looking for that combination of ingredients that click like tumblers deep inside a safe door and throw it open with a shouted, “Behold!” I shouldn’t be surprised at the challenge of reaching that word. I shouldn’t be surprised there’s money in it too.

But enough soap-boxing, here’s the recipe:

Muddle the mint and mix the ingredients in a shaker, and strain into ice-filled glasses.

betterbelmontHere’s Jonathan’s Review:

First the lament. I thought this was the year. Thought that California Chrome would be trademarking California Crown. All that thinking made me sad that I would not be able to watch the coronation due to other celebrations we were attending. As it ended up, we were able to watch the race and the stretch run that never came for a tired horse. No need to get into the fairness of the competition, this in fact being a cocktail blog not a sports discussion, just to wallow in the lament of another year gone by without that extra special horse.

Now back to the real purpose, the final leg of the triple crown of cocktails. The Belmont Breeze is another in the category of changing tradition. This race even had another name for its traditional cocktail (the White Carnation David has mentioned) and a number of versions of the Breeze to choose from. Our selected recipe was the bourbon and fruit juices version and despite all the indecision by others it was a great choice.

I followed the path that has led to the most success and used fresh squeezed juices for all but the cranberry. The truth is that I almost switched up and used fresh pomegranate instead of the cranberry so I could use all fresh, but stuck with the recipe. That is stuck with it other than ignoring the measurements simply listed as “a splash of.” The end result, because both the oranges and lemons were not very sweet, was a tart drink that mixed with the bourbon and sherry almost perfectly. A second version with a tiny amount of simple syrup was perfect. If only the race had been.

There can’t be a triple crown of cocktails celebrating horse racing without a win, place and show. The show cocktail was the Black Eyed Susan. Too fruity, too much change and too little satisfaction. Maybe David’s version with St. Germain was better, but mine was a distant third. Placing was the Belmont Breeze but only because of that lack of tradition. The drink is excellent, especially with the fresh juices, even if they change it year in and year out. A fresh pomegranate juice for the cranberry version could even nose at ahead at the line. But in the final reckoning the Julep wins because it is wonderful, traditional and demanding. There may be few versions, or preferences in making them if you like, but it is a storied drink that must have its own type of cup, the right kind of ice and then it demands you savor it.

David’s Take: A lot of flavors left me unsure of the winner

Jonathan’s take: The Belmont should stick with the DeGroff version and create the tradition.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

Summer is coming, but before then is Father’s Day. It may be stereotypical, but when I think of a fatherly drink it has to start with whiskey. I was leaning towards rye whiskey and kept coming across the Vieux Carre Cocktail. It has also those standards of a classic, which it is, including the whiskey, plus cognac, vermouth and a mix of bitters.

 

The Rum Maple Flip

rmflipProposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

First, confession: I’ve really no right to call this drink a “flip” because technically it isn’t. A flip includes spirits, sugar, no milk or cream (which would make it egg nog) and, most importantly, an entire egg. I’m only using the white, meaning this cocktail might be called a “fizz.”

However, I’ll keep the name because the modern flip is nothing like the original flip that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, first appears in print in 1685. That flip had no eggs and included rum, and sugar, and beer. It required submerging a red hot poker in the cup. So, technically, no flip is a true flip. Mine is no less true than any other. So there.

I could use a whole egg. I’ve seen Rocky, so I shouldn’t be afraid. But the essential element of an egg white cocktail is breaking up their proteins by shaking them until they accommodate moisture and air. In less scientific, more gastronomical terms, the white adds a little body and airiness. The fat in a yolk adds gravity, weight, making a drink rich and smooth. That may sound good, but people get squeamish enough about an egg white, and, well, I have seen Rocky.

Some sites split flips into royals (using the entire egg), goldens (yolk only), and silvers (egg whites), so I suppose I could call this cocktail a “Silver Rum Maple Flip,” but that’s too long and my artistic side doesn’t like the clashing colors.

Flips were revived from historical obscurity by Jerry Thomas’ 1862 work, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. He was first to add egg, suggest a flip could be cold, and create variation with different spirits. In recent years, flips have appeared all over the web and, were you to ask for one in a bar, the bar tender might not look at you strangely… just ask you if you’re sure. You might expect some beer, however, as many flips are beer cocktails.

My version of the flip eschews beer but adds a couple of crucial secondary ingredients, sherry to echo the aged rum, and maple syrup as the sweetener. I hoped to create something not quite holiday-y and yet wintery. I hoped to convince my wife egg whites are okay and add something interesting and important.

The recipe:

maplerunflip2 oz. aged rum

1 oz. medium dry sherry

.5 oz. maple syrup

1 egg white

nutmeg for garnish

Separate the egg white, discard the yolk. Shake the egg white by itself until frothy (30-60 seconds), then add ice and all the other ingredients except nutmeg, shake again. Then strain the drink into a martini or coupe glass and dust very lightly with nutmeg. Serve.

Cocktail history is fun. Forbearers and legacies, early incarnations and current renovations lend each drink distinctive character but, whatever they’re called, you hope they taste good.

Jonathan’s Review:

The week began with an internet search on how to use raw eggs safely in drinks. Even with the realization that a large part of this blog is our desire to try new things, it was still a little disconcerting to use them in a cocktail. The information that is available, though, not only made it seem reasonable but added to the intrigue and interest in the proposed drink.
This is not our first drink to use rum, or a variation, in a cocktail which left white rum, dark rum, British/Naval rum or cachaca as choices already available in my expanding bar. That in mind the recipe called for aged rum so I used that as an excuse to add to the collection when I picked up the medium dry sherry. It seems fairly subtle but that choice really made a difference.

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One of the challenges of using raw eggs is the multiple steps to building a cocktail. First there is a dry shake with just the egg, or in some recipes the egg and all other ingredients. This recipe called for the former, then a shake with all liquids, and finally with ice before straining into the glass. That was all well and good for the first one I made, but with the second the freshly washed shaker decided to fly out of my hands just as I was finishing. The result was a kitchen sprayed with cocktail that my wife was nice enough to clean as I not so happily prepared another.

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The final product was well worth all of that tribulation. The complex mix of the aged rum, sherry and maple was completely unique among the cocktails that we have tried. During my research on using raw eggs I had read that some mixologists eschew using eggs as being lazy in building a drink with body, but I don’t know how else you could create that combination of a drink being thick yet light. The final touch that really added to the drink was the slight spice of the grated nutmeg. It worked as much for the initial aroma as it did a taste element.

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Jonathan’s take: Body, taste and spice all worked to provide a cocktail unlike any other I have ever tried. It didn’t seem possible while building it, but this one is more than worth the effort required.

David’s take: If no one said, “Hey, there’s an uncooked egg white in this drink.” I might not know or worry. Sometimes we just have say, “What? Me worry?”

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Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

Not to sound too much like Martha Stewart (a cocktail aficionado in her own right), but this week’s proposal could have the added benefit of being options for homemade Christmas gifts if they work. The idea is to create three infused vodkas to drink alone or as part of a cocktail. I’ve suggested to David that we both try three combinations: vanilla bean/cardamom, chipotle/orange and a wild card for each of us to choose. The final part of this proposal is that we each need to create a cocktail using one of our vodkas.