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 Livorno

fireProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

One of the things I have worried about with this blog is excess. I am here to admit I have reached that point. Not in drink, but in literature. The basis of the cocktail blog is that we are tasting and experimenting which means that, except in very rare occasions, the weekly drink is only one or two cocktails. The books about spirits, though, have begun to mount especially in digital format. I had no idea there was so much variety to the genre of alcohol related non-fiction. The latest is Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits by Jason Wilson and it is the inspiration for this week’s drink.

The drink is the Livorno and the recipe is as follows:

1.5 ounce bourbon
.75 ounce Tuaca (tu’ a ka)
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Preserved or maraschino cherry

Fill glass with ice, add bourbon, Tuaca and bitters. Stir until cold and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry.

The main, and most interesting ingredient, is Tuaca an Italian liqueur with flavors of vanilla and citrus. Like many of the liqueurs, especially those from European countries, it has an interesting history. The original recipe goes back to the Renaissance period and was rediscovered by two Italian families the Tuonis and Canepas who lived in the city of Livorno. That recipe has evolved from what was once called Milk Cognac to a less alcoholic version that certainly contains no milk. Originally produced in Italy, the brand was purchased by liquor giant Brown-Forman of Louisville. It had reached a point that most of the product was made in Italy but exported to the U.S., so it is not surprising that the production has moved to the U.S. I should mention that to complete the Louisville connection, I chose a bourbon from the same company that is produced in that city – Old Forester.

Jason Wilson describes the liqueur in a chapter that focuses on St. Germain, Jagermeister and Tuaca. Each of these liqueurs has a fanciful history that stretches the imagination and one of them, Jagermeister, has reached a level of popularity through marketing and placement that far surpasses any history or tall tales. Tuaca was marketed and positioned to challenge Jagermeister in bars as a shot for the younger crowd, but I think the confused looks I received when I mentioned that to some recent college graduates speaks to the failure of that marketing. In fact, I would say the expressions of that same crowd when I served this cocktail speak to part of the reason for that.

Here’s David’s Review:

LivornoSaturday being my birthday, my wife and I invited guests for dinner and served them the Livorno. And, because I’ve become the Cliff Clavin of cocktails, I explained what Tuaca is, where the cocktail got its name, how the drink might be considered a Manhattan variation… yadda, yadda, yadda. I must have sounded pret-ty savvy because a guest asked me if I’d try the drink again prior to writing the review. I said “No.” Though I liked this drink, I didn’t need to take notes or swirl the cocktail around the glass or in my mouth.

When we tried whiskeys a couple of weeks ago, I watched some videos of tasters online and came away feeling inadequate. Perhaps you’ve had this experience watching a blu-ray DVD on your friends’ new floor-to-ceiling flat screen TV or listening to that super expensive sound system that sends waves through baffles or into an anchored sub-woofer or up into space and back. One whiskey taster online detected marshmallow charred over oak and mesquite smoke, and I thought the whiskey was kind of burn-y because I accidentally aspirated a sip.

So, if you’re not already, please regard my comments as the views of a well-meaning philistine. Tuaca, like many liqueurs I’d put in the TLAOL (Tippling Like An Old Lady) category, is quite sweet, syrupy even. The description on the bottle describes it as “A Vanilla Citrus Liqueur,” but I don’t really taste the citrus at all—certainly not the bitter citrus of a peel. Tuaca has a sort of amaretto or praline flavor, faintly nutty and matching mellow bourbon or complementing the sharp taste of Rye.

The spiciness of the Rittenhouse Rye I used and the warm, spirituous Tuaca, in fact, largely erased the Peychaud Bitters. One of my guests—who seems far more savvy than I—commented that this cocktail, lacking bitter elements, couldn’t stand up to the complexity and depth of a Manhattan. Though I like sweet drinks, that response makes sense to me.

One of the most interesting conversations at dinner was about the nature of cocktails, whether they are like cooking, which accommodates improvisation, or like baking, which sometimes punishes experimentation with abject failure. No doubt, invented cocktails can be utter flops (particularly when they include Crème de Menthe) but I like to believe cocktails are more like cooking because I have all these silly things in my liquor cabinet (minus Crème de Menthe) to fool around with. Maybe I just can’t taste failure, but, when it comes to mixology, I have an infinite capacity for hope.

If I do try the Livorno again, I may experiment with a lower measure of Tuaca to cut some of the sweetness of the drink, and make up the difference with a bittersweet vermouth like Carpano Antica or dry vermouth. The alterations might add another dimension, or—like that time I tried to bake cookies on the grill—only create another tragic tale.

Jonathan’s take: Bourbon overwhelms any subtleties of the Tuaca, but for a sipping drink by the fire it’s not too bad.

David’s Take: I enjoyed the Livorno. It could be I was swayed by the wonderful company, but it seemed a warm and wonderful way to start an evening.

Next Week (Proposed by David):

Moscow Mules have become a staple of bar menus. I’m not sure what those copper cups add to the drink, but I do think they give it an appealing festive feel. Up to now, I’ve stayed away from making Moscow Mules at home because I didn’t have the proper bar ware. No more! My wife gave me two cups for my birthday, so it’s time to try one (or some variation). If the cup is important, maybe Jonathan and his wife can have one out at a bar, but it’d be interesting to see what the cup adds (if anything at all). Shouldn’t it be the same drink, regardless of its container?