Equal Parts Cocktail

ughProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Mixologist author Kara Newman describes equal parts cocktails as, “Easy to remember but challenging to develop.” Well, I guess that depends on your standards, on both counts. If you’re just looking to balance sweet, sour, bitter, and spirit, a host of combinations will develop in interesting ways. However, if you’ve had a few of these cocktails, remembering might be harder than you imagine.

Newman’s book, Shake. Stir. Sip.: 40 Effortless Cocktails Made in Equal Parts, will come out in October. The book, she says, encourages versatility. She urges cocktailians not only to create new drinks but also to re-envision and re-proportion some favorites.

What appealed to me was simplicity. For once, I might make something I can remember when someone says, “How do you make that?

I’ve been experimenting with the equal parts cocktail for the last month or so—and sorry readers, our blog-silence is my fault, not Jonathan’s. I’ve reached important conclusions:

  • plan before you act—failing means failing entirely
  • don’t expect a single ingredient to establish itself as the star—maybe that will happen, but probably not
  • use ingredients you like by themselves
  • add some non-alcoholic elements; otherwise, the drink or it will be lethal

I made a number of these cocktails, and most I invented. I’ll offer two for your consideration—one sweet and one sour

Sam I Om (a Mimosa Variation)

one ounce each…

Gin

St Germaine

Lillet Rose

Orange Juice

Tonic

Shake the first four ingredients, add to glass and top with tonic

Whatever

one ounce each…

Lime Juice

Mezcal

Benedictine

Triple Sec

“Take a ratio that already works,” Newman suggests, “and just swap out elements one at a time until you end up with a drink you enjoy.” And maybe that’s all the advice you need to begin experimenting.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

IMG_0218-2The first thought when I read David’s proposal was that I should make a sweet and a non-sweet drink. The second thought was that this idea would also allow me to re-visit the concept of layered drinks and the fascinating, to me, use of specific gravity to figure out the order of the layers. Neither thought was realized with great success.

There were all sorts of sweet and semi-sweet drinks that came to mind. I knew that I did not want to proportion a group of different alcohols which meant that I needed fruit drinks, milk products, syrups and the like to mix as a non-alcoholic portion. All of those make the drink sweet. I just could not come up with the equivalent in a savory or bitter drink although I hope on reading David’s intro that he was able to do so. The ultimate choice in this category was my version of the key lime cocktail:

1 ounce vanilla vodka
1 ounce tequila
1 ounce half and half
1 ounce pineapple juice
1 ounce lime syrup (maybe it was cheating but I mixed key lime juice and simple syrup 50/50)

Shake everything together with ice and strain into a glass rimmed with crushed ginger snaps and garnish with a lime.

The result was an all too white, fairly sweet drink that fell well into the tiki category. Good but one was plenty.

One of the main purposes of the layered drink, besides testing specific gravity, was to use a liqueur from South Africa that seems to be gaining the popularity it deserves. Amarula is sweet cream liqueur from South Africa made from fruit derived from the marula tree. That tree is also known as the elephant tree due to the pachyderms fondness for it. Interestingly, elephants eat the fruit, bark and branches of the tree so they can be hazardous to its health except in the spread of fertilized seeds in their dung.

I made two layered drinks with amarula the first of which is called the Monk’s hood. That one, with specific gravity in parentheses is Kahlua (1.14), Frangelico (1.08) and amarula (1.05). The second one substituted white crème de cacao (1.14) for the Kahlua. The gravities are so close that separation was going to be difficult so I used chilled shot glasses, poured each liqueur over a bar spoon to introduce them delicately and chilled the drink to let them separate further. None of that worked very well but the drinks were great. As great as doing shots for a not too young person can be that is.

Jonathan’s take: I am sure that sometime this week I will wake in the middle of the night and realize a proportional drink with rye whiskey that I could have made. Then I will go back to sleep.

David’s take: Reviewing a whole class of cocktails? Clearly more empirical evidence is needed.

Next time (Proposed By Jonathan):

Vodka is not my favorite. It must not be David’s either since it is the major spirit that we use the least. The time has come, however, to try a cocktail with vodka at its core. There are plenty of classics that we could, perhaps should, try. There are also variations of those – such as the madras version of the screwdriver. It’s the beginning of blueberry season though so I am proposing the gravely named Razzle Dazzle cocktail.”

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Basil Watermelon Cooler

coolerJMProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

Last week’s introduction suggested this would be one of the drinks of summer. And what says summer more than watermelon and fresh herbs? Just like last week there is no back story to this drink. No famous bar, classic recipe, or standard ingredients. Our now slightly famous Sid doesn’t even have anything to say about it or where it came from.

The idea was to use items that are typically only available in summer – in this case, fresh basil and watermelon. Add to that mix ginger root, ginger ale and a spirit (vodka) and you have a drink:

3 large basil leaves
1 slice peeled ginger
1 two inch square of watermelon
.5 ounce simple syrup
2 ounce vodka
.5 ounce lime juice
Ginger ale

Place basil leaves, ginger slice, watermelon and simple syrup in shaker and muddle. Add ice, vodka, lime juice and shake. Strain into double old-fashioned glass filled with ice (I used a fine sifter to strain), top with ginger ale and garnish with watermelon and basil. The recipe rates the difficulty as “complicated” and it is. Get everything ready, invite friends, and make plenty.

There is some version of this drink on most summer cocktail lists at bars that vary their menu by season. And by some version, I don’t mean a watermelon and basil drink, I mean a fruit of summer and some herb mixed in an interesting way, a seltzer, soda or bubbly added and all followed with a chaser of refreshment. This particular combination is not going to show up in a book of cocktail classics, but if you are looking for something to add to the pantheon of summer libations such as the margarita or mojito, it is well worth the effort.

A couple of interesting parts of the recipe that I omitted. The vodka is very precisely identified as Grey Goose. I am no expert, as we have established, but I wonder if anyone could identify a version made with that vodka versus another wheat vodka, or even a corn or potato vodka. In fact, we tried a version with vanilla vodka and other than a slight aftertaste it was hardly distinguishable from the original. The other interesting part is that the ginger ale is not specified. As I have crowed before, in Charlotte we have Blenheim Ginger Ale and the drink is the better for it. The muddled ginger adds some spice, but the Blenheim asserts that spice in a wonderful way.

coolerAnd Here’s David’s Review:

Due to my generally cranky outlook, anything called a “cooler” doesn’t fill me with giddy anticipation. The word seems forever linked to bottles of ersatz wine occupying the 7 Eleven refrigerator case. They usually have “breeze” in their titles and come in unlikely flavors never meeting in nature. Besides, anyone expecting to be cooled by alcohol doesn’t understand its physiological effects. Don’t expect to survive in the desert with a bottle of rot-gut whiskey—I learned that from the westerns Jonathan and I watched as boys.

This cooler ought to shed the name but distinguishes itself in some important ways. First, the collection of fresh ingredients adds a great deal, especially this time of year when fresh is welcome. Watermelon is appropriately named, and the juice is wonderfully light and sweet. The ginger and basil, muddled together, give the drink deft spiciness as well. The combination surprised me, as they unexpectedly harmonized.

Like Jonathan, I like to try more than one drink… er, I meant variation… so I made a second version with some basil brown sugar simple syrup I’d created for a cocktail party earlier in the summer. Watermelon is watery, and I see why the simple syrup is there—to give the drink additional gravity. However, to me, my second version excelled the first because it gave more taste to the original, which seemed simply sweet. The herbal overtone deserves more heft from the other ingredients, particularly since I have only pedestrian ginger ale and, alas, no Blenheim.

Fruit drinks seem less potent to me, and the temptation to try another version—this one with a spirit other than vodka—almost possessed me. My one substantial objection to this cocktail is its base spirit, which adds little or nothing other than alcohol.

Okay, okay, I’m not crazy about vodka, but I also wonder if bourbon might further complement the spiciness of the drink (and my brown sugar simple syrup), while contributing a mellowness and depth the drink could use. My wife says that’d create too much competition, and it wouldn’t be a cooler anymore. I say, maybe you don’t find depth in a “cooler,” but I still think the drink would be refreshing, not too potent, and tasty.

David’s Take: A great drink for the season… though I may play with the ingredients enough to justify a name change.

Jonathan’s take: Yeah Sam, I’ll take the usual. You know that fruity one with the watermelon, basil and ginger. Yup, that one.

Next Week (proposed by David):

I’d like to test my theory that bourbon might work as a summer spirit too, and, as the 4th is coming up, I’m proposing another summer cocktail, this one called The LiberTea. This cocktail combines ice tea and bourbon and a honey liqueur (or just plain honey). All the variations online are for a party, but I will work from the proportions to create a few servings. The recipes also call for basil, but, as we just did basil this week, I may substitute mint… or try both and compare.

Infused Vodka

20131215_163145Proposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

The popularity of vodka is no doubt related to its neutrality. The most basic of spirits, it is almost entirely alcohol, ethanol specifically, and water. It can be made from a variety of sugars—complex or otherwise. Though potatoes may be considered the classic food to supply the ethanol after yeast digestion, the majority of vodkas are made from grains like wheat, barley, rye, corn and sorghum. Other vodkas are produced using fruits including the popular grape and even exotics such as horseradish, sugar beets and prickly pear cactus.

There are also a huge variety of brands and producers that cover the globe. It seems like there is a vodka made in every country and for that matter in every setting. Moonshine is nothing more than a homemade vodka fermented and distilled then left at higher alcohol content by skipping the “blooming” of added water. The loyalty to certain brands within that variety of producers is a wonder of marketing. Some years ago, I remember watching a magazine style news show that tested vodka brand loyalty through a blind taste test. Not surprisingly, people had difficulty identifying their brand, and, in many cases, their top choice in the taste test was not the one they ordered or bought the most often.

The idea this week was to take that neutral spirit and create unique flavors beyond those so prevalent in the market. Two of the flavors were not so much suggested as they were prescribed – vanilla/cardamom (a nod to The Splendid Table and Lynne Rosetto Kasper) and orange/chipotle. The third flavor combination was left as a wild card for each of us and the proposal included a challenge to use one of the flavored vodkas in a cocktail.

I knew that the infused vodkas I created would start with a classic vodka, but the third flavor variation was a difficult decision. I used a Polish vodka, Luksusowa, which is made with potatoes, although I need to be honest and admit there is no way I could identify it if given a blind taste test. My search for flavor ideas led me to the familiar that differed very little from what is on the mass market to the bizarre and there was no lacking for suggestions. One Pinterest site (I don’t pin myself but viewed it) I found had no less than 54 links to different ideas. The final choice was lemongrass/ginger candy.

It is a little embarrassing to admit that after all that reading, consideration, and some amount of consternation, my final cocktails did not include the wildcard choice. The classic White Russian, and a variant of it, were the cocktails of choice. The first version used 1.5 ounces each of the orange/chipotle vodka and Kahlua topped with two ounces of half and half shaken to provide a froth. A second version was much more seasonal and was a mix of 1.5 ounce parts of the vanilla/cardamom and Kahlua topped with frothed eggnog. The latter was the better of the two, but both benefited greatly from the infused flavors.

Some observations on infusing. It does not take long to impart the flavors of the additives to the vodka and bitter flavors, like the chipotle and orange, need to be monitored to make sure they don’t sit too long before straining them out. Even with the standard 40% alcohol content of vodka, it is a good idea to make sure you start with really clean vessels and to let it infuse in the refrigerator. The final product now resides in my freezer since they are flavorful enough to serve as a simple syrupy shot to party guests. As I suggested while channeling Martha, these would make nice Christmas gifts in a decorative bottle with written cocktail suggestion. Finally, I was going to use this concept to introduce the subject of classic toasts, but with David’s permission will save that for the end of this month.

gypsyHere’s David’s “Review”:

“Infused” means the alcohol picks up the flavor of whatever it contacts. How much time that take may vary, but it’s bound to happen. You could put a used gym sock in a mason jar with vodka and a transformation would occur. As Jonathan reported, the research I did online suggested so many options I had trouble choosing—there was basil-infused vodka and gummy bear-infused vodka and chai and horseradish and honeysuckle and milk and peanut butter cup and tomato…. and doughnut.

My own choice of infusion was Earl Grey and toasted marshmallows, and, within a few minutes, the marshmallows were gone and the vodka smelled and looked like tea. I’m not sure of the chemistry, but the process seems almost instant. I fretted over how long to keep the chipotle or vanilla in the jar, but a few tastes along the way told me—take out the cardamom now, take out the peppers, leave in the orange peels for a bit longer.

The choice of cocktail presented another challenge. No drink recipes call for Earl Grey infused vodka, so coming up with a good possibility required finding complementary flavors, a taste that might meld in some way. At first, I considered mixing each vodka with the same ingredient—grenadine seemed promising—but decided instead any ambitious cocktailian (not-so-saavy as he may be) wouldn’t look for so generic a solution.

I made a Gypsy cocktail, which combines a double part of vodka and a single part of Benedictine. I’ve grown fond of Benedictine during this cocktailian experiment. It appeals to me that, at any given moment, only three people know its recipe. I also like the taste, which is sweet yet herbal, complex and warm.

With Earl Grey, it was too much. The two forces fought and only a bitter stalemate remained. The marshmallow cowered behind the other flavors. The golden brown color lied—nothing mellow here, move along.

vodkasThe second Gypsy, however, delivered much more vividly. To start, cardamom and vanilla seem friendly and, combined with Benedictine, the mixture seemed amiable. I’ve said before that the best cocktails seem to hide their individual parts, and that certainly applied with Benedictine and vanilla-cardamom. Had I tried it without knowing its components, I might have had trouble guessing.

All in all, I enjoyed this process. I’m a little scared of the chipotle-orange vodka, but I intend to use it. I’m wondering now if vodka is my only choice, if some other spirit, rye perhaps, might welcome a friendly complementary flavor for infusing.

David’s take: I’m one of those people who believe vodka is one step from chemical alcohol—flavorless and potent. Infusing is one half-step more toward other spirits.

Jonathan’s take: The infusions really make me want to try making my own bitters, but for now I think I will just keep mixing what I made with eggnog.

Next Week (proposed by David):

It’s time to start the holidays in earnest, and I’m going to propose a Tom and Jerry, which isn’t named after the cartoon characters but has a much more venerable history, especially in the Midwest where it’s the favorite holiday libation instead of egg nog. Plus it’s served warm, a new adventure for us.

The La Marque

Proposed by: JonathanLa Marque

Reviewed by: David

The first cocktail in this endeavor was the Tallulah. It was a nostalgic nod to combining cola and salted peanuts. You can go back through the weeks to find our reviews, but in general it was someone else’s nostalgia and made me start thinking about some food or beverage that David and I shared in our past that could inspire a cocktail.

The other piece of background that many of you probably already know that David wrote a book, The Lost Work of Wasps, that is a series of essays about memory and memories. It is a fantastic exploration of what we remember, how we recall things and some of the thoughts about memory that others have shared. The first thought that stood out to me in reading it are that memories are as unique as those who hold them. Just as a single event can be perceived differently by two people observing it at the same time, our memories are shaded by our perception immediately and shaped by that perception over time. The second thing I thought about is how it is not always the earth-shattering that we recall most vividly, but instead those things that resonate with us no matter how seemingly trivial. It is that last thought that brought me back to Big Red Soda.

Big Red Soda dates back to 1927, or so the label tells me. It was a regional soft drink only distributed in Texas and Kentucky and was unique for both its flavor and nuclear red color. Described as an American cream soda, it does not have a flavor associated with red (think cherry or strawberry) as much as it does the vanilla presence of cream soda. Other flavor descriptors include lemon and orange, although from my own perspective there is something “red” to it. The rights are now owned by a national company and it is available all over, which is something I did not realize when I sought it out during a visit to Texas recently.

The memory part is that it stands out as the drink of our childhood. There were always the ubiquitous colas and variations, but Big Red was unique to where we lived. It was a special treat to go the 7-11 or gas station within walking distance or when our Mother bought a six pack. It was also a great disappointment when our other brother, the oldest of five children, explained in logical detail why the extra bottle of every six pack was rightfully his. Just as David explored in his book, I am sure there are flaws to this memory, but before trying it again I could always recall its presence and the odd color without any recollection of the exact taste.

My cocktail version was never intended to be a perfect mimic. The most important parts were vanilla, the red color and carbonation. It is a very sweet soft drink and losing some of that was a good trade off for the adult alcoholic version. The drink starts with vanilla vodka, one of the astounding number of flavored vodkas available, and includes Grenadine, a cocktail staple, in a made-at-home version. The red is achieved with pomegranate in part because of taste but mostly because, where we grew up in south Texas, pomegranate bushes grew well enough that they could be encountered in many yards. The following is the recipe I came up with through the help of a taste-testing spouse and friends, and yes, I made them try the original Big Red first:

1.5 ounce vanilla vodka (I didn’t skimp here and went with Stoli’s)

1 ounce triple sec for the orange

1 ounce grenadine (recipe for home made follows)

3 ounces club soda

lemon wedge to garnish

Mix all the ingredients, add ice and stir.

This version of Grenadine is less sweet and, though I may be color blind, got me mighty close to the right color:

1/4 cup sugar (I used demerara sugar because I had it for another drink)

1 cup pure pomegranate juice

seeds from 1/2 fresh pomegranate

1 small lemon

x

Bring sugar, pomegranate juice and the slightly smashed seeds of half a pomegranate to a boil, then reduce to simmer for at least five minutes to concentrate it to a more syrupy consistency. Once that is done, halve the lemon, squeeze the juice into the syrup and drop the halves into the syrup. Let it steep and cool then remove the lemons, strain it through cheese cloth and add a little regular vodka as a preservative if you think it will stay in your refrigerator more than a couple of weeks. Seems like a lot of trouble, but worth it for a less sweet grenadine.

Here’s to memories and a drink I call the La Marque in remembrance of a the small town in Texas where we grew up.

And here’s David’s review:

My brother has me at a disadvantage here. I remember my older brother’s elaborate argument for the special privilege of the sixth soda but don’t remember Big Red nearly as well as Jonathan does. I might have more luck recreating a cocktail based on Yoo-hoo than this one… as horrible as the thought of a Yoo-hoo cocktail seems to me. With no clear memory to match it against, the La Marque seemed appropriately sweet, appropriately complex, and appropriately flavorful. I wish I could compare it to Big Red, but smells and flavors seem hardest for me to recall. They say it is the most evocative sense, and that’s certainly true. But you either have those sense memories or don’t. And I don’t. That said, I could approach this drink without a clear context, and I’d loved it.

I especially liked the grenadine, which I do remember as I bring back the days we wandered through our neighborhood, pillaging gardens for pomegranates our neighbors must have hoped to keep to themselves.

Rather than Triple Sec, I chose a cordial I might drink later, Mandarine Napoleon, which presented more tangerine flavor than orange, a sweet and astringent flavor to balance and complement the lemony (but mellow) pomegranate. I think it added a different undertone, something more bitter and spicy than pure orange might have. Sorry Jonathan, I just couldn’t face a neglected bottle of triple sec in my bar.

I have to say again what a difference homemade grenadine makes! My recipe wasn’t quite as complex as Jonathan’s—I used pomegranate juice exclusively without any real pomegranate seed—but the effect was just as dramatic, introducing a distinctive and rich element, fruity and lush.

This cocktail may be the adult version of Big Red, less sweet and more complicated than the original, but it also stands on its own, without the connection. Hats off to my brother for creating such an interesting and innovative cocktail. I’d like to come up with something so evocative myself. …I’m thinking.

Jonathan’s Take: La Marque sweep the cocktail scene? No. Was it good? Yup

David’s Take: I’d order this cocktail—it was interesting and refreshing, true to our Texas roots, so what’s not to like?

Next Week (proposed by David):

My wife and I will be visiting in San Antonio, where my sister and mom live. I’d like to introduce them to a new spirit, something outside their ken, so I’ve decided to use Cachaca and recreate the national drink of Brazil, Caipirinha de Uva. I know my brother-in-law is fond of martinis, so I hope he’ll be okay with this wine, fruit, and rum cocktail.