El Pepino

Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Wish I could say that my delay in writing this post was that this cocktail, which, in my mind, is so close to a julep, is better offered closer to Kentucky Derby Day. Truth is, like a lot of people, I’m busier than I want to be and tired most of the time.

Here, however, is a drink that might pick people up. Having lived in Louisville for a while, I have a special affection for juleps. They remind me of spring itself, those sunny and temperate days that, over the past few months of gray rain and snow, you never quite let yourself believe possible. The new green of this time of year renews hope, and mint conveys that hope beautifully. Something about mint always offers a refreshing element in food and drink.

Two of the non-julep notes of this cocktail—lime and tequila—are borrowed from margaritas and offer festive and zesty flavors too. Here’s the recipe, which comes from Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails From the Lone Star State.

1/3 fresh diced cucumber

1 ounce Mint Simple Syrup

2 ounces 100% agave silver tequila

1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice

Fresh mint for garnish

Cucumber spear, for garnish

Mezcal (optional)

In the botton of a mixing glass, muddle the cucumber and mint syrup. Add the tequila and lime juice and shake vigorously with ice to chill. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with fresh mint and a cucumber spear. You can also float some mezcal on top, if you have it. Lamentably, I did not.

Cucumber seems a popular ingredient in food and drink recently. Though there’s nearly nothing to it in terms of calories and some people might think of it adding nothing but cellulose, it enhances the other fresh, botanical dimensions of this drink. As the description in Tipsy Texan suggests, this cocktail is suited to a warm day and touts, “You’d be hard pressed to find a cocktail more refreshing than this combination of tequila, mint, and cucumber.”

Here’s Jonathan’s review:

There is a general rule that I follow when gathering the ingredients for a cocktail. If there is an item that is difficult to find, secondary to all other parts of the drink ,or just missing from the pantry—I will skip that part. It is unusual yet there are examples where I have done that and noted it. I am talking about you Chinese five spice on the rim of the glass.

This proposal calls for muddled cucumber which is fairly unusual although not completely foreign. That said, it is hardly secondary when one considers all of the other parts of this drink, which are somewhat normal in mixology. The problem was, though, that I had everything ready when it came time to make the cocktail except a cucumber. There was just a moment of hesitation before I decided I could not accurately create the El Pepino without first going to get one. Good choice.

This is a drink that is the product of all its parts working together. The mint is subtle, the sugar in the syrup a smoothing agent, the tequila distinctive but not assertive, the lime juice a contrasting yet quiet acid as it should be. The cucumber jumps out. It makes El Pepino different and distinctive to the point that I think even those who are not fans of cukes would agree that without it the mix is fairly run of the mill. I am probably wrong but my guess would be that most bars don’t stock cucumber. That’s a shame because this is a drink I would actually order without hesitation.

Jonathan’s take: I hereby apologize to the cucumber and promise to find some Pimm’s in the back of my liquor cabinet so that the cuke may shine again.

David’s take: I won’t substitute this drink for my usual Derby Day julep, but maybe every other suitable occasion.

Next Time (Proposed by Jonathan):

I do not consider calories when ordering or making a cocktail. As a beer drinker that is probably a defense mechanism. There are those who do, however, and there are recipes with just that in mind.

Once again, the proposal is an idea rather than a specific drink. I am suggesting that we try cocktails with less calories. That does not mean making simple syrup with stevia leaves, although that is a consideration, rather it is to adjust the ingredients to trim the effect on the waist line. There is no calorie limit just a general concept to lower the total from the standard version of a cocktail or to create a new drink for those who are watching what they eat—or drink.

I feels some club soda coming our way.

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Julep Varietals

JulepDMProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

When Jonathan and I went to the Kentucky Derby with our wives in the mid 80s, we parked our infield picnic blanket next to some proto-bros with a water balloon catapult. A couple of races in, they found their range and pinned a poor racing form seller inside his tin hut. An official-looking person arrived with commands to desist, but by then they were out of ammo anyway. Around three in the afternoon, they began launching their uneaten ham sandwiches instead.

People drink a lot at the Derby.

Churchill Downs’ mint juleps have a reputation for being a little watery, but I think I remember downing a few that day. And it makes me laugh when people talk about juleps as a genteel drink. At three parts bourbon to one part simple syrup, home versions can be quite strong. The idea is to sip them, allowing the ice to dilute their potency, but I enjoy them so much I seldom manage it.

A mint julep is technically a “smash,” a group of drinks defined by spirit (not necessarily bourbon), crushed ice, and macerated mint (or basil, or something leafy). The idea is to coat the glass with the oils of the leaf and lend an aromatic quality to the libation. In the classic julep, mint simple syrup is the short cut. In one of the julep alternatives I tried, “The Wild Ruffian,” (here’s a link to the recipe) the syrup is made of peach preserves, and the mint is pulverized with a muddler. That drink also called for cognac instead of bourbon, so I doubt anyone would recognize the concoction as a “julep.” Nor do I think Churchill Downs would ever serve one… or certainly not in the infield.

Another of the drinks both Jonathan and I tried was the Oaks Lily (recipe link), named for the featured race for fillies highlighting the day before the Derby. When I lived in Louisville, seeing the Oaks in the grandstands was actually affordable and accessible for commoners—no more, apparently—and the Oaks Lily is also suitably direct, relying on vodka over bourbon and cranberry and lime juices, plus a splash of triple sec, instead of simple syrup. Not a sprig of mint is to be seen anywhere, so it wouldn’t really qualify as a smash, just a way to preserve Saturday for the real julep.

As Jonathan explains below, he tried yet another julep alternative called a Bufala Negra, but, despite our experimentation, we both needed to make real juleps too. It’s not that they’re fancy—what could be plainer than 3:1 bourbon to syrup?—but they are tradition. And, if they are good enough for infielders, they are good enough for us.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

JulepJMIt has been my impression that there are many places where the idea of a mint julep is met with disdain. The drink is decidedly a bourbon concoction, but if you love bourbon you don’t need, or want, the dilution and sweetening of the mint or simple syrup. If it is the latter that you like, there’s a good chance that bourbon is not your favorite. All of that is a shame because of how well the flavors go together.

Many years ago David and I had a very bad bourbon experience, and I had sworn off the stuff. A beach trip with our siblings and families helped with my gradual tolerance, and eventual embrace, of the brown liquor. Each sibling had a night when they were responsible for dinner and a cocktail and David chose to make juleps. The key to his mix was a well-crafted mint simple syrup that, to me, makes the difference in a julep. By mixing mint in the syrup, there is no need for dissolving sugar in water, muddling of mint or waiting for the inevitable melding. The two ingredients just mix with their friend crushed ice and a long sip later make for a wonderful combination.

This week was about alternatives though and we tried a couple of them. The first was a drink that was suggested in Southern Living that both David and I tried. I trust that David has provided the recipe for the Blush Lily which is the magazine’s take on the classic drink. It is a nice alternative for those who don’t like bourbon although some may find it more tart than sweet with lime and cranberry as the juices. We tried adding a splash of Blenheim ginger ale and that seemed to address that aspect as well as extend the drink.

My second alternative julep is called the Bufala Negra. I have no idea where that name came from but it is a mix of bourbon and basil with an interesting twist:

4 basil leaves
1 tsp aged balsamic vinegar
½ ounce simple syrup
1.5 ounce bourbon

Muddle 3 basil leaves, balsamic vinegar, and simple syrup. Add bourbon, crushed ice and stir. Garnish with the remaining basil leaf.

The interesting part of this drink is how well the flavors mix. I was wary of drinking even a small amount of vinegar, but mixed with the basil and syrup it was a great match for bourbon. The end result was a less bourbon forward cocktail that still had the sweetness and herbal qualities of a classic julep.

Jonathan’s Take: The classic julep is still the best, but the Blush Lily is great for those who don’t love bourbon and the Negra is an interesting alternative for those who love variety.

David’s Take: The classic is still king, but the others are welcome variations

Next Week (Proposed by Jonathan):

I have been getting some grief about proposing the drink of Wimbledon well before the sporting event. The Pimm’s Cup is a classic drink of summer, however, and there seem to be a number of varieties that showcase different fruits. It is strawberry season all over the country and I wanted a drink that used that fruit without being a return to the sweetness and rum of tiki week.

Cherry Blossom Tini

sake 2Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

The Japanese word for cherry blossom—sakura—is one of the first characters a school child learns to write, and the week or so of peak blooms holds a central place in the culture. I have a special affection for Japanese aesthetics, and, if former lives are real, I’m sure I’ve been Japanese. Then again, maybe I was Helen Herron Taft, the First Lady responsible for the exchange that brought cherry trees to Washington, DC in 1912.

I write a haiku a day on another blog and, as I compose, I often think about one of the central tenets of Japanese art, the balance between sabi (simplicity or, more broadly, poverty) and wabi (impermanence or, more broadly, freshness). Together they foster an appreciation of those instants when direct and uncomplicated observations give momentary pleasure. These ideas contribute to an interest in economy and intimacy, an unexpected joy in asymmetry and imperfection, and a shared sense that anything, even the most unconventionally beautiful, can be cause for celebration. Most importantly, sabi-wabi suggests right now is really all that’s important.

Perhaps you see the connection to cocktails.

This particular cocktail mimics the pink of the cherry blossoms while also deploying sake, the Japanese rice wine, and other smaller quantities of delicate influences: orange liqueur, orange bitters, lime juice, and cranberry. I suppose the combination might be considered a punch or another version of the cosmopolitan, but the name suggests some comparison to a martini, the most straightforward sabi-wabi cocktail I can imagine.

If you go online, you can find a number of sites predicting and reporting the moment cherry trees are most laden with blooms, both in Washington and in Tokyo. When I did my research before proposing this cocktail, I consulted those sites, and, sure enough, this week my Facebook page featured plenty of selfies in front of pink blankets of blossoms. I hear that, though we think of the pure aesthetic enjoyment of visiting groves of flowers, apparently the picnics occasioned by the celebration can be quite raucous. That too seems to fit the Cherry Blossom Tini.

Here’s the recipe:

  1. Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
  2. Shake well.
  3. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

And here’s Jonathan’s Review:

jbmsakeA couple of months ago my youngest son and I went out for a mid-week sushi dinner. The restaurant was offering a saketini special where they would make any classic martini with sake. With little to lose, it was just 3 bucks, we both ordered dirty saketinis – a mix of olive juice and sake. There was a lot to lose. The sake was viscous like a roux gone bad and with the brine of the olive juice created a combination that could best be described as tepid sea water. I am ashamed to say I drank it all. It was either out of some bizarre sense of pride that having ordered it I had to finish it, or the lasting legacy of the “clean plate club” where we were encouraged as kids to finish all the food we were given.

So when David suggested the drink for this week, my first reaction was fear. Never mind that my bad experience was probably a mix of low-end sake and a poorly selected combination. I was afraid. Fortunately it was all for naught. The Cherry Blossom tini started off better, at least I think it did, because I chose a better sake. It also benefitted from a combination of orange, lime, and cranberry that are much more closely aligned with the rice wine than green olives.

Doubtless there is a drink that uses vodka instead of the sake was included in this cocktail, but this mix benefitted from the body that the sake provided. One of the added benefits touted for this drink is that sake is a much lower proof than standard cocktail spirits like vodka. The experience with this drink makes me wonder how many other cocktails could benefit from subbing out vodka or gin for a quality sake.

One last thing to taunt David. I wanted to include a picture of this drink with the spectacular pink blooms of our kwanzan cherry tree. Alas, spring is far enough along here in Charlotte that we are on the down side of that bloom, as well as the white dogwoods. The azaleas are incredible right now, so we mixed the last cherries, some dwindling dogwoods and a few azaleas to provide the backdrop to the drink.

Jonathan’s take: I need to go back to that sushi place and try a better combination. Or maybe I should buy my own sake for even tastier mixes.

David’s take: It seems I’ve been using the word “delicate” a lot, which is a way of saying I want to use it again… but I especially enjoy using the word this time.

Next week (Proposed By Jonathan):

Other than beer weeks and our first annual retrospective weeks, we haven’t taken any time off. And we won’t be doing it now dad gummit! I did note to David that I have an annual golf trip coming up and it seems appropriate that I select the drink for that week. So my hybrid proposal is both a way to (kind of) take some time off, to give me the selection for golf week, and to honor the resurgence of tiki (trust me, it’s coming). About.com’s cocktail section includes an article on essential and popular tiki drinks. We have tried some of the classics, but I am proposing that we try 2 more over the next couple of weeks. There will be single write up to lessen our “work” load. For my part, I will be choosing between the Scorpion, Blue Hawaiian, and Beachcomber, but will offer David the option to choose among those and the other classics that we have yet to try.