Year Two: The Best and Worst

As promised, we are taking a look at the highlights (and lowlights) of our second year of tasting cocktails.

Jonathan

JanetoblameThis has been a wonderful year for the virtual cocktail club. That’s mostly because it has been less virtual. We have enjoyed beverages with friends, neighbors, groups and, most importantly, family. David and I even had a couple of drinks together this year. I hate to try to summarize it for fear that something will be left out although there are plenty of cocktails that stand out for one reason or another.

I don’t know about David, but I cannot recall attending any school that named superlatives. You know – “most likely to make friends with a cell mate” or “best dressed person studying phrenology” or even “class rodeo clown”. Yes, that was my second rodeo clown reference this year even if this one makes no sense.

I went back and reviewed all of the drinks we tried this year. Reviewed, not tried. What stood out the most is that we have picked better drinks. There have been a few duds, but for the most part the cocktails have been interesting, sometimes classic sometimes not, and have included a great number of ingredients. Based on that, rather than rank the drinks I would like to offer my superlatives.

Best name/worst drink: The Monkey Incident

It is a bit unseemly to pick a drink I named, but I loved it (the name not the drink). It came to me in a conversation with a co-worker that had absolutely nothing to do with cocktails. I think the reason I liked it so much is that there is something amusing to me about any odd animal reference, and I don’t think it is just me.

I have an enduring memory of one of my nieces, the one most directly related to David, his daughter. We did not see them that often but there was a period that whenever we did she would always make some reference to baboons. What made it so funny is that when she said the word it was almost as if it burst from her like there was an actual baboon crashing into the room.  “And then he danced like a manic baboon!”

The drink wasn’t funny and it wasn’t good. It was our first, and I think only, frozen drink. It was also the only use of crème de banana and now I am stuck with a bottle of the stuff. Bad drink, bad liqueur.

Best use of unique spirits that were actually good: Goldschläger drinks

Goldschläger was used in two different drinks and both were surprisingly good. The first was the Black & Gold which we used to celebrate another niece’s graduation from college. The intent was to create a drink that matched the school colors with the gold flakes floating in a dark spirit. It was so effective that the drink actually tasted good. Nice surprise.

The second use was the 3GT which mixed ginger beer, gin, Goldschläger and tonic. My take was that it could be a staple on bar menus and I still think that. A mix of ginger, botanicals, cinnamon and quinine seems quite odd until you taste it. The interplay is one of the few examples of a drink that is not dominated by a single ingredient.

Most likely to make someone say “what the heck is that”: Pear Bourbon Cider

The base of that drink was a pear cinnamon cider from Trader Joe’s. That cider was so good that I went back less than a week later to get some more. It was gone from the shelves and I suspect it is one of those Trader products that don’t last long like the black pepper cashews that disappeared a few years ago but were so good that I still look for them every time I go in. The cider and bourbon were best friends. So much so that you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. I knew I had used bourbon as the base and that pear was the fruit but would bet that folks drinking the cocktail could not have identified either specifically. The essence of a well-blended drink.

Ingredient most able to make others superlative: Any drink with a sparkling wine

We tried at least three drinks that included a sparkling wine and each of them was fantastic. The Vanilla Bourbon Champagne, Amazonia and Sparkling Peach Sangria all stood out and the effervescence from the bubbly was a big part of each. I could probably include the orange wheat shandy, which benefited in the same way from the beer, in that group too. It may not be manly, whatever that means, but the specific carbonation of wine and beer lifts the drink to another level.

Even better for me, it is not a drink that I want to drink in quantity rather it is one that is worth savoring. Pinky extended, of course.

King and Queen of the Prom: Prickly Pear Margarita

David is right—we are more savvy. I would be one of the last people that a person should ask to whip up a cocktail without use of a recipe because we make a different one each week, and I don’t repeat them enough to commit the bartending to memory. That said, I know so much more about methods, concepts and individual, often odd, ingredients than I ever did. What once was a foreign language when reading drink menus is now familiar and there is a good chance I even know some of the history or background to it.

When I was at The Last Word in San Antonio I asked the bartender if they made their own shrubs. He described a couple of new ones they were working on for future drinks, and I told him about the simple apple shrub we had made a few weeks before. Fortunately, my son David was the only person to hear the conversation, and he is far too nice to tell me what a cocktail nerd I have become.

The prickly pear margarita is great example of the classic mix of ingredients that make up a good drink. Spirit, sweet, sour and water are the base but in this case they were all twists on each of those categories. Front and center were two components made for each other – mezcal and prickly pear syrup. The mezcal is distinctive and smoky providing the platform for everything else and the syrup balanced it with a unique earthy (David’s very apt description) sweetness. They are cousins that seem more like brothers which is fitting since our oldest brother provided the homemade prickly pear syrup that we used. The drink was made complete with more sweetness from orange liqueur and the sour element of lime provided in two different ways. There is both fresh juice and a concentrated limeade that begged for the ice bath to cut its strength. This cocktail deserves its crown(s).

David

drinkHere’s a different approach to this task. I’m going to dare a few thoughts about the aesthetics of cocktails.

After two years of making a different cocktail almost every week, I guess I’m entitled to some conclusions… or at least some opinions. When we last engaged in this week’s exercise of choosing hits, misses, and stuff between, my assessments seemed rather scattershot. It’s hard to say why some cocktails “work” (and others don’t), and anyone examining my choices might discover no pattern, no underlying principle, or specific perspective, no aesthetic.

That’s okay—I’m hanging onto our no-pressure not-so-savvy status as long as possible—but I am beginning to recognize (and anticipate, even) what I like in a drink. For me, it all comes down to balance, interest, and impact.

Balance seems the most obvious trait—you want each ingredient to count for something and you want them to play together well. You seek harmony. You don’t want a shandy that’s too orange-y or Bloody Mary still too married to tomato juice. A whiskey too sour isn’t appealing, nor is anything over-cardamomed. Two of my least favorite weeks involved milk or cream—the wassail and the cherry pisco hot chocolate. In each case, the ingredients seemed at war with one another, each vying for attention. One of the drinks I return to often is the 3GT, a combination of flavors that, while quite different, combine well.

We’ve had a fruity year. That is, we’ve tried a number of cocktails featuring components like grapefruit, figs, prickly pears, rhubarb, peaches, strawberries, cranberry, and even pumpkin. If you count citrus, almost every drink contains fruit. More broadly, however, I’d say each has an interest, a central taste everything else dances around. Balance and interest may seem contradictory—one suggests a meeting of equals and the other a boss—but the two traits are more paradoxical to me. You need to taste everything, but without something particularly interesting, the drink doesn’t work. And it need not be fruit. Take the Vanilla Bourbon Champagne Cocktail. The name is a pile-up of sorts—or an effort to give every actor a line—but the vanilla seems the star, echoed by the mellow taste of bourbon and enhanced by the effervescence of champagne. I’m with Jonathan here… just about any cocktail with sparkling wine is good… well, not every.

When I say a cocktail needs impact, I don’t mean to say it’s potent—though potency is perhaps the most obvious impact in a cocktail—it could be its appearance, as with Tiki drinks or spice, as with the Medicine Man or Chai as in the Chai Town. I realize impact over laps with interest, but if interest is the central flavor cocktails dance around, the impact is the great enticer, attracting eyes, nose, or sensibility. Alcohol-y drinks aren’t for everyone. I’ve talked about my sister-in-law’s preference for fruity drinks, but a spirituous drink has some appeal for me, promising a break from the usual, especially when the usual seems so challenging. In that vein, I enjoyed the Jane Russell and the Monte Carlo, both of which matched spirit against liqueur against bitters, intense, potent, but distinctive.

This aesthetic of balance, interest, and impact may seem to exclude those standards like the whiskey sour or gin and tonic or martini, but I don’t think they do. Oddly, one of my favorite drinks over the last two years has been the Horse’s Neck, which might not seem to have so much going for it—just ginger ale, bourbon, and bitters. My justification is be that an effective cocktail needs some measure of each trait, and that, at times, one trait makes it all work.

Jonathan’s Take: I thought we would have run out of ideas by now, but on to year three.

David’s Take: Still not savvy, but getting there.

Next week (Proposed By Jonathan):

The Daedalus is cocktail that I found in a book I have used for previous proposals – The Art of the Bar. It is one of few drinks I have seen that uses Irish whiskey as the primary liquor, excluding shots, and is combined here with a ginger syrup that also includes peppercorns to add a little spice. It should be a simple mix to start, again, our next year of virtual drinks together.

 

Advertisements

Wassail

jmwassailProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

Let’s get this part over with:

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green;

Here we come a-wandering so fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too.

And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,

And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year.

There are more verses but that should be enough to get the song stuck in your brain. But if not, maybe you need a little wassail.

Some time ago, when we tasted the French 75 as a matter of fact, I discussed toasts as part of the drinking experience. I’m not sure how I missed wassail at that time because the name probably derives from a toast, and the use of the word “toast” itself may come from this drink. There are different spellings but the derivation of the name of this punch probably began with waes hael a cheer offered to wish either “good health” or that the receiver “be fortunate.” Since that cheer was offered in conjunction with the drinking of a wine or apple cocktail, the punch became wassail and the cheering/singing wassailing. The toast part is a little more contrived.

One use of the wassail punch was to celebrate the Twelfth Night of Christmas with a blessing of the orchard. A mulled apple punch was made, and revelers surrounded the oldest apple tree. Singing and dancing ensued to help bless the tree, the orchard and the harvest so that it would be bountiful. This ritual included soaking pieces of bread, toast, and then hanging that toast in the tree. Thus the wassailing, singing and wishing of good health was a toast. It’s stretch, but it makes as much sense as soaking toast in your punch.

The recipe I used for wassail put this drink well into the difficult category, and it may be hard to find a version that does not. It comes from another blog, The Nourished Kitchen, and can be summarized as follows:

Separate six eggs, mix the yolks until shiny and the beat the whites to a stiff peak. Fold those two together and then temper that mix with some of the mulling liquid. Finally, remove the sachet, combine the egg mixture with the mulled cider, and drop the baked apples and orange into the punch. Serve warm with an optional piece of toast floating in the drink.

I made the punch ahead on Christmas Eve and then refrigerated it while we went to a candlelight service. When it was first made the eggs formed a foamy meringue floating on top and did not combine well. Reheated, that foam combined but was a little clumpy so in retrospect, I would suggest making, mixing, and drinking. Either way, it was a pleasant punch and here’s hoping it brings good fortune and health.

Here’s David’s Review:

IMG_0538My favorite:

Wassail! wassail! All over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

All week I’ve looked forward to finally tasting the drink I’ve sung about so often. Though I have no white maple tree bowl to drink it from, wassail seems the perfect complement to the traditions of Christmas, especially as, with guests, we gathered a group to drink it.

The recipe, I admit, was daunting. As Jonathan did, the one I chose calls for separated (and them separately whisked) eggs that you then fold back together and temper before adding them to the drink. Not to mention the baked apples and the clove studded orange, the slow heating of the liquid to approach but not achieve boiling, spices added and spices bobbing a cheesecloth bag. After a full Christmas Day in the kitchen, I grumbled, “This better be good.”

Was it?

Well, it was warm, which was welcome. After last week, I wanted to redeem hot cocktails, and I’ve decided they can be good—not something I might have said last week.

And wassail isn’t as syrupy as I feared. The cider adds some pleasant sweetness, and, as I substituted one bottle of not-too-hoppy brown ale for one bottle of hard cider, the wassail was spicy without tasting like one of those fruitcakes people always say are the best thing you’ve ever eaten (that end up looking and tasting like sugared fireplace logs).

The addition of eggs wasn’t so bad either. Wassail is hardly eggnog. The whipped eggs don’t incorporate much. The drink is still thin, just with a cloud of froth on top. For me the cloud didn’t add much, but perhaps it’s meant as a neutral element to balance against the spices. As long as I didn’t think of that front as raw eggs, I could enjoy it.

I’ve never been a fan of mulled wine, and I was grateful to discover that wassail isn’t mulled wine either, but a drink with its own character—mild and not so sour, flavorful and not so aromatic—that reminds me of bread more than fruit.

All in all, I enjoyed it. Would I make it again? Maybe if I were having a party, but it won’t make my list of favorite drinks, nor will I ever have the gumption to order it out. At least, however, I’ll have something to say if I ever sing about it. “I’ve tried that,” I can say, “it’s pretty good.”

David’s Take: I’m grateful to have tried wassail, even if it seems too laborious to consume more than once a year.

Jonathan’s take: I’ll never hear that song again and wonder what the heck wassail is, that’s for sure.

Next Week (Proposed by Circumstances):

Perhaps you’ve seen the Food Network Program, “Chopped.” At the beginning of each episode, the host Ted Allen tells the contestant, “Each course has its own basket of mystery ingredients, and you must use every ingredient in the basket in some way. Also available to you are pantry and fridge…our judges will critique your dishes on presentation, taste, and creativity.” In honor the new year, Jonathan and I thought it might be fun to stage a “Chopped” of our own, by creating four categories:

a.) basic spirits (rum, whiskeys, gin, vodka, tequila)

b.) liqueurs

c.) fortified wines and the like (cognac, port, sherry, brandy)

d.) other items we’ve purchased to make cocktails (bitters, simple syrups, spices, etc.).

We’ll write the name of each item we have in the four categories then draw one from each—four mystery ingredients in all—to create a cocktail in 30 minutes. Our “pantry and fridge” will be whatever else we have around—juice, soda, etc. Next week, we’ll reveal our recipes… and let you know if (according to whatever judges we get) you should try them.