The Chopped Challenge

drinksProposed by: Circumstances

Reviewed by: Brave Souls


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.

The Aviation

Proposed by: Davidaviation

Reviewed by: Jonathan

The Aviation cocktail might be described as “Heirloom” in the same way tomatoes are—passed down within families and a little funky. Heirloom tomatoes are recognizably tomatoes but variously colored and bulbously strange—this cocktail is pre-prohibition, mixed in an ordinary, familiar way but strange in its combination of ingredients and flavors.

Apparently (because, once again, I’m relying on someone else’s research) the first manifestation of the Aviation comes from Hugo Ensslin, who offered a recipe for the Aviation in a 1916 work, Recipes for Mixed Drinks. He includes a dash of Crème de Violette as well as Maraschino liquor and one part lemon juice to two parts gin as the complete elements. But Crème de Violette largely disappeared from bartenders’ larders and so the true Aviation vanished as well, replaced by violetteless versions. The heirloom Aviation did not return until Rothman and Winter Crème de Violette reappeared in the US in 2007.

Crème de Violette is certainly funky. The color leads you to expect grape, and, while there’s an understated fruitiness to the liqueur, the taste is really floral. Like lavender and orange blossom, its aroma and taste seem more suited to perfume than food, and it may be an acquired rather than intuitively delicious flavor. Gin adds an herbal or botanical element intended to balance what might otherwise be more flowery than flavorful, and, while taking the violette out of the drink would make it something else, you can understand the impulse to veer toward the mainstream. This drink is strange.

Part of the cocktail’s original appeal must have been visual, as it steers the other parts of the drink toward a lovely opalescent blue-purple, the color of a litmus sky at dusk or dawn. Of course, you can’t drink art, but this cocktail seems aimed to test that assumption. With a cherry sunk in the vortex of martini glass, it’s a lovely concoction however it tastes.

Here’s a recipe:

2 oz. Gin

½  to ¾ oz. fresh lemon juice

¼ oz. Luxardo maraschino liqueur

¼ oz. Crème de Violette

Place a brandied cherry (or Luxardo maraschino cherry) into a well-chilled martini glass. Combine all the ingredients over ice, shake, and strain into the glass.

Here’s Jonathan’s review:

The inspiration for the proposed drink really intrigued me. I am always behind on pop culture and have not seen the show The Blacklist. The idea that we were trying a drink that was created a long time ago and brought back to the fore through an obscure reference in the show was great though.

The other thing that piqued my interest was the use of the two liqueurs, one of which is particularly odd. The maraschino liqueur shows up in a few cocktails, and I had hoped we would find a way to use it if for no other reason than I would be able to have it on hand for some other drinks I had considered. The Creme de Violette is the one I would label odd.

I’m still not sure if it is actually made from flowers of the Alps or is a creation that resembles them, but either way it looks, smells, and tastes like nothing I have ever had.

I have learned from David that it is worthwhile to taste the ingredients separately, especially when they are something new. In this case I didn’t do that until after I made the drink and then I went back to see what each component was like. Both the maraschino and Creme de Violette are interesting (and sweet) on their own with each having a unique assertiveness.

The Aviation invoked a quick thought that derived from its inspiration. That thought was that after Spader’s character ordered the drink and his colleague tasted it she must have quickly exclaimed “Ce n’est pas formidable!” Simply put, I hated it. The color was off-putting even for the color blind, the smell was reminiscent of underwear drawer sachet, and the ingredients clashed with each other. The cliché is that it tasted like cough medicine so I won’t say that, but I will say the best part was that it was soothing to the throat.

Another thing I have noticed as we have considered and tried drinks is that particular brands of liquor are recommended for certain drinks. The Gin of choice in our house is Bombay Sapphire which is very botanical. That may have been a bad choice for this cocktail since it made the clash of flavors even more pronounced.

Jonathan’s take: It’s too easy to say this drink didn’t fly. My fellow tasters, however, challenged me to create a new drink called the Dirigible that would crash and burn worse than this.

David’s take: Hmm… I’m not really sure what I think. This cocktail seemed in every way peculiar to me, a novel taste perhaps, but one I’m unlikely to acquire.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

If there is not already a book about the drinks of Hemingway there should be. It could be part travel book, part literary history, and part cocktail guide. The maraschino liqueur will come in handy as we try the Hemingway Daiquiri.