Spiked Pear Cider

img_1799Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Thanks to this cocktail blog, our history with good and bad holiday drinks is well-chronicled. I won’t return to Tom and Jerrys—ever—and the French 75—though it remains my favorite champagne drink. The time has come to move on, say goodbye to 2016, thankfully, and try something new.

As I mentioned last time, a Google search for “Unconventional Holiday Cocktails” turns up choices like Peppermint Martini, Spiced Coconut Hot White Chocolate, and other drinks rejected for being too sweet, too thick, too complicated, too unnatural, and/or too Seussian. Mostly they were too frou-frou. Though I’m not Fezziwig or the most uproarious holiday party guest, I’m no Scrooge. I try to keep my bah-humbugs to a minimum and keep the season well, but, sometimes, when I look at a Yummly page quilted with coupes of technicolor libations on elaborate tablescapes created for this time of year, I cry a little inside. Does it have to be such a big deal, really?

Plus, while I’m showing off my decision tree, let me confess that I try to consider friendly fire in choosing cocktails—the people around my brother and me, mostly our wives, who will have to share these drinks with us. During this season or any other, I’ve learned to reject the purely alcoholic combinations and know that the most welcome ingredients may be juice and some prominent liqueur we already have. That’s why I thought of Spiked Pear Cider. Its central ingredient is juice, not alcohol—it’s not at all boozy—and it’s both warm and a little fizzy.

  •  4 c. sparkling pear or apple cider
  • 3 c. pear juice
  • ½ vanilla bean
  • 5 whole cloves
  • ½ c. brandy
  • 3 tbsp. orange liqueur (such as Grand Marnier)
  • 1 Seckel pear

The preparation may seem a little complicated, but it isn’t. Just bring 3 cups of the sparkling cider, the spices, vanilla bean (I used a few drops of extract), and the 3 cups of pear juice (I recommend Jumex in a can. Bring that to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer it for 7 minutes. Stir in the brandy and orange liqueur after that. The recipe says to strain the liquid into a pitcher, but we skipped that part. We also halved the recipe. Top it with more sparkling pear cider and garnish.

Though we’re currently suffering a polar vortex here in Chicago, this winter has otherwise been warm, and I don’t think the hot part of this cocktail is all that essential. In fact, I could see returning to this recipe in June, maybe with a little iced tea added. My inner Thoreau wants to urge simplicity, simplicity, simplicity and doing what seems easiest and most comfortable during this harried time. Just enjoy yourself and each other, no extra assembly required.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

daisyOh those hazy, crazy, lazy days of late Autumn. First, we had the drink as a punch on Thanksgiving Day and now it will soon be Christmas and I am just writing the review. Hazy memory. I wish I could blame that on important things going on but it is really just a jumble of work, events, then some utility construction that has destroyed swaths of our yard and sent me to customer service purgatory on numerous occasions. The next time I call Time Warner will be the official edge of crazy. Finally, the picture that is included is my best illustration of lazy. As in, hey-dummy-you-forgot-to-take-a-picture-of-the-drink lazy.

This is the type of proposal that I love. David came up with a cocktail that could be made in advance (mostly), added a wonderful fragrance to the kitchen and served a group. It was the perfect accompaniment to Thanksgiving so that is how it was served.

There were a few small changes that I made to the recipe. The most important was that I served it cold. That allowed us to make the base, with another slight change by using bourbon soaked vanilla bean pods, in advance and then top with chilled sparkling cider with each serving. The final change was that I used an apple/pear brandy that I had left from a Calvados drink we made earlier.

This punch is a mix of subtleties. The base has a background taste that just hints at the vanilla and cloves. In the same way, the pear and apple meld with neither being dominant. And unlike the many cocktails we have enjoyed with bubbly, the effervescence of the sparkling cider is muted by adding most of it during the mulling process. It could be my predilection for champagne drinks but I think it would be worth trying this with all the sparkling cider added to the base and then substituting sparkling wine for the topper. Especially if you drink this cold.

Jonathan’s Take: This is a Fall drink – subtle, quiet and simple like a day of drifting leaves.

David’s Take: If we do ever have a holiday party, I’ll serve this.

Next Time (Proposed by Jonathan):

We’ve gone so long between entries that another holiday is upon us. It is that time when we enjoy more confections, and food in general, than we do throughout the rest of the year. It is also the time for odd foods such as fruitcake which is rendered edible only through a thorough soaking in booze. We’re going to take a slight break from cocktails and try some foods that are enhanced or dominated by spirits. That can include candies, sides and main dishes as long as there is a liquor component.

Local Micro-Distilleries

img_0292Proposed By: Jonathan

Pursued By: David

Bigger is better, right? In the world of spirits one could think that must be the case. Name a well-known liquor or liqueur and it is probably owned by one of the ten largest conglomerates of all things alcoholic. The biggest of the big is Diageo. Their collection includes scotches like Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff in the vodka category and Baileys for a smooth liqueur touch. Throw in Guinness and a very long list of others and they are a one stop company.

There are plenty of others like them. Pernod Ricard is number two, Beam Suntory three and the most well-known name in rum, Bacardi, four. Bacardi doesn’t just limit themselves to rum though. Their varied stable includes Grey Goose, Dewars, Bombay and even the liqueur with one of the best marketing stories  – St. Germain.

The point is not that bigger is worse. These are well established brands that are using the recipes that made them popular, and they have to stick to industry requirements. Scotch, bourbon, and tequila as categories all include deep ownership from these large companies, but they still have to meet the laws that define that spirit.

The idea with the current proposal was to try something local in a classic or inventive cocktail. David was to use spirits found in and around Chicago and I have used some found in the Charlotte region.

It is actually an easy challenge that is getting easier. Two years ago North Carolina had around 30 micro distilleries. Today, the trail includes over 40 stops. Those spirits are heavy on moonshine but include a number of other liquors. The moonshine is understandable to anyone who has ever heard the history of stock car racing in the Carolinas. Early racers honed their craft of making race cars from publicly available vehicles (stock) in order to out run authorities when hauling illegal hooch. Of course, moonshine is really just raw unaged liquor and if you are going to start a distillery that is a good way to get started. The growing maturity of the industry is beginning to show with those white liquors being flavored (gin), aged (all sorts of whiskeys), and crafted (aged gin, brandy, sweet potato vodka and the like).

I made two cocktails but only tasted one of them. The first was a classic of sorts using single malt whiskey called The Modern Cocktail:

1.5 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon bar sugar
1.5 ounce Rua (Great Wagon Distilling) single malt
1.5 ounce Sloe Gin
Dash Absinthe
Dash orange bitters

Mix lemon juice and sugar in shaker, add ice and all other ingredients, shake and strain into a coupe. Garnish with cherry.

The second was a suggestion included on the web site of the distillery called the Maple Cooler. Oddly, Muddy River Distillery is one of the few I found that offered unique ideas for their spirits.

3 dashes bitters
1.5 ounce Queen Charlotte’s Carolina Rum
1.5 ounce fresh orange juice
.5 ounce maple syrup
1 ounce club soda

Mix everything but soda in a shaker with ice, shake, strain into an old fashioned glass with ice and top with soda. Garnish with orange peel.

The Scotch drinkers that tried the Modern seemed to like it. Maybe even enough to have another before going back to Scotch on the rocks. I forgot to taste it myself but I did try the Maple Cooler. It was a nice crossover drink that people who like a little sweet, interestingly maple syrup sweet in this case, and those that like a non-sweet drink cocktail could agree on. It is a very nice use of the more complex spirit that Muddy River offers.

A few more things: I wanted to use Southern Artisan Spirits Cardinal Barrel Rested Gin in a drink. I did that back when we made gin and tonic variations, however, and decided not to repeat in a part as punishment  for them for not keeping their web site up to date. Al Gore invented the web to advertise craft spirits didn’t he? Carolina Distillery makes an apple brandy perfect for the Fall season. At our last tailgate a number of guests enjoyed a drink that was equal parts of that brandy, Barritt’s ginger beer and fresh apple cider. Made a bunch but never tasted those either.

David’s Entry:

img_1777Some believe cocktails are a waste of good spirits. If the bourbon, scotch, gin, or even vodka is good enough, they say, why adulterate it? That perspective certainly seems crucial to micro-distilleries hoping to attract connoisseurs willing to pay for the extra costs of small-scale production. Like many boutique-styled markets catering to those in the know, the process sometimes matters as much as the product.

Like Charlotte, Chicago seems to have a new micro-distillery popping up each week. For this post, however, I chose Koval, one of the first and the first distillery founded in Chicago since the mid-nineteenth century… if you don’t count prohibition bootleggers. Their website describes a “grain-to bottle mentality” that includes locally-sourced organic ingredients, milling and mashing on-site, and signature packaging and bottling. You’re as likely to encounter Koval at a Lincoln Park farmers’ market as at your neighborhood liquor store. They mean to establish themselves as a Chicago thing, and their marketing, though quiet, has been quite effective. Their product is also much respected. Since its founding eight years ago, Koval has won many gold, silver, and bronze medals at international whisky competitions.

The website points out that, in many Eastern European languages, “Koval” means “blacksmith,” but they prefer the Yiddish word for “black sheep, or someone who forges ahead or does something new or out of the ordinary.” I’ve tried a number of Koval products (they also make imaginative liqueurs), but for this post I’ll talk about their Rye Whiskey. Their rye is unusual because it’s made from 100% rye, but that’s not why I chose it. Rye is a spirit I may possibly maybe might know somewhat well enough to judge. Truth is, all those unadulterators have me at a distinct disadvantage—my palate has never been so advanced that I can speak confidently about what anything tastes like.

And I always sound ridiculous when I pretend I understand how to describe spirits. But here goes: people who know rye might expect spiciness and little of the mellow or corn-y warmth of bourbon, and this rye doesn’t have that sort of body either. But Koval’s approach isn’t to make a spicy rye. Theirs is clean and crisp—more white than brown sugar—and has a bright, light, and unusual quality. If you’re thinking about rye bread when you have a sip, you’re going to be surprised… this isn’t that.

Not that this isn’t good for sipping. Wine Enthusiast gives it a 91 and says, “This rye has aromas of vanilla and coconut. A faint sweetness shows on the palate, with initial notes of coconut and almond, while the finish is gently spiced and drying.”

And to that, I say, “Yeah, what they said.”

As this proposal asked, I also tried this rye in a classic cocktail, the De La Louisiane, which you loyal readers may remember is equal parts rye, red vermouth, and maraschino liqueur (with Peychaud Bitters in an absinthe-washed coupe). I figured that would give me the plainest picture of how Koval might stand up to other ingredients, and I was right. To be honest, however, the Koval nearly disappeared, which made me wonder whether it’s too refined for mixing.

Or maybe it’s just too refined for me. The expense of most micro-distillery offerings means they aren’t likely to supply my usual bourbon, rye, scotch, gin, or vodka. It’d be nice if local micro-distilleries could compete with multi-nationals on price, but alas and of course not. They’re a nice treat, yet remind me that, when it comes to boutique spirits, I’m just not worthy.

Jonathan’s take: I understand global companies but it sure is nice to support creative people making local product.

David’s Take: Like Jonathan, I support local commerce and spirituous ambition… though Old Overholt is probably too good for me.

Next Time (Proposed by David):

So, it’s that time of year again, and I googled “Unconventional Holiday Cocktails.” Disappointingly, many of the old stand-bys turned up (Mulled Wine, Eggnog, Hot Buttered Rum) as did many wretchedly sweet drinks (Peppermint “Martinis” and Spiced Coconut Hot White Chocolate). Finally, I discovered something that might be warm enough and light enough to enhance rather than drown the good cheer, Spiked Pear Cider.

Melaza Punch

Melaza.dbmProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Maybe you know molasses, but, if you are like me (before this experiment), you only experience it as an ingredient in cookies or gingerbread or even baked beans. Turns out, molasses (or “treacle” in British) comes from sugar cane or beets (no surprise there) boiled down once (cane syrup), twice (light molasses) or thrice (blackstrap molasses). To me, molasses has a smoky, vaguely sulfurous taste… though it has no smoke or sulfur in it (except as a preservative). Molasses reminds me of the colder months because its sweetness isn’t quite so sweet, and the syrup is as dense and slow-moving as fall and winter.

Which led me to this recipe. We’ve tried fall drinks using maple syrup before and lately every upscale restaurant I visit features a cocktail sweetened with it. “What about molasses,” I thought, “aren’t there any molasses cocktails?”

Silly question. Of course… there are a number. I chose Melaza Punch from a list of molasses drinks because it seemed the one that tests the assumptions I make the flavors of fall. The syrup fits, but the spirit—tequila—and the mixers—pineapple and orange juice—really don’t. I suppose you could see this libation as liquid pineapple upside down cake, but I think of a “punch” as a summer thing.

Molasses is a strong taste, its thickness makes it difficult to mix, and, speaking in party terms, these ingredients only seem to have the bartender in common. They barely know each other. I knew I was taking a chance and risking returning to my early reputation as the crazy brother on this blog (though, let the record show, I never proposed a pumpkin butter cocktail). Still, why are we here if not to experiment or, perhaps more accurately, serve as guinea pigs?

Here’s the recipe from Kathy Casey:

  • 1.5 oz Milagro Añejo Tequila
  • .75 oz Fresh pineapple juice
  • 1 oz Fresh orange juice
  • .25 oz Light molasses
  • Garnish: Freshly grated cinnamon
  • Glass: Rocks

Add all the ingredients to a shaker. Stir, and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with freshly grated cinnamon.

Incidentally, besides meaning molasses in Spanish, “melaza,” according to Urban Dictionary,  is a word Puerto Ricans use to describe something awesome, good, or excellent. Let’s see if Jonathan thinks the name fits…

Here’s Jonathan’s review:

melaza.jbmThis could be a research project, but I am way too lazy to do that for a blog. That research would be to determine how many times I have had to apologize for some aspect of a cocktail including its preparation and service. Simply put though, I need to do that for this punch.

We are back in tailgate season and I planned to serve this drink as part of a pre-game spread. That was accomplished, but, since I had to prepare and pack in advance, I took a shortcut. There was an orange juice carton in the fridge and pineapple chunks canned in their own juice so I used those non-squeezed options to save some time and trouble. I also added sorghum syrup as a substitute for molasses but that was on purpose. My only excuse was that it made an easy mixer that I could bottle, shake up to mix, and add to the tequila. In my defense too – have you ever tried to find fresh squeezed pineapple juice or tried to make it yourself?

A number of people tried the drink at the tailgate gathering, and they all found it too sweet. There is no doubt that, had I scanned the ingredients on the carton and can, I would have found added sugar. Combined with the sorghum, it was too much for the complexity and subtle notes that the anejo tequila provided. I knew that, knew I had served a bad recipe, and knew I would have to try again.

I made a second version later in the week. First I used my trusty hand juicer for the orange juice, which is so easy that I have even resorted to doing that when we have run out of store bought juice. Then I cut up a fresh pineapple, pulverized the core and some slices and let that slowly seep through a strainer. If you haven’t tried that, I would suggest you do it to understand why the home cocktailian would cut corners. Finally I mixed the drink using those juices and the sorghum syrup. It was incredible. The orange and pineapple juices were not too sweet and much lighter in consistency. The sorghum even added flavors that went beyond its sweetness that had been lost in the previous version. The star though was the tequila, as it was intended to be, with all its flavors on full display against the background of the fruit and syrup.

So here goes the apology. Lebo, Trevor, Medman, Seed, Mrs. Seed and others: I am so sorry that I served you an inferior cocktail. I wish you had been there to enjoy the real version with me, especially after juicing that damn pineapple, but you have to take my word for it that it was great. If you don’t want to do that, drop by because I still have tequila and I am sure I can scare up a pineapple and oranges.

Jonathan’s take: We say it over and over – use real ingredients even if it is a pain in the ass.

David’s Take: Wish I could say I liked it, but the molasses seemed dissonant to me, and, the most telling truth, I didn’t want another.

Next cocktail (Proposed By: Jonathan):

There are any number of pre-sweetened whiskeys. Southern Comfort has been around for a long time and now there are honey, honey/cinnamon and all sorts of other whiskeys that are all altered for those who don’t enjoy the hard stuff straight. They are technically liqueurs, at least as I understand the definition, and another of the classics is rock and rye. Garden & Gun magazine tells me that with the cocktail resurgence there has been an increase in bars that make that own version. That is what we are going to do. After that, it is up to each of us if we want to use it in cocktail, see what it is like on ice, or do both.

Grand Autumn Cocktail

-1Proposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

My proposal for this drink included a wish that I could enjoy the cocktail on a crisp October evening by the fire pit. I did enjoy the cocktail, although the crisp evening by the fire eluded me. We have not had the rain which has besieged our neighbors in South Carolina, but it has been rainy and quite inhospitable for time outside. Especially on the usual cocktail Saturday and Sundays.

The Grand Autumn cocktail comes from Better Homes & Gardens magazine. I hope the fact that my wife is a subscriber makes it legal for us to use it with proper credit since you need a password to get the recipe on-line. Here is the recipe either way:

2 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce St. Germain
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
2 dashes angostura bitters
3 ounces ginger beer

Mix the first four ingredients and shake or stir with ice. Strain into a double old fashioned or mule cup, add the ginger beer and ice, and stir gently. It is an Autumn drink so Barritt’s or Gosling’s are a good choice for the ginger beer to get that nice Fall color. I also chose a rye whiskey for a more peculiar reason even if it loosely falls into the family part of this blog.

I am an Astros fan, which is typically painful to admit, but, this year, I’m proud of their progress. Growing up south of Houston it was the only reasonable choice to root for the home team, and my affection was cemented through free tickets provided to area students who made the honor roll. There was a point when all five kids in our family were eligible, and we had far more tickets than our parents had energy for trips to the Astrodome. Somehow my oldest son has the same affliction, and even our youngest seems to have a soft spot for a team that I most often reference as “The Sortas” for their ineptitude. This year was an exception (even if they did lose to the Royals), and the three of us enjoyed a weekend in Houston to see them in person. Now, what does that have to do with rye whiskey?

I went shopping for the whiskey at the same time the Astros were struggling to get one of the last spots in the playoffs. They didn’t have the brand I was looking for and I had settled on another option and headed to check out. At that point I spotted a display of Yellow Rose rye from Houston. It seemed like an omen and when it comes to sports I am very partial to omens. Since that purchase, the Astros have made the playoffs, dispatched the Yankees and are holding their own with the Royals. When you are an Astros fan and usually just hoping for relevance, that’s a lot. Thank you Yellow Rose.

Here’s David’s Review:

grand.dmSometimes, in odd Walter Mitty moments, I imagine this blog being picked up by some liquor company and climbing on a gravy train so full of gravy I don’t have to work anymore. That’s not likely to happen—though, if some liquor giant is out there, let me just say “Please?” Yet if it were to happen, one of my top candidates would be Crabbie’s Ginger Beer. I confess I love the stuff and would love having my consumption of it fully subsidized.

Which is to say I loved this drink. Rye (another favorite) and Elderflower liqueur (now in less expensive forms than St. Germain) add to the appeal, but really it’s ginger beer. Something about ginger’s zing complements spirits, adding interest to any concoction.

The lime and bitters, of course, are good too, but they almost seemed nods to other cocktails like bucks and Manhattan varietals. I suppose they add, but, really, you know, it’s the Crabbie’s Ginger Beer.

Are you listening, Crabbie’s? I’m not hard to find.

Now, why this is a Grand Autumn cocktail is a complete mystery to me. Even after each seasons of drinking, I’m sometimes unsure of why one drink settles in one time of year. I wouldn’t dare drink a gin and tonic in December, but I suspect that’s conditioning rather than any intrinsic summeriness associated with gin, or tonic, or both together.

Someone out there in cyberland may tell me that Rye is a warm spirit or that ginger is evocative of seasonal fare or that elderflower, redolent of blossoms now blown, adds a wistful longing for the just passed. I get all that. I do. Generally, as an English teacher, I’m all in favor of reaching after meaning (read: bullshit), but this drink just didn’t say autumn to me, not at all.

Not withstanding that somewhat peevish criticism, however, it was mighty good… thanks, Crabbie’s Ginger Beer.

Jonathan’s take: Sing with me – There’s a Yellow Rose of cocktails, that I am going to drink…

David’s Take: I think I’d like it in any season… I bet you can guess why.

Next Week (Proposed By David):

I’m still on this autumn thing, so I’m going to make another attempt at another concoction presented as a seasonal cocktail, a Melaza Punch, featuring molasses, the ostensibly autumnal ingredient. We’ve tried Maple syrup, so why the heck not? The wrinkle here is that this drink also includes Tequila and Pineapple Juice, so it’s really stretching the fall envelope. I’m interested in hearing what Jonathan thinks of this seasonal question, and what better way to elicit a fiery response but to put the issue to a big test.