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.