Tuesday, December 30, 2014


A solid highball, suitable for consuming in the winter months.

2 oz sour orange juice (nice sour oranges are good for this; you can also supplement navel orange juice with citric acid)
1 1/2 oz blended scotch
1/2 oz Loonshine
1/2 oz squash-brown sugar syrup
1/2 oz pineapple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters

Shake and pour unstrained into... well, any glass really. What is this "gar-nish" you speak of?


A very incise, woodsy, herbal drink. I think I'm gonna make quite a few of these.

1 oz rye whiskey (Bulleit)
1/2 oz Loonshine
1/2 oz Cynar
1/2 oz sweet vermouth (Cocchi Torino)
15 drops Bittercube Door County Hops Bitters

Stir and strain over a large ice cube in an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a strip of lemon peel.

Loony Lemonade

An easy drink, this, and way too easy-drinking. Sorry about the awful name, but it was just too easy.

1 1/2 oz Loonshine
1 oz thyme syrup
1 oz lemon juice

Combine over ice and top with 4-5 oz soda water. Stir and garnish with a large lemon coin.

Spirits: Loonshine

Coming to us from Loon Liquors in Northfield, MN! That's pretty dang local, kids.

This tasty Loonshine stuff is made with organic wheat and barley, which probably explains why I like it so much. A lot of moonshines are made with corn, which makes them cloyingly sweet; this is sweet too, but with a nice spicy backbone and a distinct dried-herb character. It's got a lot of funky ester, no doubt, but in a pleasant way, soft like a nice white rum.

Such was its success that I bring you three distinct cocktails made with it tonight. WE DRANK THEM ALL. Whee!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Spirits: Pure Peruvian Piscos

Impromptu pisco tasting, anyone?

Okay, not exactly impromptu. I started this one literal months ago, only to have it wiped out by a server error. Horribly enough, it's taken me this long to rebuild it (thanks to alternating cycles of work and lassitude) but I think it's worth the time.

The most irking thing about the erasure was that I've been meaning to do this post for a long while. I am an avid fan of pisco and I don't think it gets enough recognition in cocktails, so I feel duty-bound to spread the word. For those not in the know, pisco is technically a brandy, produced in high-altitude winemaking regions along the western coast of South America in Chile and Peru. It's produced from grapes in copper-pot stills, giving it a characteristic funk that isn't mellowed by oak aging (as it would be in cognac or most other brandies).

Pisco was first introduced by Spaniard colonists who planted grape vines in the viniculture-friendly mountainous regions of Chile and Peru. Like traditional European brandies, pisco was created as a means of preserving excess or poor-quality wine. It probably would have remained a mostly local spirit if not for some lucky geography and timing: specifically, the California Gold Rush.

Here's the thing: despite their rough-and-tumble image, the prospectors and forty-niners who sought gold in California were a thirsty and surprisingly discerning lot. Champagne and spirits of all kinds were in high demand in the boomtown of San Francisco, but supplying them was challenging. At the time, no overland rail route connected the east and west coasts, so supplies had to be shipped in arduously by covered wagon or much more efficiently by sea. However, the Panama Canal wouldn't be opened for another sixty years, so ships had to take the long way around the tip of South America to reach California. On the way, they'd put in at ports along the western coast of the continent, including one very appropriately called Pisco (situated on a valley and river of the same name). This would have been the perfect opportunity to stock up on some high-margin product for sale in San Francisco.

(This town called Pisco, by the way, is Peru's reasonably-compelling basis for arguing that the term "pisco" should be applied only to Peruvian products as a designation of origin, similar to the AOC/DOC systems that protect European wines. There's long-standing animosity between Chile and Peru over where the spirit originated, among many other topics, and the two countries have some modestly different legal standards for production. Exports from either can be labelled as "pisco" here in the United States.)

Pisco grew further in popularity in San Francisco as the boomtown began stabilizing and a "sporting fraternity" (similar to today's "frat bros", only in bowler hats) started taking hold. What really put it on the map was Pisco Punch, composed of pisco, pineapple syrup, and citrus; this could be had at dozens of saloons and drinking establishments clustered together in the nascent port--in fact some of them served nothing but Pisco Punch. It became briefly faddish in New York, too, but exports quickly dwindled due to economics. Demand for cotton was growing in Europe, and Peruvian wine producers found that they could make more money by switching to cotton production; this became especially true when exports from the American South collapsed during the Civil War. By the 1870s, rail lines were starting to connect San Francisco to the rest of the country, making overland shipping practical; after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the port of Pisco became a marked detour rather than a rest stop for ships bound for California. After dwindling sales for years, Prohibition killed off pisco in the American market except for a couple of holdouts in its old home of San Francisco. This happened with many other spirits, of course, but I consider pisco a particular loss.

The agent of pisco's resurgence was another drink, a derivative of Pisco Punch that remained popular in San Francisco long after supplies had dried up in the rest of the country. The Pisco Sour was my first introduction to the spirit; it combines pisco with simple syrup, lemon juice, and an egg white to great effect. The pineapple's a great element in Pisco Punch, though, so all things being equal I like a mash-up of the two drinks.

Nowadays, the modern mixological revival has brought pisco back to shelves, much of it Peruvian. In addition to the brands tasted here, there's Pisco Porton, Encanto, and a few others; Chilean brands are a bit harder to come by, except for the Capel brand which is near-ubiquitous (at least in my local market). Peruvian pisco is generally drier, being made primarily from the dry Quebranta grape, while the Chilean version is lighter and more floral, characteristics of the Muscat grape. As always, there are exceptions and variations; Peru recognizes an "aromatico" style that's similar to the Chilean version, for example.

Alright, enough background.  Enter the piscos.

Barsol Primero Quebranta

About: This is a very classically-styled pisco, crafted in the Ica region of Peru, which includes the province of Pisco (as well as the famous Nazca Lines). It's a "puro" style, meaning it's crafted entirely from Quebranta grapes, which are relatively dry and non-aromatic. However, the altitude and climate produce a dense juice which results in a flavorful distillate. According to Peruvian law, pisco can only be distilled once, must be rested in steel aging vessels, and can't be diluted before being bottled, so this is about as unadulterated as they come.

Oh, and a fun fact: Barsol is also available in other styles, including an aromatico, and they don't look much different except for a strip of color on the label. I haven't sampled those, so your mileage may vary.

Tasting Notes: Definitely the most subtle pisco here, light and subtly vegetal at first. A dark herbal quality starts building as it sits on your palate, with hints of white pepper, honey, and pear. Very smooth until the finish, where the pot-still funk comes out a bit, but just enough. I like sipping on this one straight, especially if slightly chilled.

Cesar Pisco Especial

About: Oddly enough, I can't find out a ton about this one. Most of my searches only turn up sites that parrot the marketing copy, without much added information about the distiller or product. The best description of its base material I can find is "black grapes" which could mean just about anything. However, the company also sells a Pisco Puro made from Quebranta, and a Pisco Italia made from Muscat, so it's a fair bet that this is an acholado, meaning a blend of multiple grape varieties. Are all of them actually black varietals? Tough to say, nor can we know much else about the production process, which is a shame, because it makes a pretty decent pisco, and one that's reasonably affordable.

Tasting Notes: Starts off with subtle stone fruit (reminding me mostly of a good pluot) and a slightly creamy texture. Mineral and chalky flavors develop on the palate, with a little bit of red fruit. The finish turns floral with a funky backbone, but doesn't linger too long. I like this one in highballs or with a simple mixer; it plays nicely with other ingredients and hides itself smoothly.

Macchu Pisco

About: As compared to the last, this one is a lot easier to figure out. Macchu's website is most helpful! This core product of theirs is primarily made from Quebranta and distilled quite traditionally, to the point of pressing their grapes by foot. Like Barsol, the distillery is located in Ica, and is apparently run by a relatively young producer. More power to her, I say. It's amazing that although these distillers look similar on paper, their products are very different. After trying them side-by-side, I'm inclined to agree with Jason Wilson's point that much of pisco's flavor comes from its terroir, or the contribution of the land where the grapes are grown.

Tasting Notes: This one is the boldest of the bunch, starting off with a heady nose of fresh pear.  It's lightly sweet and creamy up front, until the palate takes off into minerals and copper-still funk.  There are long notes of thyme and sage that carry over into an extended funky, heady finish.  This is an excellent pisco in classic cocktails like the Pisco Punch or Pisco Sour, because it stays assertive even with plenty of citrus (and egg, if that's how you like your Sours).

So: pisco! We continue to see more enter our local market (I've only seen Macchu start cropping up in the last few months) and I'm looking forward to trying interesting acholados and aromaticos. As with cognac, it's impressive to see how differences in growing conditions influence the final spirit. Maybe pisco is a bit less refined than the granddaddy of French brandy, but you also don't have to pay through the nose for it. Win-win!

I'm also running some experiments to see if pisco will respond well to oak aging - using staves at first, maybe running up to barrels if I see initial success. But that'll have to be a future post.

Cedar & Gold

Here's another fun Ampersand riff for you, this one closer to traditional than our last.

We've dealt with this Boreal Cedar Gin before - I like it, but think it works best when paired with another spirit. It's pretty cedar-y (to coin a word) and richer flavors help bring it into balance. The term unique applies, but that's not a problem.

1 oz Vikre Boreal Cedar Gin (I'm gonna have to make the drive and see the distillery soon!)
1 oz Laird's Applejack (in lieu of proper brandy)
1 oz sweet vermouth (Cocchi Torino)
1 dash Regan's No. 6 orange bitters

Stir (using a chopstick if you're classy like me) and strain into a cocktail glass. Eschew garnish in all its forms.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Xmas

Hello! I'm up late reading some fancy new books. Hope you're having a delightful Christmas too.

So far Death & Co appears to be a superb pro bartender's book: exhaustive, gorgeously illustrated, well-organized, and packed with recipes. It is beautiful, and there are many drinks inside I want to try.

There's also Liquid Intelligence, which is... intense. There are charts! Graphs! Precision machinery! Liquid nitrogen and vaccuum-packing and carbonation, oh my. Gonna take a while to digest this one but it looks really fun.

Looks like I'll need to update the recommended reading list.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Old Hat

Merry Christmas! We had a blast of a party this year, but one of my favorite bits was presenting this year's booze-themed gift, a fully-fledged cocktail in its own right. Eric & Sam's "Old Hat" Handmade Bottled Cocktail! Coming soon to a store near you!*

*never actually coming to any stores anywhere

I dig the concept of bottled cocktails. They don't tend to work well with citrus or egg, neither of which hold up to extended storage, but most spirit or liqueur-based drinks do quite well in the bottle. Batching in advance this way provides a couple useful features: bottled cocktails are consistent, easy to serve, and easy to transport. They're increasingly popping up even in good cocktail bars, primarily for those first two reasons, but the third makes them a quality party favor too.

At its core, this is a modified Vieux Carré, a cocktail that I've loved and riffed on for a while. In addition to rye, brandy, and sweet vermouth, the original features Bénédictine; this version swaps that out for Casoni 1814, which we discussed recently. Along with some hefty dashes of bitters for balance, and a little absinthe to add back the herbal component, this makes for a drink that manages to be both subtle and complex (though I'm starting to brag now). And now, the recipe, so that it can be recreated in perpetuity!

Here's the cast of characters, with one important exception. The thing about bottled cocktails is that unless you're going to serve them over ice, they don't get diluted in the same way that stirred or shaken drinks do, so you've got to add the water missing from the final product. Without it, the balance won't be right at all. (Update after extensive testing: I've found that I like my Old Hat best over a large ice cube with a lemon twist; I probably could have upped the water content a bit more for serving neat.)

So, to produce 1 liter of bottled cocktail, you'll need:

300 mL rye whiskey (I used the mild Old Overholt here, so I bumped up the proportion a little)
250 mL French brandy (I'm not going to insist on cognac, but it must be quality stuff, and French is a reliable indicator of smoothness)
250 mL sweet vermouth (that's Noilly Prat in the picture, but I actually used Cinzano in the finished product)
50 mL Casoni 1814
10 mL absinthe
10 mL thyme syrup (any syrup would be just fine, it's mostly for texture)
150 mL filtered water
10 dashes Peychaud's bitters
5 dashes holiday spice bitters
5 dashes Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas bitters (7-8 dashes of Angostura would be an acceptable substitute for these last two)

Stir all of the above and bottle (a funnel is helpful). It will taste differently when chilled, and you'll overdilute if you stir it with ice, so leave it be for now. Astute readers may have noticed that this yields slightly over 1 liter; that's because you should pour off a tasting portion once the bottle cools down. Strictly to check your work, you see.

Here's a nice bonus picture of the labels, which were painstakingly handwritten out by yours truly. Like garnish, I generally discount labeling, which just doesn't seem all that important - except when it is. Handing out unlabeled bottles of high-proof booze seems a little bit shady to me. And if you're gonna have labels, they might as well be classy, old-school styled, hand-lettered ones, right?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tonic'ed Martini

Just a quick one for you today before my last day at the restaurant (for the second time!)

2 oz London dry gin (Tanqueray)
3/4 oz Cocchi Americano
5 dashes Bitter Truth Tonic Bitters (tasty stuff - the amount seems like a lot for this style of drink, but this takes a decent quantity to make itself known)

Stir and strain, garnish with a lime (or lemon) twist.

Yeah, it's a pretty basic twist on the Martini formula, but the end result was tasty!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Best Boulevardier

The picture says it all on this one! The only thing original here is the specific combination of brands, which wound up being such an impressive one that it deserved recording.

The formula here is pretty much a standard Boulevardier, though as with a Negroni I dial up the spirit a bit.

2 oz Bernhein Original wheat whiskey
1 oz Casoni 1814 (think a softer version of Campari)
1 oz sweet vermouth (obviously Noilly Prat here)
7 dashes Bitter Truth Tonic Bitters (the 1814 isn't as bitter as Campari; this helps to fill the gap)

Pour over ice and stir thoroughly. If I'd had some, I would have garnished with a big strip of grapefruit peel.

Punch for 50

I love our chalkboard paint!

The recipe at left pretty much says it all - I decided to put this up in our kitchen, so that I didn't have to repeat it over and over if anyone asked. Nobody really did, but it seemed to go down well. And my mother-in-law, whose birthday it was created to celebrate, requested a repeat at Thanksgiving. I'll take that as high praise!

To be honest, the shape and size of this chalkboard (painted onto an archway in our kitchen) made for a greatly simplified description anyway, and I figured this would be the place for a detailed breakdown.

Okay, so first, the ratio written out here actually came from two separate syrups I'd made previously: an orange-vanilla oleo-saccharum and a spiced cranberry-brown sugar syrup. These were tasty, but each a bit labor intensive, so I combined them into a single syrup for mass production. Prepare as follows:

Peel three medium-large navel oranges, avoiding the white pith, and place the peels into a large nonreactive work bowl. Add in 1 cup of sugar and muddle the oranges until the sugar sticks to the peels. Set these aside for at least 45 minutes and let the sugar absorb the orange oils to form the oleo-saccharum; add an additional sprinkle of sugar and toss if the peels start looking excessively wet.

Set a large pot (at least 4 quarts) over medium heat and toss in a few spices: 2 teaspoons each black peppercorn and allspice berries, plus two nutmegs and two cinnamon sticks smashed into several large pieces. Give these a quick stir or keep the pan moving until they become fragrant, then pour in 4 cups of water (this will bubble up a bit, don't be scared). Bring this to a simmer, then pour in 5 cups of sugar and about 2 tablespoons of molasses (I eyeball this, as it's too much trouble to measure). Stir until the sugar dissolves, then add in a pound of frozen cranberries, because they'll leach out into the syrup better than fresh.

Head back to your orange oleo-saccharum; at this point, a significant amount of oil from the peels should have been absorbed by the sugar. Use a spatula to scrape the peels and sugar into the syrup, bring the pot back up to a bare simmer, and kill the heat. Let the whole thing cool and infuse for a couple of hours.

Once the syrup has cooled off, add the juice from the oranges, plus 2 teaspoons of good vanilla extract. Stir and run the syrup through a sieve to remove the solids. At this point, I poured the syrup into a clean 1.75 L bottle for storage, because I love my Tanqueray handles.

To serve, pour the syrup base into a large punch bowl. Refill the empty container with cold water, add that, and then 4 cups of fresh lemon juice along with 2 liters of soda water. Add in some large ice cubes to keep the whole thing cold and garnish with a few thin slices of orange and some extra cranberries. In fact, if I had thought ahead, I might have frozen those into the ice cubes.

Once again, I forgot to take a picture of the final product. Sigh. Serve the punch alongside a white wine (an inexpensive California chardonnay in this case) and a few bottles of spirit. One of these was Jameson, of course (it's my mother-in-law's whiskey of choice) but gin was quite popular as well. This has become just about my favorite party trick - easy to prepare ahead of time, easy to assemble, flexible, fun for guests, and endlessly remixable. That's a tough act to beat.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sangria Theorems

In college, I took several statistical analysis classes, which I found I had a decent understanding of despite never being all that capable with mathematics in general. When facing concrete values mapped out in a scatter-plot or a density function, I could quickly get a surprisingly accurate feel for the data without crunching the numbers.

Oddly enough, my approach to sangria is similar. You're almost certainly familiar with the concept: wine, steeped with fruit, spiked with brandy, and lightened with soda. It's a lovely Spanish beverage, one that I keep in constant rotation around here, for a couple key reasons no matter the season:
  1. I have a habit of shopping the discount-wine aisle at local liquor stores, which is a crapshoot. Sometimes you get quality wine for a bargain, sometimes you get awful stuff that's undrinkable without adulteration. (That said, I stand by this approach, because inoffensive and inexpensive wine most definitely has its place.) Sangria helps me utilize crummy wine without waste, and better stuff if we don't drink it quickly enough.
  2. Sangria is far more flexible than its traditional formulation, and it's a great way to use up extra syrups, liqueurs, vermouths, or fruits which are past their prime.
  3. My wife needs something easy to pop-and-pour when I'm not around, and she likes sangria. She's the one that suggested writing this up in the first place.
Now, there are lots of recipes for sangria out there; it's enjoyed a nice return to form in the last few years as food and drink writers have stepped up their game. This here is not so much a recipe, more of a vague format. When my wife suggested writing this post, my first protest was that even though I make sangria constantly, I never actually remember what's in it. Random fruit, random wine, some random fortifiers, steeped for a few days? By the time it's done, I've forgotten exactly what fruits I used, and about the best I can do for the wine is identify its color. Also, remember that I'm using this as a dumping-ground recipe, where the objective is to use whatever I've got; I'm not going out and buying some specific fruit according to a recipe! 

What I do have is a general approach to sangria-making, and a set of proportions that guide my hand. With some on-the-fly adjustment, it turns out that's all you really need.

First, obviously, you'll need wine. A standard (750 mL) bottle will do, or an equal quantity of boxed stuff. Boxed wine is quite amenable to sangria treatment; it's usually straightforward and definitely cost-effective. Red wine would be traditional, but I see no reason to stick to tradition; white or rose wines are suitable for sangria, and are in fact a great improvement during the warmer months. The only real wines to avoid with this treatment are heavily tannic reds (Cabernets and the like) which don't even out well with dilution. Flaws in just about any other white, rose, or red can be corrected for through your choice of fruit or sweetener. Not that terrible wine will make really great sangria, but it'll at least be passable. The best candidates tend to be fine for drinking on their own, if a little bland; they provide the best base for other flavors.

This wine goes into a wide-mouth quart Mason jar (which I like because they're readily available and inexpensive) and that jar gets filled to the brim with chopped fruit. Just about any will do; I've used everything from citrus to berries, stone fruits, and pomes with success. Generally I'll use an equal mix of fruits from two different categories, for the sake of variety and balance.

Here are a couple of newly-minted proto-sangrias; the one at left with apple and pineapple, the one on the right with orange and apple. Seal these up and keep in the fridge for anywhere from 3 days to a week; I take mine out and give it a shake every couple days, too. At the end of this time, strain out the wine and press the fruit to extract as much liquid as possible. If you do this well, you'll wind up with almost exactly the original 750 mL, but if you come up a little short (happens sometimes depending on your fruit) it's not a deal-breaker. To that, add the following:
  • 200 mL spirit
  • 100 mL sweetener/aromatic
  • 10-15 dashes bitters
Those categories are broad enough that they take some explaining. By spirit, I mean any base you like. Again, brandy is traditional, but forget tradition; anything decent will do. Clear spirits tend to go better with whites and roses, brown spirits better with red wine, but that's not an ironclad rule. As with the wine, don't bother with the good stuff; this is the time to use the rail booze. Syrups and liqueurs are obvious fits for the sweetener; vermouths and amaros can play this part too, and they add some powerful aromatic qualities. Finally, the bitters are just there to round things off and add a little touch of spice, which is nice in sangria.

I often split these volumes, again for the sake of variety and balance. Two similar spirits can accentuate each other; two different ones can add interesting contrasts. For sweeteners, I like a syrup or liqueur paired with a vermouth or amaro, though you may need to fiddle with the proportions depending on what you use. Usually those are equal proportions, but for strongly-flavored ingredients (darker amaros, maraschino liqueur, Chartreuse, etc.) you might have to dial back and use 30 mL or so, making up the remaining balance with your other sweetener.

Take for instance this curiosity:

Here you have the following combination:
  • 750 mL wine (leftover Chardonnay, steeped with green apple and orange)
  • 100 mL spirit #1 (gin)
  • 100 mL spirit #2 (rum, a surprisingly rich contrast)
  • 50 mL sweetener (Licor 43)
  • 50 mL aromatic sweetener (Bonal Gentiane Quina)
  • 15 dashes bitters (homemade rhubarb)

How about another odd specimen, for demonstration purposes?

Constituents for this one include:
  • 750 mL wine (some cheap off-dry rose that I can't recall, steeped with green apple and orange)
  • 100 mL spirit #1 (Jameson whiskey left over from a party)
  • 100 mL spirit #2 (cognac)
  • 50 mL aromatic sweetener (sweet vermouth)
  • 25 mL sweetener #1 (Licor 43)
  • 25 mL sweetener #2 (pineapple syrup)
  • 15 dashes bitters (homemade holiday spice bitters)

If you haven't noticed, I should probably mention that this makes for an odd quantity; somewhere around 1.06 L or 36 oz. This is just because my preferred Ikea stop-top bottles hold about that much, even though they're technically labelled as 1-liter models. If your storage vessel of choice is smaller, you'll just have to pour off a tasting portion. Tragic, I know!

Also, you will probably notice that unlike some of the sangria recipes out there, this one isn't stored with the steeped fruit. Those have already offered what flavor they can; if you want your sangria to come prettily garnished, you'll want to use fresh fruit. Use whatever you've got, finely diced (except for berries, which can be dropped in whole). Oh, and pro tip: a little splash of lemon juice will help prevent browning in pomaceous fruits like apples and pears. A major advantage of straining off the fruit is that your sangria base will keep for at least a few weeks. Whether it will last that long is another question, but I can tell you from experience that you can get three weeks before any substantial loss in quality.

I generally eschew garnish with my sangria, but I always pour over ice and add a liberal splash of soda when serving. You'll get about 6 or 7 glasses from each batch, which is why I usually make multiple batches at a time. All the time. Seriously: come round my place, and odds are good that there's one of these somewhere in rotation, or recently polished off.

I hope you get as much enjoyment out of it as we have.

Monday, November 24, 2014

House of Scotch Old-Fashioned (#1)

Finally, a picture! And an original recipe to boot... uh, except that it's actually just an old-fashioned, my old standby. It's all a remix, man. I still thought the result was worthy of recording.

Now, as you can see, I used a most delicious whiskey for this particular drink. This Balvenie Caribbean Cask is tasty stuff, but in truth just about any decent, reasonably-aged Speyside should do the job, or perhaps a decent blend like Monkey Shoulder. A little dash of a smooth aged rum would be a good complement if you go that route.

2 oz Speyside scotch
1/4 oz cranberry syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Bitter Truth Xocolatl Bitters

Stir and strain over a few large chunks of ice (or maybe a single large cube) in an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a couple of brandied cranberries, or dispense with garnish entirely.

Yes, that red bottle is a diner-style ketchup squeeze bottle. Yes, I have yellow mustard ones as well; that's how I tell them apart in the fridge. Yes, I got them from a surplus shop for about a quarter each. No, I don't care what anyone says.

I've got an entire week off from the day job (minus Thanksgiving prep time) so I think you might hear more from me for a few days! There will undoubtedly be cocktails, although I've got a pisco post that I've been meaning to finish up after it deleted itself the first time, a rundown of a punch I created for my mother-in-law's birthday, and my wife suggested cobbling together a sangria post out of the vague method that I have in constant rotation. It might be a pretty crazy week.

Another Word

The parade of remixes continues with a take on the Last Word, one of my favorite advanced sours. Thanks to... Detroit, I guess?

Quite honestly I didn't think this one would work out as well as it did. The wife has been observing an odd cocktail genius that comes over me after I've had a couple. Unfortunately for that same reason, I didn't take a picture, which is a shame because it was quite pretty too.

3/4 to 1 oz reposado tequila
3/4 oz green Chartreuse (yum)
3/4 oz Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot (also yum)
3/4 oz lime juice

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a thin lime wheel, though it's perfectly fine without.

Update 1/27/15: I knew I'd assembled this drink before... exactly why I keep a log! Still no picture (went down too quickly) but I did make one minor tweak to amp up the tequila presence this time around. A full ounce worked better with the smooth and excellent Espolon Reposado. If you want to use a blanco instead, or a reposado with a bit less age on it, 3/4 oz would be better to keep those grassy notes in balance.


Holy crap kids, I've got multiple cocktails to share with you tonight. This on a night with minimal mixing, mostly football and beer; go figure. You could say I'm clearing out my backlog from the weekend.

First up, even though it's the most recent, is again simply a riff on a classic. I'm telling you, it's all about the remix.  This comes first because it reminds me of our most recent cocktail, but where that was a Negroni variant, this one is based on a less-common classic known as the Ampersand. I made this because I didn't have cognac, which made me sad. I'll need to grab a bottle soon - I've had a hankering for a good Stinger lately too.

1 oz reposado tequila
1 oz Tanqueray Malacca (Old Tom would be a reasonable approximation)
1 oz Bonal Gentiane Quina (I'm using its full name from now on; that's a great set of words)
1 dash rhubarb bitters (yes, homemade, and add an extra dash if using Old Tom gin)

Stir and strain into a cocktail glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with an orange twist, maybe, if you feel like it.

The name is of course a reference to my favorite bizarro punctuation symbol that hardly anyone knows about.  Who cares?  It's got a great name!

Monday, November 10, 2014

El Puerto

This started out as some idle fucking around with a bottle of white port (which I'd tried, but hadn't stumbled across in a wine shop; props to Solo Vino) and it rapidly transmuted into a Negroni riff - you know, the kind that doesn't have a single ingredient in common with its inspiration. The whole thing really came together with a touch of apricot eau-de-vie. That's the bottle I used in the background there (I know, pictures, right?) but it's tough enough to come by that you don't need to be brand-specific.

1 oz reposado tequila
1/4 oz apricot eau-de-vie
3/4 oz Cocchi Americano
3/4 oz white port (again, not brand-specific, but nothing too dry)
2 dashes Regan's No. 6 Orange Bitters
2 dashes rhubarb bitters (homemade, Fee's is too sweet for this application)

Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a lime peel coin, expressed gently over the top. Pretty proud of this one, and look how pretty! Pictures, man.  I'm not sure why I never post these as my phone is littered with them anyway.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Halloween House Party

I'm not sure how you all spent your Halloween, but I got to spend mine in just about the best way I can imagine - tending bar at a house party for my buddy Vern.  It was a blast!  This was a bit different from some of the tasting events that I've done in the past, in that there were no "courses", just a set menu of a couple simple drinks that I served up on request.  In other words, pretty straightforward bartending, but I got to have some fun with the menu.

I mentioned this a little bit earlier, but the party was themed after "Nostalgia" and I decided to try for a menu that reminded me of the bars I frequented when I first turned of age.  It's all relatively simple stuff, easy to batch and serve quickly.  Yet I was pleased by the response I received; one of the best comments I got was that the overall set of drinks were all excellent and nicely varied.  Exactly what I was aiming for!

Because I batched most of these drinks for quick service, I'm going to provide a couple different versions: the full measurements that I was using to batch, and scaled-down individual versions, in case you want to try them before committing to a larger quantity.

The big hit of the night.  I wound up nearly running out of base ingredients for the juice mix!  No surprise; this is really just a classic Cosmopolitan, served with the option of gin (which is now my preferred method).  Service seemed to split the vodka and gin pretty evenly.

10 oz cranberry juice
6 oz triple sec
4 oz lime juice
10 dashes Fee Brothers Cranberry Bitters
To serve: combine 2 oz of gin (the citrus-forward New Amsterdam) or citrus vodka with 2 1/2 oz of the mix above; shake vigorously, strain into a glass, and garnish with cranberries and a lemon wedge (for vodka) or a lime wedge (for gin).

1 1/4 oz cranberry juice
3/4 oz triple sec
1/2 oz lime juice
1 (large) dash Fee Brothers Cranberry Bitters
2 oz gin (or citrus vodka)
Shake and strain into a cocktail glass; add garnish as described above.

Less of my typical very remixable old-fashioned, more the Wisconsin style that I was first introduced to: the kind with a muddled cherry, orange, and splash of soda.  Simplified here for speed, but very successfully.  This is what I was sipping on all night, in between a couple other random combinations.

12 oz brandy (can't remember exactly what we had; my recommendation would be Torres)
4 oz bourbon (Cabin Still)
2 oz Cherry Heering
2 oz soda water
25 dashes Regan's No. 6 Orange Bitters
To serve: pour 2 1/2 oz over ice, add a small orange slice, and stir to combine.

1 1/2 oz brandy
1/2 oz bourbon
1/4 oz Cherry Heering
1/4 oz soda water
Stir over ice; garnish as described above.

This was my attempt to accommodate the house-party vibe, letting guests choose a spirit for combination with a mixer.  It also provided a booze-free option for those unfortunate folks who couldn't consume alcohol.  For the cola portion, I'll point you to a previous post; in this batch, I ran short on brown sugar and added in a sizeable portion of molasses, a substitution that I may have to repeat.  The end result was reportedly "amazing" and went down very well indeed.

Homemade Cola:
4 oz TC Cola syrup
12 oz soda water
1 dash lemon juice
Combine and bottle for service; this will foam up when mixed, so do this in an oversize vessel.

To serve: Combine 1 1/2 oz spirit of choice over ice, with 4-5 oz of homemade cola to taste; garnish at whim with lime (for rum), lemon (for vodka), or orange (for whiskey).

Alternatively: Pour 6 oz over ice and garnish with cranberries.  For a low-proof option, add 1/2 oz Cherry Heering and a couple dashes of Regan's Orange Bitters for a "Cherry Coke".

Friday, October 24, 2014

Very Old Fashioned

This isn't actually especially old - it's just the best name I could come up with on short notice.

1 1/2 oz Plantation 20th Anniversary Rum
1/2 oz Laird's Apple Brandy
1/4 oz mezcal (Vida)
1/4 oz pineapple syrup
3 dashes Bitter Truth Celery Bitters

Stir over a large ice cube in an old-fashioned glass.  FUCK GARNISH.  That's the kind of mood I'm in.  Booze in a glass, dammit, and fast!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

TC Cola Syrup

Holy crap, kids.  I didn't originally plan to post about this until after the event it's being designed for, but the first batch turned out so well that I just have to get it down.  In part, that's to remember the exact formulation, but in part it's also just to brag.

The background's simple: I got asked about a month ago to provide drinks for a Halloween party themed for "nostalgia" and decided to try my hand at remixed versions of stuff that would have been slung around in Midwestern dive bars in the mid-80s (it's a young crowd).  Basic, trashy stuff, done in a really thoughtful and original way; the irony is the most delicious part.

I'll share the other drinks later, but I immediately thought of doing a rum-and-coke, since that's one of the first drinks that I came up drinking at underage house parties and shitty dive bars (this was back before I knew about real, quality cocktails).  It would certainly be popular, I thought, and a good way to use up any random spirits guests bring, but it's too easy to grab some 2-liters of Coke and call it a day.  No: I'd have to make my own "cola" syrup for mixing.

So I did, and it's awesome.  A Cuba Libre made with this stuff is killer - I know this, because I'm drinking one right now.

The following will produce just over 2 cups of finished syrup.

2 cups water (use filtered if your tap tastes weird)
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise pod
1 whole nutmeg, smashed into several large pieces
15 cloves
1 tablespoon cut cinchona bark (yup, the same stuff as in tonic water)

Bring the above to a boil and reduce to a simmer.  Cover and let gently simmer for about 30 minutes, swirling occasionally.  In the meantime, add the following to a sealable, heatproof vessel such as a mason jar:

1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon citric acid
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters

Once the spice "tea" is ready (it should have reduced to about 3/4 of its original volume, be a rich amber color, and smell incredibly aromatic) carefully pour it through a fine-mesh strainer (and a funnel, if you wish) over the dry ingredients.  Stir vigorously to combine, let stand 30 minutes to cool, cover, and shake vigorously to dissolve any remaining sugar.  Keep covered and refrigerated until ready to use.

To dispense, combine 1 part syrup with 3-4 parts soda water to taste.  Stir, pour over ice, and spike with your liquor of choice.

Fuck and yes, kids.  I'm never buying store-bought cola for a party ever again.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Southern Side

I have kind of a contentious relationship with mint.  Keeping some around for use in juleps and such is great, but it always winds up on a top shelf in our fridge, where it remains forgotten until I notice its decidedly brown color.  At that point, it's just gotta get used.

Using up a near-empty bottle of mezcal seemed like an interesting merger, and I vaguely remembered a recipe from Speakeasy that sounded like a good fit - which actually wound up being a Prohibition-era classic from the Savoy Cocktail Book.  I swapped some mezcal in for gin to provide a smoky flavor, and at that point a pineapple syrup seemed only obvious.

1 1/2 oz gin (Tanqueray)
1/2 oz mezcal (Vida)
1/2 oz pineapple syrup
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/4 oz orange juice
2 bunches mint (about 15-20 leaves)

Shake well to pulverize the mint and strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with a strip of orange peel.

If you prefer, you could double-strain this to remove the tiny mint pieces, but I kinda like the texture they provide.  It also provides a nice visual impact, so you'll want to garnish with a mint leaf instead to keep the color.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


The highly-effective pairing of scotch and apple brandy in that last drink got me thinking about other options.  I'm pretty sure I've combined tequila and applejack before, so why not mezcal?  In fact, why not all three?

3/4 oz scotch (Dalmore 12 Year this time)
3/4 oz Laird's Straight Apple Brandy
1/4 oz mezcal (Del Maguey Vida Mezcal Joven)
1/2 oz sweet vermouth (Cinzano again)
1 dash Regan's No. 6 Orange Bitters
1 drop orange blossom water

Stir briefly over ice and strain into an old-fashioned glass.  I don't understand this "garnish".

I tried this originally as a scaffa-style unchilled drink, but the dilution (more than the chilling) really seems to help take the edge off.  I might try this with a bit of chilled water rather than ice next time.

Back To Normal

We had a few friends over yesterday for an evening of food and drink, including some couples that haven't joined us before.  I got to sling drinks all night, and at one point I assembled this one as a change from our pitcher of punch and the mostly bourbon-based cocktails I'd made up to that point.

A couple guys joined me in the kitchen during the processed and looked overly impressed, so I started explaining to them my theory of cocktail remixing.  I'll have to put together a detailed post on this sometime soon, but in brief: you can make any number of "original" drinks simply by swapping similar ingredients out for one another.  A lot of classics were created this way: bartenders started with the Manhattan, swapped out the whiskey for gin to make the Martinez, and then swapped out the sweet vermouth for dry to make the Martini.  It happens all the time!  I actually have a pretty neat book that lays out this entire concept (they even boil it down to about 10 master ratios) which I quite like.  It's a really good pick for novices and I really wish I'd come up with the idea first.

Anyway, this one's a remix of a Manhattan, or a Rob Roy, I suppose.  It substitutes scotch as the core spirit (I'll have to do a single malt scotch post soon...) with a touch of apple brandy for character, and splits the standard sweet vermouth with Cocchi Americano.  Easy.  Assemble as follows:

1 1/2 oz scotch (I used my Macallan 10 Year Fine Oak, but a decent blend's fine too)
1/2 oz Laird's Straight Apple Brandy
1/2 oz sweet vermouth (Cinzano, which is a pretty standard example)
1/2 oz Cocchi Americano
2 dashes Regan's No. 6 Orange Bitters

Stir over ice and strain over a large cube in an old-fashioned glass; garnish with a large swath of orange peel.

The name is a hopefully-recognizable tribute to Mitch Hedberg, specifically one of my favorite one-liners: "I remixed a remix, it was back to normal!"

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Spirits: Burly Bourbons

Well, here we go...

Above all else, I'm a gin guy, but I'll readily make an exception if offered a shot of bourbon, especially high-proof versions.  There's something about the burning, spicy intensity of single-barrel bourbon that I can't get enough of.  Or maybe it's how adding water a few drops at a time and/or plopping in a couple chips of ice is like your own personal study in dilution.

I've been slowly building a collection, and it's always fun to try and compare similar spirits against each other to get a feel for the variation within categories.  The four below are (some) of the bourbons currently residing in my home bar.

Four Roses Single Barrel

100 Proof (50% ABV)
About: Jim Rutledge is a pretty well-known name in bourbon (and golf, but that's a totally separate dude).  He's been Four Roses' brand ambassador and master distiller for over a decade of ownership changes, which is just the latest wild time in the history of a pretty storied brand.  It's a classic bourbon name, and a historic Lawrenceburg, KY distillery, which makes it all the more interesting that it's now owned by Kirin (based in Japan).  Perhaps they're looking for an inside track to cash in on the growing Japanese market for bourbon.  If so, they picked a good brand to start with; standard Four Roses is a solid middle-shelf brand that offers good quality for a reasonable price.  However, while the standard product is bottled from a blend of 10 different mashbills, this Single Barrel version comes from just one, a 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% barley formula which uses a specific yeast strain.  It's also bottled at a moderately higher proof which only enhances its tastiness.

Tasting Notes: Floral on the nose; notes of rose petal (appropriately) with cherry and sutble thyme. Mellow baking spices and caramel stretch out into a long, warm finish with some extended hints of oak and cherry, mostly at the very end. Opens up and mellows out nicely with a bare touch of water, but it's perfectly drinkable without.

Booker's Bourbon
130.6 Proof (65.3% ABV)
About: This is a cask-strength expression from the Jim Beam family of bourbons, named for Booker Noe, father of Fred Noe (the current Beam master distiller).  The Beam empire, which like Four Roses is now owned by a Japanese company (Suntory in this case) actually makes quite a few small-batch bourbons under different labels and names, so chances are you've had a Beam product at some point: Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, and Old Overholt are all theirs, though obviously made from different recipes.  This product is uncut, unfiltered, and bottled straight from barrels aged between 6 and 8 years.  Apparently this comes from Booker's tradition of bottling a special bourbon for close friends and family, which is a fantastic idea (I like giving handmade gifts, but I can't top that).  I personally have a soft spot for Jim Beam; it was my go-to whiskey back before I started getting into spirits, but there's a lot to like here even without the benefit of nostalgia.

Tasting Notes: A big, monstrous motherfucker of a bourbon (which you might expect given the proof). Starts off with some notes of toffee, straw, and spice, then quickly opens up to an intense peppery and charred-wood punch that carries into the finish, backed up eventually by delicate maraschino and herbal notes. Water and perhaps an ice cube are recommended to smooth things out.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

108.2 Proof (54.1% ABV)
About: Wild Turkey seems to get kind of a bad rap.  To be fair, it used to be cheap rotgut stuff, but today's product is much higher quality.  Their 101-proof Rye is one of my favorite mixing ryes because of how well its flavor stands up in cocktails, and I was sad to see it disappear from the market for a while.  Like Four Roses, it's produced in Lawrenceburg, KY, but it's owned by Campari's parent company (not a Japanese one!) and this expression is not a single-barrel product.  Instead, it's a blending of 6, 8, and 12 year old stocks, bottled without additional dilution.  This makes a very nice result that balances the spiciness of Wild Turkey's other offerings with a more refined richness.  Now, one thing worth noting is that there appears to be a newer release than the one I'm showing here, bottled at a slightly higher 112.8 proof.  I can't speak to that yet, but I found this opinion that it's not quite as good as the older label.  I have seen both on shelves, so you'll want to look for this packaging if you want your experience to match mine.

Tasting Notes: Smells like delicious, sweet caramel, and starts off the same on the palate with subtle vanilla character. Gradually builds to a spicy, oaky finish as it sits on the palate, then backs off slowly with lingering cinnamon, marshmallow, and a slightly vegetal character. I like this one more without water; dilution seems to strip away some of the subtlety.

Elmer T. Lee

90 Proof (45% ABV)
About: I have to admit that when I picked this for my tasting, I thought it was a bit higher proof.  But it's still a quality product, so let's run with it.  This is a Buffalo Trace product, named after their master distiller emeritus, and that alone is testament to its quality.  Buffalo Trace is one of the few well-known American-owned bourbon distilleries (now owned by the Sazerac Company) and they make some pretty wild stuff.  Among their stable is George T. Stagg, one of the most sought-after bourbons out there today, and a curious line of small-batch experimental whiskies that aim to test out a huge range of recipe and aging factors. No surprise, this is quite tasty stuff that's essentially an improved, richer version of their main label drawn from a single barrel.  

Tasting Notes: The lightest of the bunch, so no surprise that it's also the smoothest. Beautiful honey character at the start, hints of orange peel, marshmallow, oatmeal, and white oak later on. Stays light and sweet on the finish, with that same honey character backed up by chamomile flowers. A small amount of water brings out more oak and marshmallow, but also leaves things a bit thin. I'll take mine without.

I might add a few more here - I realized that I missed a big one, my beloved Willett Pot Still Reserve with its wacky, inconveniently-shaped bottle.  Or maybe I'll just have to save it for another round. In the meantime, drink these!

Monday, September 29, 2014


Bourbon review is still coming, I promise. In the meantime, here's a drink born from sheer,  intense laziness. I'm almost embarrassed to be posting this, as it's one of the simplest drinks I've ever assembled.

3 oz Averna
3 oz carbonated cucumber water

Combine over ice.

Yeah, that's seriously it. Totally worth trying, though. Tastes like an absurdly good root beer, according to my wife.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Spirits: More Weird Gins to Try

Because I can't leave well enough alone, I've continued to grab unusual gins that pique my interest, despite an already-impressive collection of oddities.  Here are a couple more worth recommending!

#6: Hayman's Royal Dock Gin
I'm pretty sure I've talked about my love for navy-strength gin before, but let me reiterate: I love navy-strength gin.  It adds extra punch to gin-based cocktails, it's got a historical pedigree, and the secret of why it's bottled at a specific proof is one of my favorite liquor factoids.  (If you haven't heard: 114 proof is the minimum proof at which spirits-soaked gunpowder will still ignite, and hence this strength is to guard against the clumsiness of drunken sailors.)  Hayman's Old Tom is a great take on another historical style, so I was quite pleased to find their navy-strength product on local shelves too.  Royal Dock stays close to the classic London Dry balance; you almost don't notice the extra proof, which lets it work either in recipes that specifically call for navy strength or when subbing for a standard gin.  You might be able to find a navy-strength that you like more, but this one is a good place to start based on that flexibility alone.  Its very reasonable price point does no harm either.

#7: Letherbee Gin
Chicago-based Letherbee Distillers is an impressive little company, founded and run by bartenders and making a range of unique and truly craft spirits.  Their flagship gin is neat stuff, completely original in style.  It's drier than many American-style gins, with a pronounced core of juniper, but its herbal balance leans towards the savory, almost like an aquavit to my palate.  Caraway isn't included in the advertised list of ingredients, but I'd swear that it's there.  It also louches subtly when diluted with water, which doesn't affect the flavor but sure looks cool (a nice effect in gin-based old-fashioned cocktails).  Aside from those, the savory character plays very well with Chartreuse, yielding one of the best versions of the Bijou that I've had yet.

A brief coda, or maybe a bonus: Letherbee also makes seasonal variants on its standard gin product. The most recent 2014 "Vernal" edition (EDIT: the most recent is now the winter "Autumnal" variety, which isn't nearly as good) adds botanicals found in tonic water to the core spirit, producing a subtly bitter and citrus-focused gin with a unique pink hue.  You can create a passable take on a gin & tonic with just some ice and a generous splash of soda (though a little syrup and citrus juice in addition don't hurt).  It's listed on their website as sold out, so procurement may be an issue, but I've still seen a couple bottles floating around and would encourage keeping your eyes open.

#8: Only Premium Gin
Only is kind of a weird product.  It's made in Spain (where apparently the "gin & tonic" is an entire category of beverages - sounds great to me!) by a company that also makes a huge range of liqueurs, cocktail mixes, and other junk.  Yet it really is a premium spirit as advertised, winner of a couple gold medals at San Francisco's annual spirits competition and quite well-rounded.  It doesn't pretend to be a classic London Dry style; although it's got a core of juniper flavor, the palate is aggressively floral.  I'm reminded of various chamomile- and rosehip-infused gins that I made at home a few years ago, but where those were one-note and overpowering, this is reasonably balanced and complex.  I like this in a lighter take on the Negroni (with Aperol in place of Campari) or in a Tom Collins, where the dilution really lets the floral character bloom.

I'm sure it will come as little surprise that I have no plans to stop collecting weird gins anytime soon.  We'll be up to a solid 20 before you know it.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Classics: The Manhattan

This post was ported over from an aborted second blog; please ignore the highfalutin tone.

I think it only fitting that our exploration of classic cocktails should begin with one of the grand masters: the almighty Manhattan, a drink that anyone with any pretension to mixology ought to know backwards and forwards.  Perhaps second only to the Martini in popularity and name recognition, this is an older and richer formula, one that has spawned many offshoots and variations.  Learn the Manhattan, and you learn whole categories of cocktail.

Legend has it that this drink was originally invented for a banquet hosted by Winston Churchill's mother to celebrate the election of Samuel J. Tilden (who would later run unsuccessfully in the 1876 Presidential election) as governor of New York.  The trustworthy David Wondrich debunks this by noting that Baby Winston was being born and christened across the Atlantic at the time, but it's an interesting story.  It is conceivable that the name derives from the Manhattan Club where this supposed party was held in 1875; that's much harder to disprove and quite reasonable besides.  Regardless of its origin, the eventual marriage of vermouth and whiskey was almost inevitable; whiskey was one of the few spirits commonly available, and "vino vermouth" was becoming quite faddish by about 1870.

It wouldn't have taken much experimentation, either, since the Manhattan can be crafted using a bare handful of ingredients.  Despite its simplicity, one of my favorite aspects of this cocktail is its receptivity to further recombination by swapping out one of its constituents.  Some of these are classics in their own right, and will be discussed further below.  For now, let's stay on task, with one of the easiest examples of high-proof perfection to be had.

Assemble as follows:

2 oz American whiskey
3/4 - 1 oz sweet/red/Italian vermouth
2 dashes bitters

Combine the above over ice, stir briefly, and strain into a cocktail glass.

Now, as with anything so simple, there are a few caveats.  Or maybe we'll call them considerations, since you can combine pretty much any whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters in the above proportions and have a palatable beverage.  But this is my guide, and I'll be damned if I stop anywhere short of the cream of the crop, the tip-top, the absolutely superlative Manhattan.  So, if you aim for the same, here are a few things to think about when you mix:

Consideration #1: Whiskey

Quite simply, what kind?  I specify "American" above only because this is an entirely different animal with Irish or Scotch whiskeys, which we'll get to later (side note: I take no notice of this "whisky" nonsense, so just deal).  That still leaves the field pretty open.  Indeed, there is considerable variation in the miscellaneous guides I dug through as research; some specify bourbon, others rye.  The aforementioned Mr. Wondrich also offers advice on proof, recommending a 100-proof variety (or 50% alcohol by volume) over more common 80-proof models.  I think this is extremely sound advice, and I also suggest that you use a whiskey worth drinking straight.  There's not enough accent here to cover up cheap flavors, but there is enough to make a great whiskey really sing.  If you're going to mix with the good stuff, this is the cocktail to make.  Higher-end whiskeys also tend to be bottled at higher proof, so that's two birds with a single (if somewhat expensive) stone.

On the question of bourbon versus rye, call me indecisive.  Quality and proof are the more important factors, so if you're faced with a middling 80-proof bourbon against a quality 100-proof rye, take the latter.  The drink is old enough that it was certainly first made with rye, but most modern guides reference bourbon (probably due to the dearth of good rye whiskey over the last 30 years).  Both bring good flavors to the party; bourbon its classic oaky-smoky sweetness, rye an assertive spicy edge.  I like both of these, so all things being equal, I take indecisiveness to a new level and either split the volume between both varieties or use a so-called "high rye" bourbon.  Notable high rye brands include Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Knob Creek, and my personal favorite Bulleit. Top-shelf "single barrel" varieties are available for them all and come highly recommended.

Consideration #2: Vermouth

The next ingredient in line is of course vermouth.  There are a few important points to consider.  For a classic Manhattan, it must be the Italian (red/sweet) style; yes, there are "Dry Manhattans" made with French style (white/dry) vermouth, but that's an entirely different drink.  The Italian variety is almost certainly the kind originally used, since the other type wasn't in widespread circulation on the American continent at the time of the Manhattan's birth.  It's a fortunate combination, since few others have quite the same synergy.

Even more so than with whiskey, quality is key to success with vermouth.  There are plenty of cheap no-name brands, and I encourage you to avoid them in all your mixological ventures.  There's simply no excuse when the good stuff doesn't cost that much more.  Martini & Rossi is a reasonable standby, but the delightful Dolin is my go-to if you can find it.  Should you wish to pull out all the stops, a top-shelf vermouth will be very welcome here; Cocchi Torino is a good choice, and even better is the venerable Carpano Antica (though keep in mind that you'll be spending for the privilege).  Regarding storage, I always keep mine in the fridge, tightly capped.  Remember that vermouth is a fortified wine, and like other wines it will go off if exposed to sufficient light, heat, and oxygen.  Italian vermouth is more protected than French vermouth by a higher sugar content, but it will succumb eventually.  Refrigerated storage will buy you more time and keep your product fresher for longer, avoiding the muted flavors and bitter twang of the dreaded oxidation.

One final point on vermouth is proportion.  You'll notice that I provide a range above.  You want your vermouth to counterpoint the whiskey without overwhelming it; a good Manhattan is all about this lovely dynamic tension.  So it makes sense that using a softer whiskey or a more assertive vermouth means adjusting the ratio.  When using an 80-proof whiskey, dial back the vermouth to about 3/4 oz; to balance a higher proof, use a full ounce.  If you're using a high-end, more aromatic vermouth (Cocchi Americano or Carpano Antica again) you can get away with 3/4 oz no matter your whiskey.  If you've got an 80-proof whiskey and a full-flavored vermouth, you may want to go as low as 2/3 oz, though this combination would really just be wasteful.  As a rule of thumb, I keep the ratio of whiskey-to-vermouth between 2:1 and 3:1, with minor adjustment for your specific brands and personal preference.

Consideration #3: Bitters

It's a testament to the flavor-boosting abilities of bitters that we need to mention them at all.  Even though there are just a couple dashes present, a Manhattan falls completely flat without them.  There are a lot of middling Manhattans mixed every day, but most of the truly terrible ones are the result of missing those key dashes of spicy, aromatic bitters.  Don't make the same mistake.

The standby in 99% of American bars is good old Angostura, easily recognizable by the oversized white paper wrapper (often stained with red-brown smudges of errant elixir) and bright yellow cap.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this stuff, as proven by its prominence and near-singular survival into the modern age.  It's rich and spicy, and in a Manhattan brings out the same characteristics of your chosen whiskey.

On the other hand, our modern mixological revival has brought a huge number of fine craft bitters into circulation, most of which I won't mention in posts here because most classic cocktails predate them.  One making a comeback is the previously extinct orange bitters, an ingredient found in a surprising number of old recipes but which apparently fell prey to Prohibition.  Before you proceed any further, go make sure you have orange bitters in your arsenal.  My personal favorite is Regan's No. 6, which has a spicy and complex flavor; also common is Fee Brothers' version, which is bright and fresh.  Plenty of others exist; no matter what kind you use, they lend a slightly sweet and citrusy character.  Since vermouth is often flavored with citrus peel, this tends to play very nicely in a Manhattan.  However, you still want that nice rich Angostura character to go with your whiskey, so in the spirit of indecision (yet again) I tend to use a single hearty dash of each.  Because the bitters are an accent (albeit a crucial one) you can do the same, use all Angostura, or pick another aromatic bitters of your choice.  As with vermouth, feel free to add more if that's what it takes to balance your brands at hand.

Consideration #4: Technique

One last very important thing when making a Manhattan is exactly how you assemble it.  Here is a fundamental, non-negotiable principle: this cocktail must always, always be stirred.  If the majority of poor Manhattans are ruined by omitting bitters, the remainder are ruined by shaking them (some bartenders are just shaker-happy, and they are dead wrong, especially here).  There are two reasons for this ironclad rule, both based on preserving the quality of your whiskey.  First, you don't want this drink to be too dilute.  Too much water softens the whiskey's bite, batters the vermouth into a shadow of its former self, and takes away the silky texture of the finished product.  Second, you don't want it to be too cold.  Over-chilling has a way of dampening the pleasant spicy-sweet flavors of good whiskey, which you don't want.  Yes, you could just wait for your drink to warm up, but who wants that?

So, you stir, and you don't stir too much either.  Stirring chills less rapidly and introduces water less quickly than shaking.  It also leaves the final product pleasantly crystal-clear, without any of the hazy air bubbles caused by agitation.  I also suggest that you use the largest ice cubes you can, to chill with minimal surface area and dilute as slowly as possible.  I like 2-inch square cubes (for this and many other applications) but you can use average-size freezer-tray ice too.  Just stay away from those little chips churned out by commercial machines, or the cracked cylinders sold in bags at liquor stores and convenience stores.  Those will dilute way too quickly, throwing off the composition of your Manhattan.  I'm not a man who counts the number of revolutions when I stir, but I'd estimate about 25-30, which is probably about half of that required for a properly chilled Dry Martini.  In general, aim for chilled, not cold.  Don't be afraid to pause every ten rotations or so to check the temperature.

Once you've hit the sweet spot, strain this into a chilled cocktail glass, or a small old-fashioned glass if you prefer.  I've been in some bars that use the latter because it's a "man glass", which seems specious but is fine by me.  You can garnish, if you want; I like a good brandied cherry (not those neon-red orbs of glucose masquerading as "cherries") and a twist of orange peel works too, particularly if you've used an orange bitters.  You also want to leave it untouched by additional ice, for the same reasons that you don't shake.  A single large cube is okay, but I find it brings the temperature down too much.

Thusly assembled, sip slowly; live so rarely affords such perfection, and the universe demands that you enjoy the moment.

Worthy Variations and Substitutions

As I said at the beginning, the Manhattan opens up whole classes of cocktail.  Here are a few close cousins to try:
  • Rob Roy: Swap out the American whiskey for Scotch and assemble as above.  Either single malt or blended is fine, just use something you like and stay away from anything too peaty.  Aromatic bitters such as Angostura are preferable to orange bitters.
  • Dry Manhattan: As mentioned above, swap out the red vermouth for a quality white.  More assertive varieties are good here; I will also sometimes add a little dash of simple syrup to balance things out.
  • Turf Club: This is one unearthed by David Wondrich in Imbibe! as an example of a proto-Martini, probably the result of bartenders plugging varied spirits into a basic recipe.  The original calls for equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth with a few dashes of aromatic bitters; adjusting for modern proof, I think 2:1 is preferable.  I would identify this as the parent cocktail of both the Martini and the Martinez (which adds a dash of maraschino liqueur to excellent effect).
  • Star Cocktail: Another very easy substitution; simply replace the whiskey with apple brandy.  This would classically be applejack, another American spirit, but French calvados would be nice too.  Aromatic bitters or a creole bitters such as Peychaud's are best; both make for interesting variations, but I wouldn't suggest both at once.
Conspicuously absent from this list is the Martini, but that's a completely different drink and separate post.  Don't worry, we'll get there.  For now, fix yourself a Manhattan and relax.

Scope Creep

I realized today that I want to start doing some different things with this blog.  Of course, this idea did come to me while out and about this afternoon, and I'm not exactly the most regular with my updates anyway, so we'll see how long it lasts, but... Worth a try, I think!

First off, I'm going to kick off a semi-regular series of in-depth examinations of classic cocktails.  When I first started this up, I wanted it to be more of a personal log of original cocktails, but I'm now seeing that as a strategic error.  Bartenders and enthusiasts alike draw a lot of inspiration from the days of cocktails past, and I think it's important to remember your roots.  Classics are classic for a reason - many of them far surpass my own original work, and when made well they can be incredible.  But execution's critical, and I'm coming to see that as a marker of mixological skill.  A good bartender (or enthusiast, or mixologist, or whatever) will know the proportions and assembly of your beverage of choice, be it Manhattan, Negroni, or Sidecar.  But a great bartender has put enough thought and experimentation into those drinks to make them really memorable again.

That's what I want to do, as a means of pushing myself to the next level.  I sort of haphazardly started on this on a brand-new, totally unadvertised second blog, but I wound up with only a single overly-verbose post on the Manhattan before trailing off.  I'll be moving that over here shortly as a starting example, but I'm determined to restart the series - if only to keep me busy during my periods of lassitude.

Second, for a lot of cocktail posts I've included information on the spirits and what-have-you used to create them, and I've done a couple of dedicated posts on some funky spirits that I enjoy.  Digging up this information is always fun for me, nerd that I am, so I'd like to make this a larger focus too.  I've got a sporadic habit (my wife would say a terrible one) of pouring small samples of different spirits to taste them side-by-side.  This was always intended as an exercise for myself, but in retrospect I don't know why I didn't post my notes here.  We'll fix that soon enough.  I've got a couple bourbons picked out that I'd like to sample against each other, which would complement the Manhattan post nicely.

Third: pictures.  This blog is visually boring, I know that.  Frankly I just haven't really cared before, since attracting readers has never been my intent.  But, you can't get better without feedback, and you can't get feedback without an audience, so I'll be doing my best to spruce things up and including pictures with my posts (where relevant) from here on out.  Most of them will be as amateurish as the recipes themselves, but that's okay, we all have to start somewhere.

Obviously, the core focus of the blog won't change.  I am hopelessly committed to cocktails, and most of my posts will continue to be the same terribly-named, occasionally-successful stuff that has come before.  I'm not going to suddenly start reviewing wines or anything like that.  If I had anything like a mission statement (which would be pretty fucking bold for so casual and hobbyist a place as this) this would be an amendment, not a rewrite.  I'm sure all none of my regular readers will be disappointed.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cold Smoke Punch

I feel like I've been neglecting you guys lately.  Not my normal sort of mixological rut lately - just a lot of classics, unintentional self-cribbing, and unsuccessful experimentation.  Happens to the best of us, I guess.

At any rate, here's something finally worth sharing: a fairly old-school style punch that still appears to be somewhat original, at least based on a quick perusal of David Wondrich's indispensable reference.

1 1/2 oz scotch whiskey (again, I'll call it what I damn well want)
1 1/2 oz brewed black tea (pretty standard English Breakfast, cooled to room temperature, on its way to becoming iced tea)
3/4 oz peach-brown sugar syrup
3/4 oz lime juice

Combine over a large ice cube and stir vigorously.  Grate some nutmeg on top in classic punch style, if you insist.

I originally reached for bourbon when putting this one together, because it seemed like a natural fit for the peach syrup, but I happened on a new bottle of Macallan 10 instead.  This turned out to be a happy accident.  You could probably use just about whatever blended scotch you like.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Captain Gin & Cousin It

This really is a silly bartender's name for this drink, but I love it all the same.  Really, it's a simple take on the very old-school Gin & It, supposedly a predecessor to the Martini - and given the formula, just 2 parts gin to 1 part sweet vermouth, a pretty safe assumption.  Yet while trying to find a good reference recipe, I was surprised by the number that included a dash or two of bitters, and even more surprised by the number that recommended no ice at all.

I tried this stirred at first, but I have to say, this Scaffa-style approach is on to something.  Built without ice, this is a full-flavored drink, with alternating layers of sweetness, nuttiness, and herbs - kind of like neat Chartreuse, which I can't argue with at all.  With ice, it's stuck halfway between Negroni and Martinez territory.  Not a bad thing, but less is more in this case.

1 1/4 oz navy-strength gin (Hayman's for me)
3/4 oz Bonal (which I've become addicted to)
1 dash Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter bitters (I found a new source!)

Place a maraschino cherry in a chilled old-fashioned glass (unlike most of my garnishes, this one's actually required) then pour in the remaining ingredients (I kept the Bonal chilled) and stir to combine.

As an optional exercise, repeat the above, but stir the gin, Bonal, and bitters, then strain.  Sip and contemplate what a difference dilution makes.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Remington (and sundry derivatives)

I was quite surprised by this relatively simple combination, which seems like it ought to be a well-known classic.  Granted, in proportion and construction, it's basically a Collins, but with some signature ingredients.

2 oz white whiskey (I used the local MN13 - good stuff!)
1 oz peach-brown sugar syrup
3/4 oz lemon juice

Combine in a tall glass over large cubes, stir, top with about 2 oz soda water, and stir again.

This version, the Remington, is quite a good one.  However, the simplicity of this combination makes it easy to swap out the peach for other flavors.  To wit:

For a Derringer, use cinnamon-brown sugar syrup.

For a Palomino, use vanilla-brown sugar syrup.

For a Caballero, use ancho chile-brown sugar syrup (yum).

How that's for a post - not just one cocktail, but 4 in one go!  Don't be silly, it's not cheating at all.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Right Hook

Remember that Red Hook variation?  It turned out well...

2 oz rye whiskey
1/2 oz Bonal
1/4 oz maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)
1 dash Fee Brothers Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter Bitters

Stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Garnish with a brandied cherry.

Yes!  Absolutely delicious.