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.