El Pepino

Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Wish I could say that my delay in writing this post was that this cocktail, which, in my mind, is so close to a julep, is better offered closer to Kentucky Derby Day. Truth is, like a lot of people, I’m busier than I want to be and tired most of the time.

Here, however, is a drink that might pick people up. Having lived in Louisville for a while, I have a special affection for juleps. They remind me of spring itself, those sunny and temperate days that, over the past few months of gray rain and snow, you never quite let yourself believe possible. The new green of this time of year renews hope, and mint conveys that hope beautifully. Something about mint always offers a refreshing element in food and drink.

Two of the non-julep notes of this cocktail—lime and tequila—are borrowed from margaritas and offer festive and zesty flavors too. Here’s the recipe, which comes from Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails From the Lone Star State.

1/3 fresh diced cucumber

1 ounce Mint Simple Syrup

2 ounces 100% agave silver tequila

1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice

Fresh mint for garnish

Cucumber spear, for garnish

Mezcal (optional)

In the botton of a mixing glass, muddle the cucumber and mint syrup. Add the tequila and lime juice and shake vigorously with ice to chill. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with fresh mint and a cucumber spear. You can also float some mezcal on top, if you have it. Lamentably, I did not.

Cucumber seems a popular ingredient in food and drink recently. Though there’s nearly nothing to it in terms of calories and some people might think of it adding nothing but cellulose, it enhances the other fresh, botanical dimensions of this drink. As the description in Tipsy Texan suggests, this cocktail is suited to a warm day and touts, “You’d be hard pressed to find a cocktail more refreshing than this combination of tequila, mint, and cucumber.”

Here’s Jonathan’s review:

There is a general rule that I follow when gathering the ingredients for a cocktail. If there is an item that is difficult to find, secondary to all other parts of the drink ,or just missing from the pantry—I will skip that part. It is unusual yet there are examples where I have done that and noted it. I am talking about you Chinese five spice on the rim of the glass.

This proposal calls for muddled cucumber which is fairly unusual although not completely foreign. That said, it is hardly secondary when one considers all of the other parts of this drink, which are somewhat normal in mixology. The problem was, though, that I had everything ready when it came time to make the cocktail except a cucumber. There was just a moment of hesitation before I decided I could not accurately create the El Pepino without first going to get one. Good choice.

This is a drink that is the product of all its parts working together. The mint is subtle, the sugar in the syrup a smoothing agent, the tequila distinctive but not assertive, the lime juice a contrasting yet quiet acid as it should be. The cucumber jumps out. It makes El Pepino different and distinctive to the point that I think even those who are not fans of cukes would agree that without it the mix is fairly run of the mill. I am probably wrong but my guess would be that most bars don’t stock cucumber. That’s a shame because this is a drink I would actually order without hesitation.

Jonathan’s take: I hereby apologize to the cucumber and promise to find some Pimm’s in the back of my liquor cabinet so that the cuke may shine again.

David’s take: I won’t substitute this drink for my usual Derby Day julep, but maybe every other suitable occasion.

Next Time (Proposed by Jonathan):

I do not consider calories when ordering or making a cocktail. As a beer drinker that is probably a defense mechanism. There are those who do, however, and there are recipes with just that in mind.

Once again, the proposal is an idea rather than a specific drink. I am suggesting that we try cocktails with less calories. That does not mean making simple syrup with stevia leaves, although that is a consideration, rather it is to adjust the ingredients to trim the effect on the waist line. There is no calorie limit just a general concept to lower the total from the standard version of a cocktail or to create a new drink for those who are watching what they eat—or drink.

I feels some club soda coming our way.

Gin and Tonic Variations

DM G and TProposed and Realized By: David

Also Realized By: Jonathan

“The gin and tonic,” Winston Churchill once said, “has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.” He was alluding to the British East Indian Company’s invention of the concoction as a way of delivering quinine, which was believed to be an anti-malarial medicine. However, knowing Churchill, it’s possible he was talking about the self-medicating properties of gin.

I prefer the explanation of the drink’s prominence offered by Douglas Adams, the author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Every planet has its own version of gin and tonic, all developed independently from one another and pronounced essentially the same. There’s something about the “G and T” (or “Gin Tonic” as it’s called in some countries) that demands invention. The drink was simply meant to be.

And, to support Adams’ theory, it turns out tonic doesn’t cure or prevent malaria because you’d have to drink too much of it (and keep drinking too much of it) to reach even the minimal level of quinine necessary to suppress the disease. Science has taught us something important about gin and tonic, however—rather than doubling the bitterness by combining its three main ingredients, the similarly shaped molecules glom onto each other to mitigate their bitterness. I take that discovery as further proof of Adam’s belief in the inevitability of gin and tonic.

So why would someone want to adulterate it, and why would we use this space (again) to encourage such an abomination?

I thought of a post devoted to the drink by itself debating the proper tonic water (I like Fever Tree or Q, by the way), the proper gin (more later), and the proper proportion of gin to tonic, but all that sounded fussy. Let me be that rare voice of political tolerance in our contentious age and state that all the people, Republicans and Democrats, should compose gin and tonics as they wish, according to their tastes.

As you’ll see, Jonathan was much subtler, thorough, and scientific in his pursuit of proper ingredients. For me, adulteration felt like a different sort of test—not can you mess-up a Gin and Tonic, but can you actually stay true to the Neo-platonic ideal of gin-and-tonic-ness while also introducing a variation that might actually enhance its essential nature?

My first experiment was to follow a basic formula:

1.5 ounces Gin

.5 ounces something else

3 ounces tonic water

the squeezed juice of one-eighth of a lime

Over the last three weeks, I’ve tried all sorts of things for that something else—Lillet Rose, St. Germaine, Pimm’s #1, Grand Marnier, Chambord, Maraschino Liqueur, and Benedictine—and most of the results were passable, but no gin and tonic. The best were the ones with a certain je ne sais quoi, the ones that elicited the comment, “What’s different about this?” Of the ingredients above, Pimm’s #1 and Lillet were the most successful that way. Maraschino was also subtle. The worst? Benedictine.

Like Jonathan, I also bought dried juniper berries and other spices (though not in a nifty kit) and steeped them in vodka to create my own gin… and added sumac to regular gin… and used varieties of gin available in my liquor cabinet… and foisted all these varieties on various people. Jonathan’s testers are clearly better than mine. Everyone around me is sick of gin and tonics, so sick that their most thoughtful comments were “That’s nice,” or “Yuck.”

But not me. I’ll just say one thing about my experimentation. Nothing really ruins a gin and tonic… until it makes it something else.

Here’s Jonathan’s Approach:

JBM GTAlternatives of the classic gin and tonic? How hard could it be – change the gin and change the tonic. Heck, go crazy and change the garnish. One look at my liquor cabinet illustrates the true challenge, though. I have Old Tom gin, London dry gin, Rangpur gin, botanical gin, barrel rested gin and, after a quick search for tonic syrups that resulted in the purchase of a pre-measured spice mix, my own homemade gin.

You don’t need to go beyond tonic to understand the variations available. Quinine water, as we used to call it, ranges from classics like Seagrams, Canada Dry and Schweppes to a long list of high end and small batch sodas that grows each year. These include nationally available brands like Fever-Tree, Q and Fentimans to small batch soda versions found locally. There are also many syrups, I have used and love Jack Rudy’s, that can be mixed with club soda to make your own tonic water. Simple math made me realize I had to control the variables so I settled on premixed tonics.

The next question was gin. The classic uses London Dry and if the tonic was going to be dominant that made sense. As I noted, while searching unsuccessfully for new syrups I went into the Savory Spice Shop (a growing national franchise). They had a pre-packaged mix of spices to infuse vodka and make your own gin so that became another option. I also had a barrel rested gin, Cardinal, from nearby Kings Mountain N.C. and the gin style liqueur, Pimm’s No. 1, so I was set there too.

All that was left to do this right was to assemble taste testers and figure out ratios. My faithful panel was nice enough to gather for the task at hand and a forgotten shot glass made ratios approximate (I would guess it was 3:1 tonic to liquor). Here’s the three versions I made:

Prohibition (homemade) gin
Fever-Tree or Q tonic
Lime wedge garnish

Barrel rested gin
Fever-Tree or Q tonic in one session and Schweppes in another
5 drops Crude (Raleigh small batch brand) roasted pineapple/vanilla bitters
Lime wedge garnish

London dry gin
Pimm’s No. 1
Schweppes tonic
Mixed fruit garnish

The first mix was the most classic and the least liked. The gin was great. So good, in fact, that it was better by itself on the rocks. The nice part of make your own is that you can add and subtract spices. The juniper berries went in by themselves for 24 hours to emphasize that spice and the other spices were added for a final 24 hours.  If you are one of those people who don’t like the pine qualities of gin, though, you could add the juniper at the same time as the other spices (coriander, lavender, bay leaves, allspice and cardamom) and infuse for only 24 hours total to reduce their dominance. If gin is your favorite part of the G & T this may be the best option for your taste.

The second cocktail was a conservative variation yet well received. Barrel rested gin, at least the Cardinal version, is mellow and less spicy. The bitters added a subtle and different background flavor. I made this one with both the high end tonics and the less expensive stuff with the latter providing a quieter base to showcase the gin and bitters.

My final option was a G & T take on the Pimm’s Cup.  A number of Pimm’s Cup recipes suggest adding gin to increase the spirit quotient so I followed that idea by mixing Pimm’s and gin equally then adding tonic. The more assertive tonics worked really well here since it needed a mixer that stood up to the liquors. This is one to garnish with summer fruits like peaches, blackberries, blueberries and the like. The classic Cup addition of cucumber would probably work well also.

Jonathan’s Take: The T is my favorite part so high end tonics and syrups are well worth the cost.

David’s Take: Can I be a purist and an experimentalist at the same time? I’d like to try.

Next Time (Proposed by Jonathan):

One of my testing panel members suggested a drink called Serendipity. It will require that I go against my goal of reducing the number of spirits in my cabinet by adding Calvados. The drink includes the addition, always welcome, of a sparkling wine though so I think it is worth it. Plus, I have to listen to my testers since they are practically professionals at this point.

Pimm’s #1 Cup

pimmsJMProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

This drink has intrigued me for a long time. I am not ashamed to admit that it was simply the name and pictures of the drink that did it too. The first part was curiosity about who, or what, Pimm was and whether there were other numbers of cups. Pull out or pull up any well illustrated cocktail guide and one will see what I mean about the pictures. The drink is usually an amber liquid packed with fruit, cucumber, mint and ice. It screams summer.

It ends up that James Pimm was a restaurateur in London who owned an oyster bar. The number 1 elixir he created in the 1840’s was a liqueur of gin, quinine and herbs meant as a curative (what else) and digestif. It was mixed in large batches, much like the punches of American bars of the 1800’s, and served by the tankard or cup full. The popularity increased to the point that it began to spread to other bars, eating establishments, and eventually by the bottle.

The popularity of the #1 continues today. It is a popular summer drink in Britain with various sources suggesting that 40-80 thousand pints are sold during the Wimbledon tennis tournament alone. Even New Orleans claims the drink (erroneously) as a summer cocktail of lower alcohol content for those who don’t want to drink less, but do want to pace themselves. There were other numbers, five others in fact, that were made with different spirit bases but only the #1 and a winter cup are sold widely now.

There doesn’t seem to be one definitive recipe, and I will be curious to see how David concocted it. The basics are one part of Pimm’s #1 to two to four parts mixer with a garnish of fruit, cucumber and mint. The mixer of choice is lemon-lime soda (called lemonade in England apparently), but alternatives include ginger ale or soda water for those who want to cut the sweet. I made three versions but each started with this basic mix of liqueur, cucumber and fruit:

2 ounces Pimm’s #1
1 slice cucumber (recipes said English cuke but I have no idea what that is)
1 wheel of lemon
A few pieces of quartered strawberries
Raspberries, blackberries and blueberries

In the basic version those were stirred together, ice added, and it was all topped with 4 ounces of lemon lime soda that was stirred in lightly. I forgot the mint, but that would have been a good time to add it.

Other versions simply added or substituted. The first was a strawberry version that started the day before. I blended up a bunch of strawberries, strained them through a sifter until I had a cup of liquid, and then warmed that in sauce pan with a cup of sugar to make a strawberry syrup (nothing simple about it). In case you were wondering, it is excellent drizzled over a piece of toast that had been smeared with peanut butter. That’s healthy, right? The final version was the basic recipe with ginger ale instead of lemon-lime soda. The standard Blenheim worked well although someone who really wanted to elevate the drink could try the extra hot. The subtle Pimm’s might get lost in that though.

The end result of all this experimenting is a cocktail as healthy as any we have tried. I tasted the strawberry syrup version, but preferred the basic or the ginger ale mix. All of the tasters ended up digging out the fruit at the end and eating it as the dessert part of the cocktail meal. Tasty.

And Here’s David’s Review:

PimmyMy encounters with British literature, television, and cinema have taught me some important Britishisms like “in hospital” instead of “in THE hospital,” the pronunciation of “Frus-TRAIT-ed” and the spelling of “gaol” instead of “jail.”

This exposure to British culture has also created some lasting curiosities, like, “How do you pronounce ‘Pshaw’?” and “What the hell does Pimm’s taste like?”

Thanks to Jonathan, I can at least tentatively answer one of those questions. As is my practice, I tried a little Pimm’s before adding it to this week’s cocktail. I decided Pimm’s is red. It’s amber, as Jonathan said, but it tastes rather, well… red. It’s not that it’s strawberry or cherry or cinnamon or punch or anything that must be red. It possesses the unspecified flavor of foods with a convenient rather than essential color. It’s citrusy (sort of) and spicy (sort of), which I suppose makes it a good mixer with soft drinks, gin, and other spirits.

By itself, meh.

The proper sort of additives, however, must really make this drink. I made my version with lemon, strawberry, cucumber, and mint. I see how the combination works. Lemon is more sour than sweet, and, when a strawberry is perfect, it’s sweet but also acidic. Cucumber has a surprisingly distinctive settling strength when it’s used indulgently. Mint is aromatic, and, though it’s not as important here as in a julep, it renders the cocktail a more complete sensory experience.

But I also made strawberry syrup. And that syrup… and that Seven-Up. I suspect that, with better strawberries or less sugar, I might like the syrup more, but it was dense and sickly sweet and, for me, sunk any chance of the drink being refreshing or light. The Seven-Up only added to that effect. We tried other versions—my wife had a second made with lemon-lime seltzer and I used tonic for the second version—but both still seemed heavy. If I was going to create a drink like this from scratch, I’d just muddle the cucumber, strawberry, and mint and have done with it.

Of course, I’d like to try this drink at Wimbledon. What drink wouldn’t taste better amid such pageantry? And whenever one of our concoctions doesn’t wow me, I wonder what I must have done wrong, what secret I missed in preparing it. How can such a popular drink not wow me? Perhaps the problem was how I cooked the syrup or the proportions of soft drink to alcohol or the gray (or should that be “grey”) stormy weather outside that seemed to call for a tarp and a rain delay. I don’t know. I just wasn’t blown away.

I’m happy, however, to have a bottle of Pimm’s #1 to experiment with, and some interesting possibilities for its use occurred to me right away. Maybe Pimm’s means to be a supporting player, the understated actor who draws no attention to him or herself but assembles the assemble. I’ll find out.

Jonathan’s take: Some days, like this Mother’s Day spent with Pimm’s, I wish we could stop at favorite drink for a while. Science and experimentation beckons us though.

David’s Take: I wanted to really love it and only liked it.

Next Week (Proposed By David):

We’re moving soon, and I keep staring at my liquor shelf, thinking which bottles are closest to being empty, which contents can be consumed and bottles jettisoned before we load everything else on a truck. Thus, selfishly, I’m proposing a drink called “Moving Sale” invented in his own way by Jonathan and my own way by me. The rules are that it consist of three ingredients we might exhaust. My respect for the spare and simple life grows as we gather our stuff in boxes. Let’s raise a drink to casting off.