Watermelon Cocktails

Proposed By: David

Pursued By: Jonathan

You may not know (unless you’re Cliff Clavin) that the watermelon appears in ancient Hebrew, Egyptian tombs, and medieval texts. Its history stretches 5,000 years, which means it’s about time Jonathan and I made it the focus of our cocktail-making efforts. This time, our charge was simple: make something with watermelon.

Mark Twain called the watermelon, “What angels eat,” but, thinking of the watermelons of my youth, I can’t believe anyone would say that. Those watermelons were crowded with annoying seeds to spit out. Though, in the tradition of older brothers everywhere, mine told me swallowing a seed would start a watermelon growing inside me, I can remember giving up after a wedge or two. Current watermelons are so much more civilized—seedless and full of juice.

That juice—more Clavin-esque information—may explain part of watermelon’s longevity. Some scientists believe watermelons were first cultivated in the Kalahari desert as sort of primitive water storage devices. Watermelons are 92 percent water (and 6 percent sugar).

Anyway, it’s the water of the watermelon that seems perfect for drinking. It’s relatively low calorie (less than most mixers anyway), and has a distinctive and fresh flavor very unlike the Jolly Rancher or Laffy Taffy bastardizations.

The natural spirits for watermelon are probably vodka (we’ve made a watermelon drink before) or tequilla, but I thought it would be fun to try it in a Tiki style drink, so I adapted a recipe called the Tiki-ti Five-O and substituted watermelon for orange juice. The original recipe from comes from an LA tiki bar, the Tiki-Ti, and was created by a tiki scholar named Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. I found it in Imbibe:

2 oz. aged rum
1 oz. Five-0 syrup (see below)
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. watermelon juice
1/4 oz. ginger liqueur

Muddle the watermelon in a bowl and then pour the appropriate amount of juice into the shaker, add the other ingredients and ice, then shake well. You might need to strain into the glass because the watermelon is pulpy. As you might see in the photo, I powdered the top with Chinese five-spice (very sparingly) and garnished with a cherry and a watermelon cube. I also added an inedible slide of rind for color… wishing I had a watermelon pickle or a piece of candied ginger instead.

So the watermelon was a wonderful element of this drink. Paradoxically, however, it was not the star. I purchased some Chinese five-spice powder for one of our previous cocktails and am happy to have found another mixology use for it. To make the syrup combine equal parts honey and water and 1 tablespoon of Chinese five-spice powder for every cup of water. Stir constantly, bring to a boil, remove from heat, and then let cool. Though I sort of hate any appearance of cheesecloth on this blog, you will need three or four layers to strain out the grit of the spice. And shake the syrup before you use it. If all that seems a lot of trouble, it’s worth it. Five-O syrup seems a perfect tiki flavor, and it’s so much easier than buying or making a bottle of falernum. I’m going to make more Five-O syrup.

Here’s Jonathan’s Entry:

Watermelon is not my favorite fruit. It’s not from lack of trying though, and as long as I can remember, it has been a staple of summer. Thumping to find the perfect one, icing it down, finding a spot to flick or spit the seeds and slicing it up. The idea is great while the fruit is usually disappointing. Maybe it’s comes from starting with the sweetest and most ripe section and working towards the rind and least sweet part. It just never lives up to the hype.

It is a fruit that goes well with so many things though. Many drinks ago we tried a watermelon and basil drink that was wonderful. Before the and since I have tried watermelon with cucumber, mint, and peppers in both food and drink and all of those were great combinations. So this was a challenge I was ready to accept.

My research found far more drinks with white liquors combined with watermelon than dark liquor ideas. The first drink we tried combined the botanicals of gin, cucumber accent and the featured fruit, the Watermelon Cucumber Cooler:

1.5 ounce gin
2 slices cucumber
1.5 ounce watermelon juice or 3 one inch chunks of watermelon
.5 ounce simple syrup
.75 ounce lime juice
Pinch salt
1.5 ounce soda water

Muddle watermelon and cucumber (I went with fruit chunks instead of juicing a watermelon), add other ingredients except soda, shake with ice, strain into iced filled highball glass, top with soda and garnish with a slice of cucumber.

This drink reminded me of all the past experiences with watermelon—sounds great but only okay. It did meet the promised Cooler aspect, which is good for summer, but none of the flavors asserted themselves. Surprisingly the gin even got lost in this one.

The idea of the second drink was to find a good whiskey and watermelon combo. I will admit that the previous experience with using basil and watermelon led me to the Murricane. The drink was supposedly created for Bill Murray and christened with one his nicknames that refers to his mercurial personality:

2 ounce watermelon (I still used muddled chunks rather than juicing)
4-5 basil leaves
1.5 ounce bourbon
.75 ounce lemon juice
.75 ounce St. Germain liqueur
Ground pepper

Muddle watermelon and basil, add all other ingredients, shake with ice, strain into old fashioned glass with fresh ice and garnish with a small chunk of watermelon.

The basil and watermelon mix did not disappoint. This was a cocktail that combined the best parts of summer with the distinctive taste of bourbon. I’m not sure what the St. Germain did but I will credit it with blending everything into one harmonious drink.

Jonathan’s take: I’ll keep eating watermelon and given the choice I will have it with basil and bourbon.

David’s take: I know I’m supposed to sneer at the hipsteriness and trendiness of Tiki drinks, but this is one I’ll return to.

Next Time (Proposed by Jonathan):

One liqueur we have missed, or avoided, is Peach Schnapps. For some reason, most of the drinks using the liqueur have names that are double entendres. The proposal is to make one of the more mainstream of those that also has one of the more tame names – Sex on the Beach. If you don’t believe that is a tame name check out the list of Peach Schnapps drinks on the Bar None web site. Heck, just check out the ones that start with F.

Low-Calorie Cocktails

Proposed By: Jonathan

Enacted By: David (and Jonathan)

It has taken me a long time to do this write-up. I introduced the concept of calories in cocktails and then began a search for background and ideas. Want to get an idea of the contradictory information related to that? One of the first lists I found for drinks to avoid included the mojito. Then I pulled up drinks that were lower in calories and my friend the mojito made that list too. Maybe the best place to start is by constructing a drink from base calories.

There are sources that claim one liquor has more or less calories than another. The bottom line though is that the calorie content is directly related to alcohol by volume and what else is included with that liquor. The concept of efficiency is as simple as knowing pure spirits derive all calories from the alcohol since there is little other than water and flavor (or so one hopes) in a bottle of liquor. A 40% spirit has 97 calories/1.5 ounce serving, a 45% spirit has 109 calories/1.5 ounces and a 50% spirit has 121 calories/1.5 ounce serving. It doesn’t matter if that 80 proof liquor is vodka or Scotch, it’s still going to be 97 calories. So there’s the first tip – if you want to count calories while drinking you should go with liquor neat, on the rocks or with no calorie club soda or seltzer.

The next step is to see what happens when you add mixers or liqueurs. The first part of many drinks is fresh fruit juice. Lime (8), lemon (8), grapefruit (11) and orange (13) juice don’t add many calories per ounce especially when you consider both the small amount used and the flavor they add. Standard mixers up the count especially when you consider that an average drink may include 4 or more ounces in the recipe. The calories per 4 ounce serving of some of the favorites are 40 for ginger ale or tonic and 48 for coke. Another popular option for adding that flavor and sweetness are simple syrups and their flavored versions. The problem is that a single ounce of simple syrup is around 75 calories. Liqueurs add the double dose of alcohol calories and the sugary additives that give them their flavor. Some of the more popular ones are triple sec (162), Kahlua (131), Amaretto (170) and sweet vermouth (60) with the calories measured per 1.5 ounce serving. That means a White Russian adds up to around 265 if you use heavy cream – and who wouldn’t?

The challenge was to bring down the calories per drink or to find lower calorie options. As I wrote earlier, one good option is to drink liquor straight, but this is a cocktail blog so that’s out of bounds. Another popular choice is to mix with seltzer and fresh juice. Basic addition will get you to 101 calories for 80 proof vodka mixed with 1/2 ounce of fresh lime and 4 ounces of club soda. That’s the equivalent of a light beer but who wants a light beer? That brings in the idea of rum (97), lime juice (8), mint (0), simple syrup (75) and club soda for 180 calorie mojito. Now we’re up to the equivalent of a high test beer (for those who want flavor plus vitamins/nutrients as any aficionado would point out), 2 light beers or 2 glasses of wine if you use a restrained pour.

There are also easy substitutes for basic drinks like a gin and tonic or rum and coke. Assuming both start with a 1.5 ounce spirit and combine with 4 ounces mixer (we will consider the squeeze of lime negligible) these drinks ring in 149 calories for the G & T and 145 for the Cuba Libre. The quickest way to get that down is to use a diet version of the mixer to drop the count to 109 and 97 respectively. This is just my taste in drinks mind you, but at that point I would reach for the ice cubes and a straight pour instead.

When it came down to it for proposed drinks with lower calories, I went with flavored simple syrups cut with club soda. On its face this doesn’t make a great deal of calorie sense but I think this method helps with another form of calorie math. Let’s assume that one cocktail leads to another. A martini with 1.5 ounce gin and 3/4 ounce vermouth is a total of 2.25 ounces at the rough 140 calorie level. Per drink that is a good low calorie option but 3 of those are about 7 ounces and 420 calories. A mix of 1.5 ounces vodka, an ounce of vanilla simple syrup and 6 ounces of club soda is an 8.5 ounce cocktail measuring in at about 170 calories. Two of those could last an entire evening with a total of 340 calories. Yet another version of this math is the mint julep. Two ounces of bourbon, an ounce of mint simple syrup, a spring of mint and lots of packed crushed ice is an afternoon sipper with around 240 calories. Except for my fellow blogger, who needs more than one Julep?

Here’s David’s Portion:

Like Jonathan, my scientific explorations suggest basic laws of low-calorie cocktails:

  1. Variation in proof aside, all spirits have essentially the same number of calories, which leads to an axiom…
  2. The lowest calorie option is drinking spirits straight, or…
  3. Mixing them minimally with botanicals or citrus (like a gimlet or a mojito), and not…
  4. Adding liqueurs or other secondary spirits that have a high sugar content and…
  5. Sparing yourself too many or too much mixers like ginger ale or coke because they too have a lot of sugar, hinting a better strategy might be…
  6. Using a little simple syrup and soda, but…
  7. Still keeping the cocktails to around 4-5 ounces… though a bartender once told me 6 ounces is the more standard amount, because of the melt from the ice in the glass and/or shaker.

A calorie being an inviolable unit of energy, there’s no getting around these laws, but I did experiment with a variation Jonathan didn’t mention, vegetable juices. When a Whole Foods opened near me recently, it occurred to me that some of their comically named concoctions—each invented to promote my personal health and wellness—might make interesting ingredients.

So I chose Lucky Juice-Iano (weighing in at a whopping 6.7 calories an ounce) and Juice Bigalow (at 13.75 calories per ounce).

The label of Lucky Juice-Iano says, “This killer combo of PEAR, CUCUMBER, LEMON, and SPINACH is like unloading a tommy gun of hydration to your mouth while helping you fight off illness like an old-timey gangster.” I’m pretty sure I ruined any boost to my immunity by adding an ounce and a half of gin (at 42% alcohol, I’m calling it 102 calories), but this cocktail seemed the more successful of my experiments. As long as you don’t put in more than an ounce and a half of the juice—spinach cocktail, anyone?—and add plenty of soda to dilute the feeling you might be eating your hedge trimmings, this drink is palatable and only costs you 112 calories. Truth in advertising, I also added (but didn’t count) a dot or two of Angostura. That helped.

Juice Bigalow’s labeling claims, “If APPLE, BEETS, CARROT, GINGER, and LEMON ‘got it on,’ this would be their lovechild. And said child would relieve stress so you can live a long life, both in and out of bed.” I’m not sure what any of that means or who writes such bizarre copy, but this experiment seemed more iffy. I thought tequila (at 40%, 97 calories) would be the match for Juice Bigelow, and I wasn’t wrong because somehow the spirit pushed its way through all those juices and soda to a position of prominence. Still, I’m no great fan of beets and confess that I mostly chose the juice for its color. A last-minute impulse to add a shake or two of tabasco seemed to balance the sweetness a little bit, but I’d have to work on the proportions to improve it. At 120 calories, this drink didn’t produce enough fuel to even consider it.

I don’t start many statements with “People, here’s the thing…” but here goes. People, here’s the thing, if cocktails become an element of your health regimen, there’s possibly a problem with your regimen.

Jonathan’s take: The most basic truth is that there are zero calories in water. This isn’t a water blog either.

David’s Take: Do you know the contemporary use of the term “fail”?

Next Time (Proposed By David):

As tempted as I am to suggest high calorie cocktails, instead I’d like to draw on a single ingredient plentiful this time of year, watermelons. Whatever Jonathan and I make has to include watermelons prominently. The rest is up for grabs.

Food With Liquor

jbm-popcornProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

My initial idea for this proposal was to make foods that fell into the categories of candy, side dish and entree. It may have been the season, or perhaps an intersection of need and opportunity, but that changed to gift, snack and tradition.

As time has passed, my wife, and to some extent I, have come up with a list of edibles to give as gifts to friends and family who have enough stuff. That list has included peanut brittle, toffee, and chocolate covered pretzels. This year Debbie added ginger bread cake and I made some blog inspired bourbon balls. The recipe I chose was more cookie than candy but there are options for both in the bourbon category. The base was ground Nilla wafers, chopped roasted pecans (presoaked in bourbon), cocoa powder, confectioners sugar, corn syrup and the requisite bourbon. All of that was mixed, chilled, formed into a ball and then rolled into a mix of cocoa and confectioners sugar. They were intended as a gifts and ended up there so I only got to try one. If bourbon was the goal, these morsels achieved that in abundance. I hope the recipients like bourbon.

That second category, snack, says a lot about the down time and bowl games that are a welcome part of the week between Christmas and New Years. There are not as many ideas for savory, liquor added snacks (especially that don’t entail cooking out the alcohol) as there are candies yet I found one appropriate for both my and David’s expertise.

In high school David and I worked at a two screen movie theater. It was small enough that any one day could include duties in ticket sales, concessions, projectionist and even clean up when The Rocky Horror Picture Show caused the regular cleaning crew to quit until the show’s run ended. The best job, and perhaps the one both of were the best at, was chief popper. Although the theater had small machine at the concession stand, most of the corn was popped and bagged over three hour marathon popping sessions in an isolated room behind the projection booth. Those bags supplemented the show corn downstairs and, incidentally, taught us the lesson that the secret to movie popcorn’s excellence is that it is reheated with dry air to provide the all important crispness.

The second recipe relies on that secret. The basic idea is to mix a small amount of liquor with melted butter, spices and whatever else sounds good. I made a butter, tequila, lime juice, brown sugar and cayenne pepper mix that was then poured over microwave corn (my apologies to the Reynolda Cinema popping room). The final step was to spread the popcorn over a cookie sheet and reheat it for 10 minutes in a 300 degree oven for the perfect crispness. Choose you own topping but don’t skip that last step.

Fruit cake is less a tradition of the season than it is a traditional joke of the season. Supposedly no one likes it or eats it but we know that is not true. There is a company in rural North Carolina, Southern Supreme, that makes an excellent cake. I ordered one, having missed making a purchase earlier in the season, with the idea of soaking it in rum. Christmas had already passed when I started to google exactly how to do that and it was only then I discovered my two mistakes. First, I didn’t need google. As one would expect with true traditions, my wife already knew what to do from having watched relatives growing up. Second, I was supposed to wrap the fruitcake in a clean dish towel or cheesecloth and apply the rum once every few days over a period ranging from a month to months. The cake is hidden away in a tin or container during that period until it has reached that perfect consistency and booziness. My mother-in-law apparently hid this wonder from her girls when they were kids by putting it on top of the refrigerator. She must have done the same when her sons-in-law came along. I will need to get back to everyone on how this turns out.

Here’s David’s Entry:

tacosSome people are “show cooks”; that is, they like to cook for audiences, but when it comes to the day-to-day business of preparing nourishment… meh. And, me, I’m not even a show cook. Eating for me is closer to feeding—if a zookeeper came along and slipped something through a slot in the door, I’m not sure I’d mind.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate good cooking—I’d prefer my zookeeper to be adept—just that I rarely have the will to prepare meals and rarely enjoy anything I make, for show or otherwise. So perhaps you can understand how challenging this food with liquor proposal has been for me. When it comes to bourbon balls, I could never touch the ones they make at Muth’s Candy in Louisville. As for fruitcake, I’d love to try Jonathan’s, but I’m pretty sure any fruitcake I created would make a better artificial fireplace log. I’m loath to try anything so ambitious.

Every party has a pooper, I know. But I did fulfill this proposal, albeit in my own lazy way. I prepared Queso Flameado with Shrimp and Salsa Ranchera, and, if that sounds fancy, it was…  and wasn’t. Really, this recipe might be renamed “Cheese and Shrimp Tacos,” except that it includes the dramatic steps of making your own salsa and of flambéing the cheese with tequila. After using what we call “an outboard motor” (immersion blender) to smooth out the canned chopped tomatoes, you add shrimp and tequila, get a long match, say a prayer to keep your eyebrows, and call everyone over to watch.

For just a second there, I felt like a show cook after all, and I enjoyed the results. The instant of completion is the optimum moment to eat. The cheese is quite melty, and the tequila imparts a complexity you may not expect, almost as if the dish included the complicated mélange of spices common in Indian food. And, yes, let me repeat, I enjoyed this food I made. I may cook with tequila again, who knows?

The second recipe I want to offer uses bourbon, which I thought, before experimenting with tequila, was the friendliest liquor for cooking. Though it isn’t quite the season for it, we always enjoy a bourbon and chocolate infused pecan pie commercially called, and trademarked, “Derby Pie”®. If anyone asks, however, please tell them we always call it “Museum Winner’s Pie” when we prepare and eat it and discuss it with others. You can find various forms of this “We Can’t Call It What it Really Is Pie” online, but the critical steps are making a soup out of butter, eggs, sugar, chocolate chips, pecans, and bourbon, pouring that soup into a pie shell, and then baking it at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. It couldn’t be easier. Even a lazy-bones like me can manage it.

Jonathan and I were lucky to grow up in a household where my mom—a wonderful, amazing cook—saw to our culinary education. I learned a lot and have most of the basic techniques down. Unfortunately, little actual affection for cooking stuck. Fancy or plain, liquor or no liquor, in the kitchen I feel I’m sometimes channeling my dad, whose “beans and noodles” and “fried bologna sandwiches with ketchup” made us rush our mom’s recovery from every illness. I love to watch the Cooking Channel. That and playing grumpy sous-chef are often as far as I get, but—okay, I admit it—it was fun being pushed out of my comfort zone for this proposal.

Jonathan’s take: I just realized we never sent Bourbon Jerry and Mr. Seed any bourbon balls. I might have to make more.

David’s take: My biggest discovery was that tequila is food-friendly. Who knew?

Next Time (Proposed by David):

‘Tis the season for resolutions and diets, and there’s been a movement afoot to make January a month without alcohol. To that I have to say, “Oh well.” Still, I mean to give it a try. So this time I’m proposing Jonathan and I each create a “Mocktail,” a drink just as complex (and special) as a cocktail without alcohol. Though I fear I may once again play “Doubting David,” I’ll use this month to consider exactly what makes a libation special.

La Paloma

palomajbmProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

Paloma, La Paloma, the Dove or as one odd reference suggested Paloma Tequila. This is a cocktail I chose, in part, for its increasing popularity and many variations. It has those. What it needs is a name on which everyone can agree. For our purposes, and for history as you will read, I like La Paloma.

The link in the last blog post proposal takes you to a Feast Magazine write up that includes history for the cocktail and a couple of different recipes. That means readers should know the history, or does it? They write that the cocktail traces back to the town of Tequila in the Jalisco state. The bartender who can claim it was Don Javier Delgado Corona. Quibblers would want say that it is such a basic drink, essentially in the family of the Tom Collins, that there were probably many versions created in many places. Even the name is linked to questions about where it came from with the suggestion that it might be as old as an 1860’s folk song called “La Paloma.”

The recipes are fairly consistent with simple versions using grapefruit soda and others using fresh grapefruit juice.

2 ounces blanco tequila
.5 ounce fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt
Grapefruit soda

Mix the first three ingredients, add soda (4-6 ounces) and ice. Garnish with lime, grapefruit or nothing.

2 ounces reposado tequila
1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
.5 ounce fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon agave syrup or simple syrup
Club soda

Mix everything but the soda, then add that and ice. Garnish away.

There are recipes that say salt the rim of the glass instead of adding it to the drink. If you choose to use grapefruit soda expect lots of recommendations. The sodas list includes Fresca (it’s lighter but don’t do it), Jarritos (you’ll need a Mexican market), Squirt, Izze, or Whole Foods Italian grapefruit soda. Those are just some of the options.

There were lots of tasters so I made versions with blanco tequila, reposado tequila, Fresca (which is why I know not to use it), Squirt and Izze. A half ounce of lime didn’t seem like enough so there was probably more in each cocktail too. I didn’t make the fresh grapefruit version but if I was to make this a regular drink I think the combination of fresh juice and agave syrup could be just right. It would really be the Tom Collins of Jalisco then.

Here’s David’s Review:

palomadmWhen I mentioned to a friend that Jonathan and I were trying a Paloma for the next blog post, she said, “Isn’t that a sort of Margarita?” Certainly, some connections suggest so—tequila, for one, and also lime and salt. If you like your margaritas exotically flavored—prickly pear, anyone?—the grapefruit isn’t any serious adulteration. Blending grapefruit juice, agave syrup, lime, tequila, and ice with a machine… you might call that a margarita.

Yet, here’s a case where differences matter. I like margaritas, but I like this drink better. For one thing, preparing it does not require electricity. It’s shaken. Plus, though the Paloma has the sweet and sour (and salty) mix of a margarita, it doesn’t start, as many margaritas do, with a frozen mix that renders it an adult Icee. This cocktail did not seem nearly as sweet—grapefruit soda means you can skip the agave syrup—and, more tequila-forward, it presented itself as more than a way to hide spirit. A Paloma isn’t dessert. It feels… sophisticated.

Maybe this drink is the branch of the mixology tree margaritas ought to have followed.

In our experiment, we tried some variations Jonathan didn’t, choosing mezcal as the tequila and even substituting half the mezcal for gin in one version. Everything we tried was satisfying, but the mezcal added the most. Between sweet, sour, the salty, bitter, and smoky the Paloma seemed one of the most complex cocktails we’ve tried. The addition of botanical complexity of gin was perhaps a step too far, but why not test the envelop? The result was interesting, suggesting the range a basic recipe can cover when swaping one element for another.

Recently I wandered into a music review online. I don’t read them generally because they feature so many descriptors I barely understand. One I do understand, though, and one of my favorites, is the prefix “proto,” which I take to mean before what we have now, the more basic past some present relies upon. The Paloma felt like a proto-cocktail to me, a combination evolution can work with.

Jonathan’s take: You want summer? You deserve summer and this drink is it.

David’s Take: One of my favorites, in all its variations.

Next Time (Proposed By David):

Most cities likely have a cocktail column by now, a few paragraphs buried in the home section or weekly magazine. They can’t hide from me, and last week’s Chicago Tribune included an article that intrigued me—“Cocktails With Equal Parts Are Easy, Yet Sophisticated.” For next time, I’m inviting Jonathan to join me in inventing an equal portion cocktail. No specific ingredients, no history we’re beholden to, no famous and magical mixologist—just equal ingredients.

Moving Sale

Moving Sale Ver 2Proposed By: David

Enacted By: David and Jonathan

Maybe the expression, “Necessity is the mother of invention” shouldn’t apply to cocktails. Putting aside the troublesome aspects of drinking being a “necessity,” mixology seems a more deliberate science involving arduous research and development, subtle variation and adjustment, measurement and refinement. The ingredients are too precious after all, and no one wants a bartender who presents some sloppy, improvised “invention.” And yet…

We’re moving this week, and, for the past week or so, I’ve been roaming my house sorting through our possessions, boxing some and giving or throwing the rest away. Anyone who’s transplanted recently knows that moment when you realize these things possess you and not the other way around and decide you really should have hired a hot-air balloon for your move instead of a truck.

As fun as it is being a not-so-savvy cocktailian, my liquor shelf feels especially burdensome, with all those bottles I’d opened for a few ounces and the others I’ve used nearly to the bottom. Well, the luridly colored Crème de Menthe, Crème de Violette, and Blue Curacao will have to come with us, and—who knows?—someday I may have a serious hankering for Kahlua or Tuaca (because stranger things have happened), but surely I can do something about those dregs.

Anyway, that’s the thinking behind this week’s cocktail challenge. I wanted to invent a drink called The Moving Sale to consume those spirits and other ingredients near exhaustion. On my mythical moving company hot-air balloon, every ounce is precious, so I gathered some candidates for casting off and set out to experiment.

Had my standards been lower, I could have chosen a number of bottles, but I ended up with just those pictured above, each with an ounce or two of liquid remaining, plus some stuff in the refrigerator like coconut cream and homemade grenadine that simply had to go. I even included my Pechaud and Orange Bitters, though it might take another year or so to spend the last couple of ounces of those.

Here are the two drinks I invented (followed by a brief appraisal):

Moving Sale Drink 1Moving Sale 1:

1 oz. Frangelico

2 oz. Aquavit

2 oz. Grenadine

1 oz. Lemon Juice

Fill a shaker with ice and all the ingredients, shake, and serve.

The Frangelico stands up remarkably well against the Aquavit, and, because it’s on the sweet side with the addition of grenadine, it needs the lemon and bitters to balance it.

Moving Sale 2:

2.5 oz. Tequila Blanco

2 oz. coconut cream

Macerated Mint Leaves

2 dashes orange bitters

Fill a shaker with ice and all the ingredients, shake, and serve.

This one seemed a little odd to me. For one, coconut cream must work better with rum and, for another, mint and coconut? Still, as strange as it seems, this version had a nice botanical gravity.

Here’s Jonathan’s version:

This week’s drink proposal, concept really, was birthed from David’s need to purge before a move. Every time David mentions relocating I think back to when he and my sister-in-law, Beth, left Louisville. He is anything but a sentimentalist when it comes to things, at least ordinary things, and he claimed that each time during that move there was a disagreement about whether to move something or chunk it he slipped a note in the box. That note said something to the effect that if it had not been discovered before the next move the item or items had to be abandoned.

With that memory in mind, I have been imagining Beth paying him back. I see her dropping tiny waterproof capsules into the odd bottle of spirit. Each capsule in this scenario contains an even tinier note that tells the discoverer the liquor must be dumped if the note has not been read by a set date. Of course, I haven’t told my wife about this strange fantasy for fear that I will someday wonder what is floating in those bottles of crème de menthe, blue curacao, and crème de violette.

The real idea for this week was to take three items that were in short supply and exhaust them in a simple mixed drink. It could also have meant that I was supposed to make up my own drink, but during the week I rediscovered the Preakness cocktail. Devoted readers and followers of all things horse racing know that the official drink of The Preakness is now the Black Eyed Susan (a new sponsored version), but at one time it was a Manhattan variation. It is a mix of 2 ounces rye whiskey, 1 ounce red vermouth, ½ teaspoon of Benedictine and two dashes of Angostura bitters. All of that is stirred with ice, strained into a coupe and garnished with lemon peel.

If the true intent was to empty bottles it was a smashing success. First, I had an old bottle of vermouth that had long ago gone bad in the fridge and it was emptied and recycled without using any of it. The next dead soldier was a bottle of rye. In fact, I thought I had two of those, but the other must have gone away long ago so we worked on finishing a wheat whiskey that may never be gone. The bonus was that we had relatives over and a dwindling bourbon bottle breathed its last vanilla and oak scented breaths. We’re not moving so I can’t wait to see what takes their place.

Jonathan’s take: I like this idea. Wonder what crème de violette, crème de menthe and blue curacao mixed together would taste like?

David’s take: Maybe both of my drinks should be called accident, but—if so—they were happy accidents.

Next week (Proposed by Jonathan):

I knew there had to be a classic that we have missed, and there was. Since David will still be in the process of moving, I am suggesting a whiskey sour. Surely in a big city like Chicago, David can find that and a few dozen variations too no doubt.

 

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.

Beer Week 2015 (North Carolina)

NC BeersProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

I love spring. My beard is shaved, the flowers are starting to bloom, all the trees are budding, and the slight chill to the air is welcome, not foreboding. This week was my turn to supply the beers and the testing panel assembled on our back patio to do our scientific research and tasting. Here’s the lineup with descriptions mostly supplied by brewery websites:

Triple C Chocolate Covered Pretzel Stout (Charlotte): This beer starts with four malts – German Pilsner, Special B, white and chocolate wheats. It is aged in bourbon barrels and then on cacao nibs. The final addition is to add salt for the full pretzel treatment. Obviously meant to be the dessert for this tasting.

Howard Brewing General Lenoir’s Old Ale (Lenoir): This one was picked for its tie to NC history. The recipe comes from a 1795 hand written note attributed to General William Lenoir. The beer is touted as a traditional ale made with ingredients traced to the late 1700’s and Lenoir’s Fort Defiance. If we are going to taste beers from NC, we might as well taste a caramel and roast ale that is living history.

Highland Brewing Weizenbock Ale (Asheville): Highland is celebrating its 20th anniversary and I got to visit there with my wife, sister, brother-in-law and nephew last fall. They have created a group of small batches to honor the anniversary and this is one of them. The website notes for this beer tout flavors of cloves and bananas and malts that include wheat, barley and chocolate rye. I do have to say that when we toured, our nephew Dan knew more about beer than our guide, so I should have sent him one of these to try.

Foothills IPA of the month for March (Winston-Salem): The label is a caricature of Boston terrier mix named Murphy who in turn was named after a band. They really emphasize the final Citra and Lemondrop hops that provide the citrus bloom to the flavors, and the traditional German malts that give it depth.

NoDa Brewing Hop Drop & Roll (Charlotte): This beer won the 2014 World Beer Cup Gold Medal for American Style IPA which is the most contested category based on the number of entries. Hopping occurs throughout the brewing process with a late addition of Citra and Amarillo hops. Multiple malts add depth and body to this brew.

Holy City Bowen’s Island Oyster Stout (Charleston, SC): There are 2 bushels of oysters per 15 barrels of beer in this stout. I bought this one in Charleston a couple of months ago (as a note to our nephew Dan, it is not skunked being two months old) and sent one of these as a bonus beer. I like odd numbers and I am calling it a bonus so that I was sending 5 beers plus one.

David can rate these in order but I have to provide my tasting notes supplemented by my illustrious panel. One of the tasters is not a fan of IPA’s so we spared him the Hop Drop & Roll. That said it was the best of these beers, even if the award may have biased our judging. The Chocolate Pretzel Stout was probably second with an amazing complexity that reflected the numerous ingredients and careful attention to the brewing process. Surprisingly the General Lenoir Ale was the next favorite. The intrepid tasters noted that is best represented the concept of beer. The Weizenbock was a German style beer with little to distinguish it, the Foothills IPA for March was good but not spectacular, and the Oyster Stout suffered for having followed the Pretzel Stout. A regular beer after dessert? That’s hardly fair.

Here’s David’s Review:

March IPADuring our first week of beer, Jonathan threw down the gauntlet. He sent selections to convince me to like IPAs, and, while I won’t concede it’s my favorite style of beer, I enjoyed both of the IPAs he sent… and the others too. Like last week, not one of these beers was a bust. All were quite good, even and especially the IPAs. Reluctantly, maybe I’ll have to rethink my perverse antipathy toward the beer everyone else seems to enjoy… along with my distaste for many movies, literature, music, and art popular and universally beloved.

Nah.

I’ve ranked these beers, and I can’t help noticing how differently I regarded them… but it’s more a matter of preference than taste. I wouldn’t turn down any:

6. Holy City Bowen Island Oyster Stout: My wife really enjoyed this dense and dark beer, and I also appreciated its evocation of smoked oysters. I liked it much better than I expected I would and think it’d make an excellent cooking beer. Oyster stout just may not be my thing.

5. Triple C Chocolate Pretzel Stout: Chocolate covered pretzels are one of my favorite foods in the world, but I confess some fear of stouts. This one possesses the characteristic intimidating gravity and dark bitterness that sometimes turn me off, but, as a dessert beer, it was surprisingly good. Can’t say I tasted chocolate or pretzels, though.

4. General Lenoir Old Ale: I expected to like this one the best because it’s a sort of red, British style ale, the style I enjoy most consistently. Plus, the history is so cool. I did enjoy it, though its flavors didn’t seem quite as well integrated as some of the others. It tasted alcoholic—though the NoDa was the quite clear champion there!—and its carbonation seemed quite sharp, undercutting its mellow flavors.

3. NoDa Hop, Drop & Roll IPA: I know this one was supposed to be the award winner, and you have to love the name. It reminded me of the posters in my college dorm reminding us what to do should we happen to catch fire. I liked the beer too. It made very positive first impression, but it was the second best IPA for my taste. It amasses layer on layer on layer of hops. In the end, I found the combination of hops overwhelming by the time I emptied the glass.

2. Foothills March IPA: My objection to IPAs has always been how unbalanced many of these beers are, but this one was nicely fruity. For me, the strong hops complemented rather than overwhelmed the character of the beer… like a hoppy plum. Then again, as this beer is from my old hometown Winston-Salem, maybe it’s just nostalgic pride.

1. Highland Brewing Wiezenbock: My understanding of the Weizenbock style is limited, but I know it’s wheat beer and, as such, delivers just what you’d expect—a lighter, cloudier character that’s more subtle than bold—but, for me, the bock part of this ale also made it rich, roasty, and a little on the sweet side. I like the sweet side.

Jonathan’s take: A beautiful spring afternoon tasting beer. That’s probably the winner.

David’s take: Some IPAs are good… but that’s all you’re getting out of me.

Next Week (Proposed By David):

It’s been quite some time since either of us invented a cocktail, but I often fool around with the ingredients we have left over, and I’m ready to risk introducing one of my concoctions to my tough-reviewing brother. I’m calling it a 3GT. The letters stand for gin, ginger beer, Goldschläger, and tonic. Here’s hoping Jonathan hasn’t consumed all of those former ingredients… and won’t be too hard on me.

Beer Week 2015 (Chicago)

crop2Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

This weekend seemed especially apt for taking a break from cocktails and trying some local beers. Saturday Chicago dyed the river green and let luridly green bands of 20-something drunks loose to rove the city (mostly its bars, but some get lost) in overcrowded trolleys. Invariably some happy leprechauns will end up caterwauling down my block singing/shouting incomprehensively. An angry leprechaun may start a fight that ends up on the front hood of the parked car in which you’ve taken refuge. Overindulgent leprechauns—which seems all of them—will leave parts of green get-ups and curious splatters on sidewalks.

It’s not my favorite day of the year, so I was happy to escape and have a much smaller celebration at home.

We’ve done this beer exchange before, and, last time, I was so scientific and systematic. This time, I went to my favorite liquor store and picked out four big bottles (bombers) from the aisle labeled “Midwest Breweries.” All the breweries were small, all but one in Chicago, and most were unusual varieties of ale. Here are the bottles I sent:

Enkel, an abbey style ale by Une Annee Brewery: The most conventional and plainly (almost generically) labeled of all the ales I sent, this beer sits solidly in the Belgian monastery style, and the brewery, which is only a couple of years old, focuses on just Belgian and French ales. A little less alcoholic than their other offerings, they tout Enkel as an ideal accompaniment to a meal.

Bam Noire, a dark farmhouse ale by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales: Largely a French style, farmhouse ales can be tart or sour, but, uncharacteristically, this beer uses darker, burnt malts. It’s really a marriage of two types of ales. Jolly Pumpkin was the only non-Chicago brew I chose—it’s from Michigan—and it’s also the one you’re most likely to find outside Chicago.

Can’t Someone Else Do It?, a double India Pale Ale from Spiteful Brewing: As I’ve discussed with my brother, I’m perhaps the only person on the planet not crazy about the IPA craze. I like hops, I do, but this style seems to focus so exclusively on hops that many versions lack any sort of subtlety or nuance. That said, I haven’t given up and know my brother likes them, so I chose one from a “nanobrewery” in town. Plus, I like their labels, which are more than a little surreal.

Pipeworks G&T, a gin and tonic inspired ale by Pipeworks Brewery: What makes this ale “Gin and tonic inspired” is the inclusion of spices besides hops, some botanicals and citrus. I thought I should send at least one outside-the-box selection, and Pipework seems perfect for providing that. They are super-small, and a new self-made and hand-distributed beer seems to come out every week. I haven’t been able to keep up, but I’ve liked what I’ve tried… and loyal readers of this blog will know of my history with gin and tonics.

Here are Jonathan’s Reviews:

JbmbeerThe best part of beer week is that David sends me everything that I need. The doorbell rang early in the week and when I opened it, there was a box full of beer. In this case it was four bombers (a term for oversized bottles of beer I recently learned) to go with the list that I had been sent earlier. All I had to do was assemble my tasting panel and I was ready to go, Fortunately, my son Josh was around and my neighbor Rob is always ready to try the drink, or in this case beer, of the week. So without further ado, here is the list in ascending order:

  1. Pipeworks G & T Ale. As David has described, G & T really means gin and tonic. I could taste those flavors, although they are subtle, but actually wished they were more prominent. The thing that really made me like this less (I liked all the beers so this is just an order of which I liked the most) was the odd mouth feel. That may be a wine term, but this beer had an odd viscosity that distracted from the flavor. My fellow tasters did not mind, and I think it rated higher with them.
  1. Bam Noire Farmhouse Ale. This beer had a wild yeast quality that gave it a welcome sour taste. It was complex, tasty and defied categorization. The body was really nice and it had a deep color that was also pleasant. Beers rarely live up to the label and/or web site description but this one came close. If it were part of a blind test I would have sworn this was a German beer.
  1. Une Annee Abbey Ale (Enkel). I still have questions about the brewery name and the beer name – is it an abbey ale or an enkel and what the heck is an enkel? Add to that the label description that talks about a “brett” taste and I was really confused. Brett, as it ends up, is a negative for wines and a positive for beers. It describes a leathery taste that I must have completely missed. But I loved the beer, it was smooth, had a complex flavor and a really nice color. The other tasters thought it too subtle, but they still liked it.
  1. Spiteful Brewing Can’t Someone Else Do It Double IPA. They had me with the label that was an illustration of two creatures (sloths I suppose) with shirts that read “sloth life.” The description suggested that the right amount of procrastination is always useful in getting someone else to take care of chores—a fantastic life lesson unless you are the one who gives in. David and I differ about IPAs. He feels hops are overused and I think they sing a song of flavor. This beer had the perfect combination of flavor and body to accompany any meal, especially the pizzas we paired it with. I recently tried a white whale beer (the heavily pursued Bell’s Hopslam) that was excellent, but this was better. Josh and I split this one and I wished I had stolen his share.

Jonathan’s take: I hope that my selections offer as much variety. The best part was the massive differences is each of these beers.

David’s take: I liked all of these beers and for different reasons, but, surprisingly, the beer I want to try again is the double IPA, which seemed especially good.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

I have already picked NC beers from some of my favorite breweries. I also found one that I had never heard of but it has an historical context. Last time I avoided IPAs, but this time I am going to try to make David like them, or at least one of them that is my favorite. Now we just need to get them shipped so he has time to taste over few days time.

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.

Whiskey (or Whisky) and the Old Fashioned

heavenProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

There are classic cocktails and there is the classic cocktail. If the Old Fashioned is not the most classic cocktail, it is on the very short list being considered. A cocktail, or bittered sling for you old fashioned types, is defined as a spirit, water, sugar and bitters. The Old Fashioned is traditionally a whiskey, sugar, water and bitters. There may have been a different bitter in the original recipe but since it is no longer available Angostura is the most common.

This may be one of the few drinks, despite its age, for which there is some consensus about the history. It was created in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1880’s at the Pendennis Club. The recipe was introduced to New Yorkers through one of the Pendennis Club members, Col. James Pepper, who had it made at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. There were variations that included different types of gin, brandy and other whiskeys and it is not too hard to imagine that rum was another alternative at that time.

The most traditional way to make an Old Fashioned uses straight sugar. The sugar, in lump or granular form, is muddled with a small amount of water. The whiskey and bitters are added followed by ice and a garnish of lemon peel. I chose a recipe that used simple syrup instead of the muddled sugar and water:

2 ounces whiskey (rye or bourbon classically)
.5 ounce simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitter
Lemon peel for garnish

Mix all ingredients in glass with ice, stir and strain into a glass (old fashioned of course) with a large chunk of ice then garnish with lemon peel. I also made a version with demerara simple syrup and orange bitters. Purists may argue that the classics should remain steadfast to the basic recipe, but this is a drink that has almost as many variations as the simple list of components permit.

The second part of this week’s selection was a whiskey tasting, in part to determine what to use in the cocktail. Thanks to this blog, I had a number of options to taste and friends contributed more. A group of us ended up trying two regular bourbons, one high proof bourbon, a wheat whiskey, a rye whiskey and one from Tennessee.

Tastings can be as detailed and complex as you want, but we settled on some introductory comments and instructions from Bourbon Jerry on what to look for and consider and a basic rating system. All the participants tried small, very small, tastings of numbered whiskeys (so there would not be any bias), rated them on a scale from 1 to 10 with the higher number the better rating, and added short comments if they chose.

Not too surprisingly, the higher end selection of the two bourbons was rated best. It was a little unexpected that the other straight bourbon, which by itself on ice has been a very popular brand with some of the regular bourbon drinkers, was the lowest rated. The wheat, rye, Tennessee and high proof bourbon all had similar ratings with notes that ranged from the basic “smooth” to the more detailed “tastes like pine trees.” Not exactly pure science, but an interesting way to compare and contrast. One final note – after the tasting it was hard to get folks to try the drink so maybe one endeavor or the other at a time would be better.

And Here’s David’s Review:

whiskers1As seriously as I took this tasting process—and I thought of it as the main event before making my Old Fashioned—my assessment was anything but scientific. Even if I put aside using one version of each whiskey to represent the style and overlook my suspect tasting apparatus, the task itself was troublesome.

When students miss the purpose of comparison-contrast analysis, I sometimes demonstrate with paperclips. The paperclips I pass around look identical but, on closer examination, differ in subtle ways. One is more tarnished, another noticeably re-bent into shape. One is slightly larger or smaller, a frailer gauge, another grade of metal, or looser than another. The point is that, when two things seem alike, you become more discerning and make subtle—we hope, more valuable—distinctions.

Whiskeys are so different it’s difficult to compare in subtle ways. Were they paperclips, they’d be a brass fastener and a bobby pin, an alligator clip and a clothes pin, or a surgical clamp. I wondered, “What do these seemingly unlike things have in common that makes them all whiskeys?”

Of course, you can look elsewhere for the technical answer, but as a taster (with some help from a friend, thank goodness), I recognized oak in nearly all and a mellow, rounded sweetness that, depending on the type, announced themselves or demurred. On top of that flavor base, the way they entered and exited my notice varied considerably.

A taster’s vocabulary is usually much more savvy, but comparing unlike things is tough. Six bourbons or scotches might incite subtler, more taster-worthy diction, as Jonathan’s process suggests. However, here’s my line-up, with preferences (and ranks) after each:

Scotch Whiskey (Glenmorangie Single Malt, 10 Year Old): Thanks to an unfortunate experience at a Revolutionary War reenactment many years ago, I have a pretty indelible sense of what scotch tastes like. It’s earthy, often peaty or smoky, and, compared to some of the other whiskeys on this list, seems harsher in its attack and more lingering in its aftertaste. Though the particular scotch I tried was mellower and less leathery than the Islay scotches I’ve tried, it nonetheless reminded me that scotch is the most distinctive whiskey, redolent of tannin and more sulfurous (to me) than the others.

Though I’m not a scotch man, I can appreciate its unabashed idiosyncrasies (4).

Irish Whiskey (Powers Gold Label): Depending on your taste, the multiple distillations of Irish Whiskey either make it smooth (and thus highly drinkable) or domesticated to the point of being too tame. To me, the Powers evoked caramel that almost erased the oak until it reappeared at the finish and created something refined, more gentle than bold. Fieriness and distinctively different components weren’t as notable in this Irish whiskey. Maybe the proof of two spirits—the scotch was stronger—accounts for that, but flavors appear to cooperate more in Irish whiskey.

Drinkable, partly because some flamboyance seems washed out by distillation (5).

Canadian Whisky (Bison Ridge Canadian Whisky, 8 Year): A fine line divides “subtle” and “confused.” People who love Canadian Whisky will say my tasting apparatus is flawed, but, in this field of whiskeys, the Canadian variety seemed tame, relatively uniform in medicinal flavor start to finish, thoroughly distilled. It could be the brand I chose, but this spirit possessed less woody or sweet overtones than its brother-whiskeys. Were they a family, Canadian Whiskey would be the reticent one—visitors lean in to catch a few words.

Canadian Whisky is solid, likeable, and maybe not ambitious enough for me (6).

Bourbon (Rebel Yell): Bourbon seems all about corn and displays a rounded gravity and sweetness that sets it apart from the other whiskeys. Any bitter or tannin-y flavors imparted by the oak are largely subdued by a taste that, for me, recalls cornbread. There’s something quite cooked about bourbon that some enjoy and some don’t. My tasting companion finds its grain elements so overabundant they distract from its spiritousness. Bourbon comes closest to the candied flavor of liqueurs (without their overt sugariness).

I like Bourbon’s recollection of cornbread, though I see why some don’t (2).

Rye (Rittenhouse): As a higher-proof rye whiskey, my version made itself known right away in a very alcohol-forward first impression. However, the sharp and spicy taste of rye also rests with rye itself, which—think about rye bread—can conjure anise or fennel. The sweet element in rye takes a second seat to an almost botanical taste, seeming more burnt—think pralines—than refined. Rye’s popularity in cocktails may rest in its capacity to echo whatever spice, sweetness, or botanical taste the other ingredients provide. One its own, its more direct, and for some, probably too harsh.

Among whiskeys, rye may be less palatable straight but is a welcome chameleon in cocktails (1).

Corn Whiskey/Moonshine (Buffalo Trace White Dog, Mash #1): Having encountered moonshine only in movies and television, I expected it to be close to ethyl alcohol in potency and distillation. However, the particular variety I chose reminded me much more of cachaca. It seemed uncooked, and, having never been aged in any sort of cask, nothing mitigated its almost candy corn smell and taste. Yes, it was potent (quite) but not at all in the medicinal way I thought. In fact, it felt closer to raw bourbon or rum than vodka.

This whiskey’s corn power and taste seem crude, which is a good and bad thing (3).

My choice for the Old Fashioned was Corn Whiskey—not because I liked it best but because it seemed the most dramatic. After tasting all those whiskeys, it seemed especially alcoholic to me. I see why the Old Fashioned is Don Draper’s favorite. It’s straight and sweet. Yet, I’d never in a million years make another with Corn Whiskey (and doubt he would either) because the spirit seems to steal the show.

Jonathan’s take: I am no purist, so the basic Old Fashioned offers endless possibilities and an excuse to acquire more bitters.

David’s take: Cocktails that promise variation and experimentation are a this not-so-savvy cocktailian’s dream.

Next Week (Proposed by David):

As my late and long posting indicates, this week seemed pretty ambitious to me. Next week, not so much. After a week of drinks that made me feel like I was being embraced by a series of grandfathers in wool cardigans, I thought it’d be nice to try a Cosmopolitan, an easy and breezy combination of vodka, cranberry juice, and orange liqueur… and quite a leap from Mad Men into Sex in the City.