Vanilla Bourbon Champagne Cocktail

VBCCProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

The romantic films of the late fifties and early sixties taught me champagne goes to your head more quickly than other types of alcohol. Count on it, once the cork pops Doris Day spills affection she means to keep bottled. Inhibitions vanish with an understanding only possible between the ungirdled. Then unlikely love blossoms, naturally.

Sorry if you continue to attribute special powers to champagne, but, chemically, alcohol is alcohol, and the inebriating potential assigned to champagne’s fizz is, sadly, dubious and perhaps imaginary.

Not that imagination is to be trifled with—science doesn’t support the existence of aphrodisiacs either, but people still invest in the idea.

However, in any case, Valentine’s Day seems like a great excuse to break out the bubbly and indulge imagination. Let’s be honest: husbands often approach this holiday with a special dread. Stakes are high, and my own record of making the day memorable is spotty. I like to think my wife and I have plenty of ungirdled love and understanding—champagne or not—but I’m all for celebrating with the good stuff if it gives me a way to express affection and supplies my wife with an answer when coworkers ask, “So, what did your lousy, good-for-nothing insensitive slob of a husband do for Valentine’s Day?”

They won’t exactly put it that way, of course, but that’s the gist.

As a category, champagne cocktails often aspire to beauty as well as flavor. The first, THE champagne cocktail that appeared (where else) in “Professor” Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book Bon Vivant’s Companion, combines champagne with cognac, angostura bitters and a sugar cube that produces lively bubbles when you drop it in the glass. Visit Martha Stewart’s site and you’ll find many other versions, each with a pleasing garnish and secondary ingredient that makes a celebrant say, “Now, what is that I’m tasting?”

This version, which has a great deal in common with the French 75, substitutes bourbon for that drink’s cognac and omits the simple syrup and lemon juice in favor of a vanilla syrup. Making syrups has become a sort of sub-hobby for me, and, though we’re running out of vessels to contain them all, I’m looking forward to adding this syrup to other drinks.

Here’s the recipe:

To Make Vanilla Syrup:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 vanilla beans
  1. Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a saucepan.
  2. Split the vanilla beans lengthwise into halves and place in a heatproof jar or bottle.
  3. Pour the hot syrup over the vanilla beans and let stand for 8 to 10 hours.
  4. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

To Make the Drink:

  1. Mix the bourbon and syrup in a Champagne flute.
  2. Top with Champagne.
  3. Garnish with a vanilla bean.

As usual, I’ll save my response to this cocktail for the end of this post, but I’ll give this much away—an aspiring husband on Valentine’s Day could do worse than a Vanilla Bourbon Champagne Cocktail and a heart-shaped box of sushi.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

jbmvbcc

There are cat people and dog people, morning people and night people, those who prefer chocolate to vanilla and versa vice. I would say I am firmly in the dog, night and chocolate categories. Of course there are exceptions. I’ve met a lot of cats that are great, morning is not so bad if I am going fishing or playing golf, and I think I understand the subtlety of vanilla better as I grow older.

This cocktail is an odd mix of bubbly, bourbon and the subtle vanilla. It seems like any liquor that is wood aged is described as having “vanilla notes” even if that is a difficult taste to discern. The bourbon that is called for in the recipe, Woodford Reserve, is no exception so it is hard to tell if it is the super simple syrup with its added vanilla bean or the spirit. That taste is there though, and it is that subtlety that distinguishes the drink. Bourbon and champagne are an odd mix but something, maybe that vanilla, ties them together.

The other thing to note about this drink is the combination of champagne with a liquor. I have always felt, with no scientific proof whatsoever, that the physiological effect of champagne is noticed more quickly than other alcohols. It makes no sense, alcohol is alcohol after all, but it seems to hold true and, when combined with a higher proof spirit like bourbon, seems to be even more pronounced. Maybe I can get some foundation to help me study that further.

The last thing to note is that David proposed this as a Valentine cocktail. I do appreciate the fact that my wife puts up with this blog and am grateful that David’s suggestion notes our wives’ role in this endeavor. It seems like it should be all fun, but keeping up with it each and every week, the sometimes odd ingredients, and the strained shelves of our liquor cabinet is not all roses.

Jonathan’s take: The cocktails with effervescent spirits are almost always good. This one proves that rule.

David’s Take: I wish I had an excuse to drink this cocktail more often.

Next week (Proposed By Jonathan):

We have tried a drink called the Caipirinha de Uva, but I am proposing the traditional caipirinha. It is a very simple mix of cachaca, sugar and lime and is the national drink of Brazil. If David doesn’t have any more cachaca, a sugar cane rum, he is welcome to substitute a similar cocktail called Ti’ Punch made with Rhum Agricole (another sugarcane rum), sugar and lime.

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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.

The Black and Gold Cocktail

graduationThe Black and Gold Cocktail does not have a long storied history. Jerry Thomas did not create it in a fit of gold rush inspiration, there is no liqueur derived from some a long held recipe of a secret sect, no literary figure demanded one be placed in front of him as soon as he entered his favorite bar, and variations of it do not appear in hipster establishments. It seems to have been created for its color and to meet a need to match the black and gold that matches many sports teams. The one thing that does set it apart, however, is that there are not many black spirits.

The recipe for this drink calls for vodka and Goldschläger which is noted for the gold flakes that float in the clear spirit. It is quite simply two parts of a black version of the former mixed with one part of the latter. The problem with all of that starts with the black vodka. There appears to be only one type of that vodka, Blavod, and it is not being imported to the United States right now. That means that the only options are to create a black vodka (10 drops blue food coloring, 10 drops red, and 8 drops green per fifth of liquor) or to find another black liquor.

This is a good time for an aside about vodka. There seems to be a love/hate relationship with the spirit. Watch the right event or show on television and you can be assailed with commercials for vodkas to be requested by name. The funny thing is that almost all of those ads tout multiple distilations or many filters for that particular vodka which means that it is rendered almost tasteless. The reviews for Blavod note that the tree extract, black catechu, provides the unique black color but also adds a slight bitter aftertaste that detracts from the neutral spirit. Unless, of course, the taster is blindfolded and then they don’t notice anything. It is no wonder that cocktail and spirit reviewers eschew vodka and that, should trends be believed, it is going out of favor. Oh yeah, unless you count the numerous flavors that have been invented to add taste to the neutral base. In that manner it is not only not going out of favor, but is taking over the liquor stores. Anyone need a shot of pecan pie vodka for dessert?

All of this leaves the maker of the Black and Gold with decisions about the black portion. There is the make your own vodka, the slightly black chocolate vodka, the mostly black coffee vodka, and the more off course black alternatives of other spirits. Since the Goldschläger is a cinnamon schnapps, we looked for a taste to match that flavor. That choice was a coffee flavored java rum from Sea Island. Sea Island is another small batch distillery located on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina.

The resulting drink was a nice dark color, although the gold flakes of the Goldschläger were not terribly apparent, with a pleasing after dinner taste of coffee and cinnamon. It had a good balance of sweetness combined with the bitter coffee element that could have been achieved with coffee vodka, but I like to think the rum gave it a body and background that gave the cocktail a little more gravity and depth. The real purpose of this cocktail was to celebrate an event and one of those black and gold affinities. In this case my niece’s graduation and Appalachian State University. For both those purposes the drink worked well.

Here’s David’s Review:

black and goldFirst, congratulations to Lauren. It’s her graduation this recipe is meant to celebrate. That cannot go unsaid and, whether she appreciated this cocktail or not, I hope she appreciates what she’s accomplished.

I did appreciate this cocktail… and not just in comparison to the wretched blue cocktail I proposed for the last graduation we celebrated. Some months ago, during some simple syrup experimentation, I made one with Vietnamese cinnamon and used it up in no time. The heat and singularity of the flavor appeals to me, and, though I’ve never tried Fireball whiskey, I understand the appeal. I’m not sure about the flavor of gold flecks—or I should say I’m sure I didn’t taste them—and I read on Wikipedia that there’s only 13 mg of gold in a Goldschläger bottle, which means, based on today’s rate, they are worth 51 cents. Still, they’re mighty pretty when you stir them up.

As for the black in the Black and Gold cocktail, Jonathan and I had different solutions. He chose java rum and I chose the Gosling’s Black Seal rum we’d used for the Dark N’ Stormy. My rum wasn’t truly black, and I thought about making it blacker by adding food color. As you can see from my photograph, my version of black and gold was more brown than anything else. And two other blacker alternatives occurred to us, Kahlua and—going back to the beertails a couple of weeks ago—Porter. However, rather than drink another, I satisfied for brown and gold. The gold flecks were less visible than they might have been, but the mixture of the molasses overtones of the rum and the spiciness of the cinnamon seemed a good combination, gingerbread-y and festive. Of course, who knows what complexity the food color might add, but I’ll let someone with a finer palate figure that out.

Regardless of what you add to make the black of this drink, it’s for sipping. The Goldschläger is quite hot and don’t forget that this cocktail is pure alcohol. The recipe I used called it a Black and Gold Martini. The rum and the liqueur were far sweeter than a martini, but, if I had any complaint, it was the martini-like paint-thinner waft of ethyl that met you with each sip. The taste overcame it quickly… and maybe you need something neutral like vodka to cut the sweetness of the liqueur… but I can’t see drinking more than one of these.

As it happens, my college colors were also black and gold (though we always put the gold first), and I was happy to raise a glass to Lauren and hope she was celebrating her milestone and carrying as full a store of memories from her college days as I do of mine.

Jonathan’s take: Don’t look for this to appear on cocktail bar menus, but for an affinity drink you could do worse.

David’s Take: A nice warmer by the fire and appropriately fancy and celebratory.

Next Week (proposed by David):

My proposal is to make some room on my liquor shelf (because who knows what Santa might bring and I’m also uncertain my shelf can bear much more weight). As it’s winter I’m proposing an adaptation of a warm cocktail, which I’m calling Cherry Pisco Hot Chocolate. In the original recipe, the “Cherry” was “Orange,” but then my wife remembered how much Jonathan used to like chocolate covered cherries. He may be over them by now—it seems every Christmas someone (and sometimes more than one someone) gave him a box. I’m using Cherry Herring and the Pisco, however, because both need emptying more than my Grand Marnier. Jonathan can fill in the first blank any way he wants, but the hot chocolate is a requirement that, I hope, will be right for the season.

One Year Drinking With My Brother

embarrassingAs announced, we’re celebrating a year’s worth of posts by putting aside our usual practice to reflect on all the lessons we’ve learned as not-so-savvy cocktailians:

Jonathan:

One of the many benefits of growing up in a large family are the things you learn from your siblings. Some are more important than others, but all add to who you are. David and I are the fourth and fifth children, respectively, of five in our family. As the two youngest we shared rooms, seats next to each other in cars, places at the table and spots on couches. More than that we shared a lot of time with each other, and even today I hear myself using expressions that I know come directly from him. One of my absolute favorites is and has been the description of someone as “a master of the startlingly obvious.” And that is what I feel like I am with my observations and lessons gleaned from our first year of this blog. That won’t stop me from sharing my thoughts though.

1. A close observer/reader should know that fresh ingredients and homemade mixers are the key to better drinks. To make cocktails I have juiced lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, pomegranates, and kumquats. Simple syrups have been created from sugar, brown sugar, demerara, sorghum, maple syrup and honey. Those syrups have been flavored with herbs, spices, nuts and more fruit. Store-bought sweet and sour, grenadine and orgeat? Why, when you make your own during the week. The end result may take longer, but the difference is well worth it.

2. It is often repeated in our weekly write up, but prior to this blog, beer and wine were pretty much the extent of drinks I enjoyed. I always assumed, however, that I knew the basics of liquors and the drinks made with them. Wrong, very wrong. Gin might be the best example of a liquor with incredible variation and types, so much so that using the right one in a drink can drastically improve the taste. Then there are the liquors that I never knew existed (a few of which I could still get by without knowing Mr. Campari) like aquavit, cachaça, and pisco. The stories of these unique distillations is in itself a lesson in history and culture. Every time I think we are reaching some level of understanding and knowledge, there is another one that appears and begs to be used. I hope David is ready for Cynar because it, and a pronunciation guide, will make an appearance soon.

3. We compared notes this week and the next lesson is one that overlaps for us—taste. There have been more drinks that we have both enjoyed, and a few where we both did not, than there has been disagreement. Next week we will get a better idea of that when we choose our hits and misses, but, before that, there are some generalizations to be drawn. The classic cocktail, in my mind, is the standard sour. Liquor, sweetener and sour element are the basics of that drink. Almost any mix that has followed that simple idea has met my approval. I especially like those with interesting sweeteners like maple, or odd sours like grapefruit. There are other categories of drinks besides the sour, such as those with effervescence from sparkling wine or club soda, that also stand out but in a pinch I fall back on the sour.

4. Another general rule of taste is the use of bitters. It is an odd ingredient in most drinks because, to my taste, it never stands out. In fact you can rarely identify that one has been added, but, like salt, it seems to intensify and improve the other parts of the drink. The drinks that are all liquor, bitter elements and actual bitters have not been my favorite, but take a simple drink like bourbon and ginger then add some Angostura and you can taste a transformation.

5. My final lesson is one that I did not really learn so much as re-learn. Drinking is a social experience. The first and most obvious part of that is the very basis of this blog. David and I started this as a way to interact more, even if it was a virtual interaction. Along the way, my wife has joined me in almost every weekly tasting, as David’s wife has in his. Our children are adults so they not only try some of the drinks, but are great sources for suggestions. There have been tailgates, family visits, happy hours, celebrations and random get-togethers with friends and neighbors. It has reached the point that even as the specific drinks escape memory, the events do not. Of course there is also the virtual interaction with readers who comment on-line, or through text and e-mail. It is a rare week when I do not receive some feedback, suggestion or drink recipe in some form or another. Those of you who keep sending pictures and menu snippets, and you know who you are, keep sending them and I will keep looking for edible glitter.

booksDavid:

I few weeks ago, when we were thinking about ways to celebrate our 52nd post on this blog Jonathan speculated how long we’d keep it up, then asked, “Until we’re famous?” That sounds good to me, mostly because we aren’t famous yet and therefore must continue. This enterprise is too much fun to give up. Beside the benefit Jonathan has mentioned—our increased communication—a weekly cocktail gives me something to look forward to, and, yes, I’m learning. Sure it’s not the same as learning differential equations, but growth is growth. Don’t judge. Though I’m not yet a savvy cocktailian, I’m certainly savvier. Thinking about the lessons of the year, many occurred to me, and as Jonathan said, most won’t be surprising. Still they’re important… just the way this blog is important even if we aren’t famous (yet).

1. Get to know someone. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the helpful and friendly people who answer my every silly question about the difference between Cachaça and Rum and Rhum and Rum. Echoing Jonathan, this blog teaches me how much there is to know, but it also teaches me how many patient, generous, and funny teachers are out there. I don’t get a “Norm!” when I visit my local upscale grocery, but I do get, “What’s the cocktail this week?” and some thorough and thoughtful advice.

2. The alcohol isn’t everything but it’s something. Let me say for the record that inebriation isn’t a good hobby, but Jonathan is right, part of the joy of cocktails is that they announce an intention to relax and a desire to put aside much too crowded and busy lives to share relaxation with others. Were my brother and I involved in a remote popsicle club, I’m sure that’d be fun too, but, in moderation, spirits are much more fun.

3. De gustibus non est disputandum: I’ve memorized few Latin phrases, but I know that one. It means, “There’s no disputing about matters of taste.” Week to week, I’m struck by how differently people react to cocktails. Just when I think no one could possibly stomach an Aviation, my wife asks for another. Human organisms must experience taste (literal and figurative) in so many different ways. And, not to be too philosophical, but what’s worth celebrating more than that?

4. On a related note, smell matters, and not just smell but all the senses matter. I’ve discovered every sense is critical to a cocktail—its look and its taste and its smell and its “mouth feel.” Okay, so maybe its sound doesn’t matter so much, but really enjoying a cocktail requires engaging your whole sensory self. Maybe, in fact, that’s the secret, pausing long enough to appreciate the extraordinary apparatus with which we’re blessed.

5. Don’t overcomplicate the complications. A few times during this journey—okay, more than a few—I’ve thought “Why all the steps?” Yet trouble is part of the investment you make in the result. Although I worry sometimes about all the hoops I make Jonathan leap through—particularly in the spirit-backward state that is North Carolina—anything wonderful is worth working for. I have nothing against simple and elegant cocktails, but as in many matters, the journey endows the destination with special meaning.

Next Week:

Jonathan and I will be examining the hits and misses we’ve encountered this year. It’s not too late to let us know what you think!

The Mint Julep

julepProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

Some weeks the cocktail seems to pick itself. The first Saturday in May is the Kentucky Derby, and of course the Derby means Mint Juleps. It has been the official cocktail of the race since 1938 and thanks to David and my sister-in-law, Beth, I can say that I have enjoyed one (or more) at the home of the Derby, Churchill Downs. I don’t remember what year that was, but that is more about age than it is the sweetened bourbon and its effects.

A julep is a sweetened and flavored drink, originally made with rosewater. Historic accounts note that the original use of mint and sugar to make a julep included other liquors instead of bourbon. In fact, one of the more interesting things is that before its association with Kentucky the julep was tied to Virginia and breakfast of all things. The idea was that folks would mix a spirit with sugar and mint to get going in the morning. As much as I like a julep, I think I will stick with coffee.

Throughout this cocktail adventure, we have added to our collection of appropriate glasses. This is one of few drinks that we have tried that calls for its own style of cup. The traditional julep cup is made of silver or pewter, the better to frost on the outside when properly mixed. These cups aren’t cheap (and beware of the decorative ones popular for flowers and table dressing) but it seemed worth the investment to enjoy the classic.

There are quite a few suggestions how to mix the proper julep, although the ingredients are fairly simple. Bourbon, sugar, mint, water and ice and you are on your way no matter how you choose to get there. It seems like most recipes start with the mint being muddled with sugar and a small amount of water. Ice and bourbon are added and stirred and then more ice is piled in to get the proper chilling.

I don’t particularly like the mint pieces and find the sugar never really dissolves so I went with mint simple syrup and whole mint leaves at the bottom and as a garnish. It should be noted that the type of ice is important. Most recipes say shaved ice, but that is more work than one should undertake for this relaxing drink. Thanks to my wife finding a source and then getting it, we used granular ice which is perfect for this drink.

Here’s David’s Review:Derby'14

My wife is from Louisville, and I met her during the seven years I lived there. So great is my reverence for that place I wouldn’t deign to review the Mint Julep. That would be a little like reviewing air or the earth beneath my feet.

Oh, I know some people don’t like Juleps. They say they are too sweet or too horsey or too watery or too bourbon-y or too Southern. They dislike the snooty pewter or silver cups and picture the drink as emblematic of a time best forgot. They’ve changed the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home,” but no one seems to change them enough, they say. I understand that thinking. The Mint Julep is bigger than itself and evokes more than sweet and minty bourbon.

But, to me, the appeal of a Mint Julep isn’t its associations—or, at least, most of its associations. I think they taste wonderful. Mint is not my favorite flavor generally, but in combination with the mellow, sour drag of bourbon, the mint seems even sprightlier. Many people object to their confection, but, to me, the simple syrup gives the drink gravity and depth as well as sweetness.

And one association I do approve of—the cocktail’s role as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. I can do without the madras plaid pants, the elaborate hats, and the faux gentility of the occasion. I can do without the parade of wealth. I can do without celebrity and prominence and privilege and exclusivity. But I can’t do without the Juleps.

On a visit to Louisville, Jonathan and his wife Debbie went to the Derby with my wife and me, and I remember buying many official Downs’ Juleps from our un-prominent spot in the infield. It was 1988, I think. The commemorative cup was nice—Louisville locals tend to look down on the track version of the drink—but the day was so much better, bright and warm and funny and, with the neighbors we met, more than a little strange. A good part of my affection for Juleps comes from that day and others. When I have a sip of a Julep, I think of Jonathan and Debbie, and, for that alone, I regard it with gratitude.

We identify memories and feelings about those memories by what urges them into our consciousness. Juleps remind me of the years I attended the Oaks the day before the Derby and the many Derby parties my wife and I have attended and hosted since then. More than anything else, the Derby excuses celebrating, and the race, whatever goes on behind the scenes or rattles through the television tube broadcast, offers a thrill that reminds me to be grateful for chance, the sense that nothing has been written yet.

None of which helps anyone understand what a Julep is like or how it might be good or bad. You will have to look for that elsewhere.

David Take: Mint Juleps are May, and vice versa.

Jonathan’s Take: The julep may have chosen us, but I am happy to choose it back.

Next Week (proposed by David):

Both Jonathan and I have sons graduating from college this May. Josh, Jonathan’s son, graduates next week and my son, Ian, on the 21st. In honor of their achievement and with pride in their accomplishment, I’m proposing a Blue Sky Champagne Cocktail. As chance has it, their schools—Carolina and Columbia—use the same blue (almost), and I’d like to raise a toast, with Jonathan, to our boys.

The French 75

French75Proposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

The first order of business is this week’s drink, the French 75. Like many of the cocktails we have tried there is some dispute as to its origin. The best information points to Paris and a drink named after an artillery weapon because of its hard hitting conclusion and that is the one I like the best. Clearly dating to at least the early part of the 20th century, the French 75 is named after a 75mm howitzer and is a mix of spirit, sweet, citrus, and sparkling wine. There is some disagreement, or at least a difference in taste, about whether it should be made with gin or cognac. Here is the recipe that I decided to use:

1.5 ounce Cognac

.5 ounce simple syrup

.5 ounce fresh lemon juice

Sparkling wine (I used Cava this time)

The idea of proposing a sparkling wine based drink is that we are in that holiday period of drinks that are part of gatherings and celebrations. This drink fills that role wonderfully. Not as basic as a simple pour of bubbly, the French 75 adds a complexity through the cognac and along with that a kick. It may be a factor of suggestion, but the drinks with effervescence always seem to cry out for sipping lest they hit with the quick power of the aforementioned artillery piece.

A secondary purpose of suggesting this drink was to introduce the concept of toasts. The subject would take far more than a simple blog post to explore, but as with the drink, tis the season for such things and there are some basics worth exploring.

Toasts are definitely cultural, and any discussion should include the customs and etiquette that accompany them. Certain countries, think Ireland, are famous for toasts of all types while others, Russia in this case, are cited for a toast before each drink. It can be considered bad taste to toast with water, to not drink after toasting, or to miss out on touching glasses with each person toasting. One of my favorite tidbits is that toasting may have started with mistrust and the partial sharing of drinks to be sure that none of the drinks were poisoned. In fact, it is said that the touching of glasses, the clinking that has become spoken in many cultures, is a sign of trust the drink need not be shared to ensure the absence of poison. The best part of almost every cultural tradition of toasting is the recognition that the sharing of drinks is the sharing of company. That is something I always consider, even if David and I share virtually, as I try each week’s drink.

Almost everyone has a favorite toast even if they do not know the origin. I have always liked the simple “a votre sante” which is most basically translated as “to your health”. Similarly many offer “salud” or “health” to say the same thing, which is the common wish that your fellow drinker experience good health or good fortune. Na Zdrovie is another well-known example of wishing “to your health” although most associate it with incorrectly with Russian toasts (it does not actually translate that way) instead of the Polish Na zdrowie where it actually is a wish for health.

My favorite toast has always been “here’s mud in your eye” although, and probably because, I have no idea what that really means. There are biblical explanations (Jesus rubbing clay in the blind man’s eyes to restore his health/sight), historic (soldiers in muddy trenches), and agricultural (used by farmers for no good darn reason that I have heard). The best explanation, or at least the one I like the best, is that it originates from horse racing. The idea is that the lead horse has clear racing and those that follow have the mud of the race course flying in their eyes as they trail. An alternate, but similar, explanation is that it was a way of saying “so long” before downing the drink and taking off on horse with mud flying back at the other drinkers. No matter what the explanation – here’s mud in your eye!

french 752Here’s David’s Review:

Though I’d never describe myself as a “foodie,” I’ve eaten in enough fancy restaurants to know that simplicity and sophistication often arrive together. A good chef makes salad, asparagus, mashed potatoes and seared scallops so delicious, you may feel as if you’ve never really consumed them before.

I feel that way about the French 75, which, with just four ingredients, offers a bright, refreshing, and novel cocktail. Though the lemon juice makes this drink somewhat reminiscent of a gimlet or even a daiquiri, the cognac gives it more warmth and depth, and the sparkling wine (we used prosecco) gives it a light, celebratory lift.

It seems the perfect accompaniment to hor d’oeuvres and conversation, sweeter than white wine and yet tart enough not to be cloying. After last week’s dense, eggy, homestyle cocktail, this one seemed especially buoyant, more nectar than batter. Using no spices or bitters, the French 75 is direct and natural, the perfect answer to all the heavy food and buttery, cinnamon-y, nutmeg-y, clove-y flavors proliferating this time of year.

Online, like Jonathan, I found recipes that called for gin rather than cognac, but, to me, gin would only scuttle the drink. Introducing botanical and bitter elements would certainly make its flavor profile more complex, but simplicity seems the soul of this cocktail’s appeal.

As Jonathan says, this drink gets its name from a French field gun because it’s supposed to possess a similar kick, but I’m not sure it has much in common with artillery. Quite the contrary, the drink went down very easily. We had it Christmas afternoon just before the meal and regretted that we only had enough lemons for each of us to have one, as the French 75 seems something you could drink a lot of.

While my experience with champagne tells me having many might be a bad idea, you may find your judgment slipping if you like this drink as much as I did.

On the matter of toasts, I received a book devoted to the topic in my stocking, a suitable accompaniment to this week’s drink. Among the information offered is a list of toasts by nationality. My favorites, strictly by pronunciation (because I have no idea of meaning) are: Gan Bei (Gan BAY: Chinese), Hulu pau (Hoo-lee pow: Hawaiian), Heko (hee-ko: Swahilii), and Vô (Voh: Vietnamese). Please don’t ask me any more—they just sound cool.

Jonathan’s Take: The classics, and French 75 is certainly one, never seem to disappoint. Consider adding it to your New Years traditions.

David’s Take: Here’s one I’ll remember and repeat for celebrations ahead.

Next Week (proposed by David):

My proposals haven’t always been so successful, so I’ve decided to embrace being the bold and quirky cocktailian brother. I’m sending Jonathan to the liquor store for Aquavit (a Scandinavian caraway flavored spirit) to create a drink named after Rosalind Russell, the actress most famous for His Girl Friday and the movie version of Auntie Mame. She also married a Danish-American, which may be where she developed a taste for Aquavit, a rather odd ingredient. I hope everyone is up for a challenge—who knows what to expect, besides fun, fun.