Monday, December 26, 2011

The Blazing Fireplace

Here's a spontaneous Christmas drink.  Enjoy and have a very merry one.

1 oz rye whiskey
1 oz cognac
3/4 oz cranberry-apple syrup
3 dashes orange bitters

Shake lightly and strain into a chilled cocktail glass; add about 1 oz chilled brut champagne.  Grate nutmeg on top and smile.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Especially with the last couple of recipes, I hope that I've impressed on you that this is intended to be more than a rote list of cocktails.  After all, there are many books that fill that niche far more effectively than I could ever hope to.  My intent here is to include recipes for other goodies that require more patience and practice than skill: punches, cordials, bitters, and so on.  For now, let's start with something more basic: syrups.  Syrups are an integral part of many older cocktails and a solid bartender's tool, so I like to keep a couple on hand.  Simple syrup, true to its name, is as easy as it gets to make at home, and flavoring is a breeze.

A simple syrup is nothing more than one part sugar and one part water, heated until the sugar dissolves.  Easy, right?  It appears as a sweetener in many early cocktail recipes because at the time, the word cocktail referred specifically to a base liquor with the addition of sugar, water, and bitters.  Working bartenders soon realized that simple syrup easily replaced two of those ingredients readily.  In later years when cocktail referred to a much broader range of drinks, they applied the potential for adding new flavors.  Raspberry and pineapple syrups both appear in a number of recipes from the years before Prohibition, and both are very simple to make, requiring only a bit of patience.

Honestly, syrups are amenable to endless variation, and since I know of only two syrups that can readily be purchased (and not even good ones at that) you'll likely have to make them on your own.  Rather than giving an exact recipe, here's my standard procedure for just about any syrup.

First, start with 1 1/2 parts sugar to 1 part water.  Quantity is unimportant; you can make a half-cup or a gallon, so long as you start out with this basic ratio.  Yes, I know I said that simple syrup is composed of equal parts water and sugar, but there's good reason for this choice.  Before Prohibition, most spirits were bottled at whatever proof they dripped out of the still at, commonly around 100 (50% alcohol by volume) or higher.  Nowadays, producers typically blend the finished spirit with some water to arrive at a final 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume).  If you're staying true to classic cocktail recipes, you don't need the extra water; in fact, you don't need it if you're making up a new drink either.  Some cocktail writers (such as the esteemed David Wondrich) go with a "rich syrup" with twice as much sugar as water, but I think that's just a bit much.  For one, boiling the syrup will drive off some water anyway; for two, if there are any tiny particles floating around in there, excess sugar can recrystalize around them and leave you with big clumps (basically, wet rock candy).

Add the water and sugar to a pot and apply medium heat, stirring with a whisk or spoon until the sugar is fully dissolved.  Let the mixture come to a simmer (i.e. bubbles just barely breaking the surface) and turn off the heat.  Let the syrup cool until it's warm (i.e. until you can touch the side of the pot without burning yourself) and pour into whatever container you want.  Remember that the final volume of this solution will be roughly the volume of water plus half the volume of sugar; thus, 1 1/2 cups of sugar dissolved in 1 cup of water will make about 1 3/4 cups of syrup.  Easy, right?

For a flavored syrup, pour this while still warm over your ingredient of choice.  The list of available options is endless:

  • fresh raspberries
  • pineapple
  • tart apples (such as Granny Smith)
  • roasted squash (as we've covered in previous recipes)
  • cucumber

Etcetera, etcetera.  After pouring on the syrup, let this stand for about 8 hours, or approximately overnight.  Whether it's finished at that point depends on many factors, so let taste be your guide.  If it's not strong enough, let it stand for another 4 hours, then another 4, and so on.

I can guarantee that the very best tool for this process is a French-style coffee press.  Place the ingredient in the pitcher, pour the syrup over it, and then place the top on with the plunger out.  In the morning you can simply push down and pour off the now-cooled syrup into your container of choice.  If you notice some lingering cloudiness or any small particles in the result, do yourself a favor and run it through a coffee filter (preferably when the syrup is still slightly warm).  This will take some time, but will prevent your syrup from re-crystalizing and forming big, nasty clumps.

The leftovers are usually good for a quick-infused cordial; you can pour in a few ounces of vodka (or brandy, or whatever you've got) to cover and leave it for another 24 hours.  Again, the coffee press is your friend.  This is a strictly optional step, but it seems a shame to let valuable flavors go to waste.  Depending on the specific ingredient, there may be other recycling methods available.  Thinly sliced coins of ginger, for example, make an excellent garnish if candied by tossing in extra sugar and laying them out on a cooling rack to dry.

Now, there are a handful of exceptions to the process above.  Fresh herbs, for instance, work very nicely in syrups (thyme syrup is perhaps my all-time favorite) but get bitter if steeped too long, and they really do need some heat to extract their essence.  These, I simmer (not boil) in the syrup for 20-30 minutes, tasting occasionally (remembering that it's very hot, and that the flavor will sweeten as it cools).  Strain this into a heatproof vessel and let cool.

I'll also blatantly contradict myself by stating that you may want to vary the starting ratio of sugar to water depending on how much water your flavoring agent will contribute.  Pineapple, for instance, is very juicy, and will dilute your syrup as it steeps.  In order to arrive at the target ratio of 3:2, you'll need to reduce the water slightly to compensate.  Likewise, if you're making an herb syrup you may want to add slightly more water to account for evaporation during that half-hour simmer.

Another consideration is what kind of sugar you'll use, as not all are created equally.  The blindingly white, fine variety most commonly found in today's supermarkets is fine, if a bit vanilla: it will contribute sweetness, and not much else.  Natural sugars (turbinado is easy to find) tend to have a more robust flavor which is what you want with, say, pineapple or squash syrups.  But I wouldn't use it with subtle flavors like cucumber, melon, or pear; in these cases the white stuff is perfect because it won't walk over the flavoring agent.  As always, let taste and experience be your guides.

Once you've got the final syrup, bottle and refrigerate it.  If kept tightly sealed this should keep for about a month.  If you're looking for longer storage, take a tip from David Wondrich as I do and spike the syrup with a dash of 151-proof spirits (vodka is preferable because it's neutral, but rum will work too).

Well, now that we've covered that, I won't feel as obligated to write out a full recipe whenever I reference a home-made sweetener.  Yeah, I didn't think you'd mind.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Yuletide Milk Punch

Here's something slightly different for the holidays: a large-bore recipe, suitable for making in bulk.  I'm both giving these as gifts and setting some away for later consumption.  The recipe is largely swiped from David Wondrich's Punch (full of other marvelous tipples too) although I have downsized it and added my own flavors. The result is something like a dessert wine, although more unctuous, and certainly a good deal stiffer.

Again: this is a recipe that you make in bulk, mostly because it's a pain and hardly worth making in miniature.  For the adventurous, it's well worth the journey.

You'll need 2 liters of brandy - preferably something decent, although it's not worth using top-tier cognac.  A reasonable French brandy such as Raynal VSOP is fine.  If you use domestic brandy, pick at least a VSOP (though remember that use of the grading system is unregulated outside of France).  Alternatively, pick out a 1.75L bottle and make up for the missing amount with a nice, rich dark rum such as Gosling's Black Seal.  Interesting results might also be achieved with a good slug of bourbon or rye whiskey.

Peel 4 lemons and 1 orange using a vegetable peeler, avoiding as much of the white pith as possible, and steep them in the liquor for at least 24 hours.  Squeeze as much of the citrus juice as possible into a one-quart jar, fill to the top with water, cover and refrigerate.

When the brandy is ready, pour it into a large pot and add 1 lb of dark natural sugar (such as turbinado).  Pour in the citrus-water blend, refill the jar with cool water, add it, and heat until warm.  Then, add a one-quart container of whole milk and continue heating until the milk curdles.  Grate in one whole nutmeg and half of a cinnamon stick and let infuse for an hour, stirring about every fifteen minutes.  Finally, add one teaspoon of vanilla extract and stir one last time.

Pour this through a fine sieve (a very clean dish towel, pillowcase, t-shirt, etc.) into your storage vessel of choice, squeezing to extract as much liquid as possible.  Discard the resulting curd; technically the stuff is edible, but I don't think the term "delicious" applies, certainly not without careful preparation for a deep-fry. Refrigerate the punch for a couple of days, letting what must settle do its business, then carefully pour off into clean bottles.  Use a coffee filter and a funnel to avoid both impurities and waste.

You can refrigerate the bottles or store them at cellar temperature (i.e. cool, but not cold).  The final product can be served many ways.  Pour it over ice and you have a lovely digestif; add soda water with a dash of bitters, and you have an apertif.  Add even more soda water (bitters optional) for a cooling long drink, or add hot water instead for a warming one (a little extra sugar and grating of nutmeg are welcome).

Best of all, Milk Punch makes a wonderful gift.  Slap on labels if you want, ribbons if you like, bows if you must, and hand the bottles out at your Annual Winter Holiday Celebration of Choice.  Most of all, please do enjoy.

Friday, December 9, 2011

NAFTA Cooler

I'm mostly recording this on the basis of its name, which emerged spontaneously from what I had at hand.

3/4 oz bourbon (mmmmm, Buffalo Trace)
3/4 oz aƱejo tequila
3/4 oz aged rum (I used Pusser's, which has both a fascinating history and a wonderful funk)
1/2 oz rich ginger syrup (use Turbinado or other natural sugar, with a sugar-to-water ratio of about 1.5:1)
Juice of 1/2 lime

Pour over ice in a Collins glass, stir well, and fill with soda water.

I love long drinks.  Amazingly, this remains refreshing despite the cold weather where I live.  The result is something like a deep and complex Long Island Iced Tea.  Alternate name: the Panama Canal Iced Tea.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Uppercut

I don't know why it's named this, other than the punch it packs.

1 1/2 oz aquavit (use the aged Norwegian varietyLinie is a good go-to brand)
1/2 oz maraschino liqueur (Luxardo, as always)
1/2 oz Cynar (everyone's favorite artichoke apertif! yes, really.)
1/4 oz lime juice
1 dash absinthe

Stir vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass; spear a brandied cherry and stir into the drink as garnish.

This is a rather incisive drink, filled with bitter orange, cherry, dark spices, and rich herbs.  I'd also be happy to try this with brandy (something fairly young, 3 years or less) or a rye whiskey in place of the aquavit, but would bet it wouldn't be quite as interesting.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Pirate

Like the Cougar Bite, this is an older drink of mine, one that found its way onto the list of the restaurant where I sporadically tend bar.  Unlike the Cougar Bite, though, it never did sell particularly well and fell victim to the seasonality of its main sweetening agent.  I honestly don't give a damn, though - this is still one of my absolute favorite cocktails.

I think of this as very much a bartender's drink rather than a mixologist's.  For one, it was conceived as a way to use up some extra bottles of E&J brandy that had been accidentally ordered by our manager.  For two, it's a relatively simple drink, and quick to turn out.  For three, it's very amenable to substitution and adjustment, making it really more a class of drinks (like the Collins) than a single recipe.

Here's the original form, the so-called Colonial Pirate:

1 1/2 oz brandy (E&J, as noted above, but any will do, though VSOP-grade or better is preferable)
3/4 oz rich pineapple syrup*
1 large dash Fee's Aztec Chocolate bitters
1 large dash Fee's Aromatic bitters**

Shake the above lightly, strain into a cocktail glass, and top off with about 1oz of dry sparkling wine to taste (Champagne, Cava, California bubbly, whatever you've got).

*This one actually is easy, unlike that damned squash syrup.  Bring a syrup of two cups turbinado or other natural sugar and one cup water to a simmer, then pour over a peeled and cored pineapple sliced into 1/2 inch cubes.  Let stand for 24 hours and pour through a fine strainer, making sure to reserve the pineapple cubes, as they make a very nice garnish if rolled in additional fine sugar and dried on a cooling rack.

**We used to use a ras el hanout bitters in the restaurant, but this makes a reasonable substitute.

Again, this is a drink with endless potential for variation.  Ran out of brandy and need to use rum?  No problem - you'll have a Caribbean Pirate (I sometimes name them specifically after the island from whence the rum hails, resulting in the "Barbados Pirate", "Cuban Pirate", etc.)  The Dutch Pirate is made with genever in place of the brandy; the Scandinavian Pirate uses aquavit, which results in perhaps my favorite variation.  And so on.  Vary the fruit, if you like - just stick with a medium-dark natural sugar.  Mango makes an excellent alternative, though you should add a dash of lime juice to compensate for the missing tartness.  For any of these, vary the amount of bubbly to taste; add slowly, stir and taste frequently.  You want to add crispness without overwhelming the drink's spicy, rich texture.  I'm gonna go make another one.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Three Passionfruit Drinks

Had some Passionfruit Juice sitting around and decided to play around with it.  Here are three satisfactory resulting recipes, all built upon the same basic formula:

2 oz bourbon
3/4 oz red vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
3 oz passionfruit juice
(if using a particularly fragrant vermouth like Carpano Antica, as I did, the bitters can and should be omitted)

2 oz 5-year rum (I used the El Dorado from Guyana)
3/4 oz Benedictine
2 dashes spare mint tincture*
3 oz passionfruit juice
*(this is incredibly easy to make, if time-intensive: next time you make a few Mojitos, save the mint stems, break them up into 1-inch lengths, and steep in vodka for around 4-6 months, shaking every week or so, then strain off)

2 oz gin (any style, from Old Tom to London Dry to oude genever, would be appropriate here)
3/4 maraschino liqueur (again the Luxardo, obviously)
2 dashes Fee's Cranberry Bitters
3 oz passionfruit juice

For all of the above, fill a double old-fashioned glass (or something around 10-12 oz) with cracked ice and add the ingredients; slap on a shaker tin, agitate, and pour unstrained back into the mixing glass.