Sunday, December 27, 2015

Tasting #3: Holiday Party Redux

Just about two years to the day after my first tasting menu presentation, I was invited back (in a fit of poor judgment, no doubt) to handle drinks for another holiday party!  This was a great experience for me, in that it allowed me to think back on what worked well vs. not so well at the previous event, while reworking the format for a slightly bigger crowd.

Five drinks wound up being a little impractical the last time around, so we shortened to three rounds (I cheated by doing two variations on the same formula for round 2, as you'll see below).  To start things off, we added a relatively gentle communal punch, which gave everyone a chance to settle in and grab something to eat while getting into the spirit of the event.  The other major difference this year, although it doesn't show in the menu below, is that I recruited volunteers from the crowd to help out with measuring, stirring, and shaking.  I've done this with friends at home, and it's a great way to keep everyone engaged while also demonstrating one of the points I try to get across the most fervently: that with a little instruction, anybody can put together a good drink.

(There were a lot of pictures taken as well - I'll try to hunt down some copies and post them up here.)

1 oz (8 oz) gin (Tanqueray)
½ oz (4 oz) overproof white rum (Wray & Nephew)
½ oz (4 oz) cinnamon syrup*
½ oz (4 oz) Campari (or similar)
½ oz (4 oz) lime juice
3 oz (1 standard 750ml bottle) sparkling wine
4 oz (1 standard 1 liter bottle) soda water
To build: Combine in a large glass, or punch bowl over a large block of ice. Garnish with cranberries, orange slices, rosemary sprigs – whatever you want! (All of the above at the event, which was maybe a bit much, but which got compliments on its appearance!)
Other notes: You can make this as an individual drink, or as a communal punch for 6-8 people (using the amounts in parenthesis).

2½ oz aged rum (Plantation 5 Year)
¼ oz cinnamon syrup*
¼ oz falernum (John D. Taylor)
3 dashes Angostura bitters
To build: Stir over ice and strain into a chilled glass, or just stir over a large ice cube; garnish with a small strip of lemon peel squeezed over the glass.
Other notes: Don’t skimp on the rum here; you want a smooth operator for this one.

1½ oz gin (Tanqueray)
1 oz falernum (John D. Taylor)
1 oz lemon juice
½ egg white
1½ oz gin (Tanqueray)
1 oz apricot liqueur (Rothman & Winter)
1 oz lemon juice
½ egg yolk
To build: Shake once without ice and once with ice, then strain into a highball glass and top with 3-4 oz of soda water to taste.
Other notes: Two different variants on the same basic formula; you can omit the egg for a plain fizz if you’re squeamish, but this way nothing goes to waste.

1½ oz aged rum (Plantation 5 Year)
1 oz overproof white rum (Wray & Nephew)
½ oz apricot liqueur (Rothman & Winter)
½ oz falernum (John D. Taylor)
¼ oz cinnamon syrup*
1 oz pineapple juice
1 oz lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
To build: Shake vigorously and pour unstrained into a highball glass; garnish with flaming rum in a lime shell only if it’s your first drink of the night. (I was asked why I made this point at the event, and it bears repeating: alcohol is flammable, and you don't want to set your bar/home/self on fire.)
Other notes: This is a cobbled-together version of several different Zombies that can be found in the wild; the original goes back to 1934.

*For Cinnamon Syrup: Combine 1 cup each of white sugar and water in a saucepan and add 4 whole cinnamon sticks. Heat and stir until the sugar dissolves, and let stand for at least 1 hour or overnight. Strain, bottle, and keep in an airtight refrigerated container.

I'm sure they'll never read it here, but I'd like to extend my thanks once again to our hosts, both for the aforementioned hosting duties and for inviting me back.  Events like this are always a blast, and it was fun to get participants a little more hands-on this time around!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Spirits: Widely Varied Rums

This is a post that I've been wanting to do for a while, in part because it celebrates a spirit that I think is under-appreciated by the drinking public at large, and in part as a rehearsal. After a year's hiatus, a good friend (most of those reading this will know exactly who, but this is the internet, so let's keep things comfortably anonymous) has invited me back to run another holiday party drink extravaganza! I am wildly excited, given what a blast I've had doing these events to date.

One of the best old-fashioneds I've had in recent memory is a rum variant, and I decided that I'd do my own as part of the lineup for this event. It's a great place to dive in, because it allows for some context around the history and ultimate simplicity of the old-fashioned format. It also provides for a springboard into rum, showing off its historical pedigree, the amazing quality that's available today, and how it can be superbly applied in cocktails. That's what I want to get into with this intro, which will be much longer than what I'd ultimately deliver live (don't worry, Mystery Friend, I'm not planning an extended lecture here) but the written format gives me a chance to structure and lay out my history. Stick with me, we'll get to some tasting soon too.

So: Rum. The origin of the name is unknown and sports many colorful theories (as with so many boozy terms) but the term starts appearing in the 1600s, often alongside the even more delightful "kill-devil". This gives a clue for how it was perceived: rough, fiery, potent, and unsavory, a stigma that clings to it even today.

Rum is, by definition, a distillate made from sugarcane, usually from molasses (we'll talk about exceptions later). As it turns out, since yeast eats sugar, sugarcane will ferment very nicely, and that's been known for thousands of years; a fermented sugarcane drink called brum has been produced by the Malay people for ages. But more relevant to us, the same fact was re-discovered on early American colonial sugar plantations. Somebody noticed that the molasses (produced as a byproduct of sugar refining) fermented nicely if allowed to sit in the tropical heat; somebody else then had the genius idea to distill the resulting alcohol, concentrating and preserving it.

What we now call "rum" was born, and it quickly became associated with the sailors who conducted trade in sugar and slaves during the Colonial period. Rum became a hot commodity in the notorious slave trade that fueled Europe's economic expansion, to the point where the term "rum triangle" became synonymous with the routes. Sugar (along with rum) and other raw materials were shipped to Europe; finished goods like textiles and guns were shipped to Africa; slaves were shipped in horrifying conditions to work the sugar plantations in the Americas, and the whole thing went round again. As the New England colonies grew, a modified route also developed that shipped sugar to New England (to be fermented and distilled), rum and goods to Africa, and slaves back to the West Indies and Caribbean. This isn't exactly the most savory backstory, but it shows you that rum had heft. It was a major export, which together with cotton and tobacco provided an economic engine driving growth in the early American Colonies.  Today's world might look very different without it.

Part of the reason for this popularity is that rum was one of the few distillates available at the time. Whiskey was perhaps being produced in small quantities in the rocky Scottish and Irish islands, but in a rough and barely palatable form. The column still used to produce clear spirits like vodka and gin hadn't been invented yet. That left brandy, which was expensive, and more importantly for the British, it was foreign. Rum provided a viable alternative, being made from sugarcane in colonies largely controlled by the British. That in turn provided fuel for a navy full of thirsty sailors.

It seems odd today that a massive military operation could be essentially powered by booze, but it's true. Consider the conditions. Voyages of any kind across the ocean took weeks or months, and you had to bring all your provisions along with enough space left over for cargo. Crewing a ship took dozens of men, which on the ocean meant not only food but hydration. Before the days of effective filtration and storage methods, fresh water could become corrupted and spread disease after a few weeks. Instead, ships carried beer (and wine for the officers) which kept longer due to its alcoholic content, and also provided some nutrition - indeed, a significant portion of the average sailor's daily caloric intake came from beer. But beer was no less bulky than water, and would go off if kept for any length of time in the hot and stuffy hold of a ship.

Eventually, British vessels began to carry spirits as well, which took up less cargo space, kept pretty much indefinitely, and which could be used to supplement stocks of fresh water as available. David Wondrich's Punch! makes a pretty compelling case for punch (the original mixed drink!) being born out of spirits mixed with water to cut down their proof, a concoction known as "grog". Often this was spiked with citrus to combat scurvy, and sweetened for taste. At first grog used a Javanese distillate called arrack, but rum provided a close substitute that was much easier to find on voyages to and from the Americas. Eventually ships were supplied with even cheaper gin, but not before rum became firmly entrenched as a sailor's drink. In other words, rum was a sort of military technology, one that kept sailors hydrated, entertained, and scurvy-free when combined with citrus. It helped to power the single greatest navy on the seas, strengthening the British Empire and shaping the history of the Western world. How's that for heft?

But, back to the modern world. Rum is nowadays produced primarily in the Caribbean islands that hosted the sugar plantations where it was born. Some newer US-based micro-distilleries also make rum, but the producers operating in New England during early colonial days have been supplanted by whiskey distillers. With such extensive history, it's perhaps no big surprise that rum styles have diverged and diffused over the centuries, and just about every island has its own take on the concept. Some use column stills to mass-produce a light, airy product; others stick to older pot stills of unique and arcane design. Some carefully blend different varieties for a smooth, sippable product; others like more spice and bite. Most of what we call "rum" is produced from molasses, but there are variations such as rhum agricole (produced on former French colonies, such as Haiti and Martinique) and cachaça (produced in Brazil) are made from fermented whole sugarcane juice instead, which hasn't been processed to refine out the pure sugar. That stuff is a whole different beast in terms of flavor, and less common here in the US anyway.

Just as there's wide variation in style between American, Scottish, Irish (not to mention Canadian and Japanese) whiskeys, there are many different renditions of rum, and it's instructive to taste them next to each other. Or, at least, that's the conceit that I'm operating under. Hence, here are three different rums from three different islands. All three are produced from molasses, moderately aged, and can be found for $25-35 apiece. I consider them all solid, everyday, multi-purpose rums, but they are far from identical, as we'll see.

Plantation Grande Reserve 5 Year Old

About: Let's start with an easy one, made in the tiny island nation of Barbados. Despite the island's history as a British colony, the rum itself is bottled by Pierre Ferrand, a French cognac producer who also imports one of my favorite white rums and one of my highly prized sipping rums. So I may be biased, but this rum earns points for being a smooth, straightforward product that does very nicely in cocktails while being perfectly enjoyable on its own. It's aged in bourbon barrels in the Caribbean climate, then gets "refined" in French oak casks. The website suggests that the 5 years on the label is all in the bourbon barrels, so I'm not sure what exactly that last part means, but it has a definite impact on the final flavor.

Tasting Notes: Perhaps predictably, this rum has a lot in common with a relatively-young cognac. It's sweet up front, with a solid apple-pie core, but laced with the ineffable haut goût (or "hogo" in rum terms) which is really difficult to define but often sought-after both in older brandies and in rum. There's not a ton here, but it's noticeable, and it opens up the tropical-spicy flavors that begin to dominate the palate. Lots of guava, clove, allspice, vanilla, and a little whiff of coconut too. The finish ends just a little bit spicy, which is enough to draw you in and take another breath of the guava-apple-allspice nose again and start the process all over. This is a bit too smooth for Tiki-style drinks or anything with a lot of citrus, since those are basically designed to compensate for rougher rums, but it's a really good choice for off-beat mixing in stirred drinks (like a rum old-fashioned) and it's a solid sipping rum if you don't want to break the bank.

Pyrat XO Reserve

About: Pyrat is bottled by Patrón (a company you may have heard of) and is sourced from Guyana. No, not the French one, the other one; did you know there were two Guyanas in South America? The distillate is undoubtedly a modern product, as seen below; the bottle, as seen to the left, is a squat pirate fantasy not designed with bartenders in mind. Also pay no attention to the "XO" on the bottle; the use of such grading terms is traditional for brandy, but totally unregulated outside of the French tradition, perhaps doubly so in a former British colony. So there's a lot of questionable branding going on here, but it's not a bad entry-level product inside.

Tasting Notes: This is a less subtle beast than the Plantation, but it has lots of the same sweetness up front. The nose is somewhere between root beer and ginger ale, with a strong whiff of lime peel. It tastes unsurprisingly of molasses, loaded with nutmeg, star anise, allspice, and ginger, which gets sweeter as it sits on the palate. Gradually this develops into a strong sweet orange quality, reminiscent of orange liqueur, with some tropical fruit (papaya?) and funky hogo in the background. Notice a pattern? The sweetness is really overwhelming by the end, but that actually makes it a decent dessert rum, possibly very nice for a rum cake or other confectionery. Pyrat also fits nicely into a Tiki cocktail blend; I'd definitely like this offset with another dry, overproof rum and plenty of citrus.

Matusalem Gran Reserva

About: Although this one says "Cuba" on the bottle, it's actually made in the Dominican Republic, Cuban imports being embargoed until recently. As it turns out, a number of Cuban rum producers left the country after the revolution (you've heard of Bacardi, right?) and set up shop in neighboring countries to continue their trade. The "15 years" on the bottle isn't the same minimum age that you'll find on whiskey; it's an estimated average, as this is produced using the solera system. Also used for sherry, madiera, and other dessert wines, this is a method by which the product is fed from barrel to barrel and continuously blended; because the barrels are never fully drained, this means that some fraction of the distillate could be much older than the date on the bottle, though none is exactly as old as stated.

Tasting Notes: My initial impression is that this tastes older than either of the preceding rums. It's restrained, with a noticeable presence of oak, or cigar box maybe. The nose has little bits of coffee, vanilla, raisin, nutmeg, and orange peel, without any one overwhelming the whole. On the palate, it's the driest rum here, with only a little residual raisin and toffee sweetness not quite balancing things out and leaving the texture little thin. The flavor is as complex as the nose; dried orange, allspice, and vanilla start out, with coffee, tobacco, and oak following but not predominating. The allspice builds toward the finish and the bitter toffee quality returns too, leading things out nicely. The only thing really missing is hogo, which makes this less appropriate as a traditional Tiki rum, but the smoothness is great for mixing in simple cocktails. I particularly like a rum Boulevardier variation* which lets the bitter qualities shine while reinforcing with sweetness.

*2 oz aged rum, 1 oz Campari (or similar), 1 oz (good) sweet vermouth, 1 dash orange bitters, assembled over a large ice cube. Let's call this one a Privateer, though I'm sure there are plenty other cocktails with that name.

So: rum is pretty variable stuff! Keep in mind that this is just one moderately-aged subset of rums; there's much more variation between categories than displayed here. I'm looking forward to talking about it, among many other things.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Sour Grapes

It's been a while since I've written up an actual drink! Feels a little... nostalgic. Lately I've been making relatively simple cocktails, and it's not too often that one jumps out and grabs my attention. This is a very welcome exception, so much so that I had to get it down.

1 1/2 oz G'Vine Nouaison gin (we'll do a writeup on this soon too)
3/4 oz red wine
3/4 oz tamarind syrup (I'd have loved to use a sour grape syrup, but this is close enough)
3/4 oz lime juice

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

Yum. A really nice, simple take on a gin sour that also tastes shockingly of grape.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Spirits: Koval Distillery Whiskeys

In August, the wife and I took a trip to Chicago for our anniversary. I had every intention of writing up the entire trip, I swear, but somehow life intervened and that post simply never happened. But, I did manage to bring a couple souvenirs home from our final stop just before skipping town: the distillery and sampling room at Koval Distillery.

I've talked about a couple of Koval's unusual products before, but the visit was a real education in just how odd their stuff is. The distillery was founded by a wife-husband duo who hail from Austrian families with a history of distilling brandy, which in Europe generally means trying to capture the nuances of a specific fruit in their distillate. I love such unaged European brandies, and it's really interesting to see how the approach translates to distilling whiskey from grain.

Practically, what this means is that Koval uses only 60% of the total output of their still to make each batch of whiskey, using what's known as the "heart". (It's probably worth noting that their main still is much bigger than the display model seen to the left.) The 10% toxic "heads" which come out first get used to clean the floors, and the 30% largely flavorless "tails" that come last get collected and re-distilled into vodka. Thrifty! Their barrels are smaller than the 55 gallon model used by most domestic bourbon distillers. Instead Koval ages for about 2 years in smaller 30 gallon barrels (made in Minnesota) with a variety of finishes.

And that finish, I'd say, is one of the things that makes Koval's product so interesting. They distill using a variety of interesting grains, all of them carefully sources and certified organic, but in the tasting room you get to try differently-aged samples: the same whiskey, from the same grain, in three totally different expressions.

This color difference gives you a preview of what's to come. The white whiskey on the left is aged for a single day (apparently legally required to label it "whiskey") and no more; the other two are aged for about two years. In the middle is a "toasted" barrel expression, with no char on the inside of the barrel; on the right a bourbon barrel with a classically charred interior. This makes for a shocking difference in the finished product.

Now, these are also distilled from different grains, but having sampled practically every combination available at the tasting room (at the encouragement of my long-suffering wife) I can tell you that the finish makes just as much difference than the source grain. Let's not belabor this with the format that I've kept to in other spirit reviews, because the different styles that these represent are as interesting as the specific whiskies I brought home.

First, the white whiskey. I'm usually suspicious of white whiskeys, since they have a reputation for roughness thanks to the infamous poor quality of moonshine. In truth, there are a surprising and growing number of quality minimally-aged whiskies out there (High West calls them "silver whiskey" in a superb branding move) and Koval's are easily the best I've ever tried. These are essentially fresh off the still, having been aged only in barrel for a single day, which is apparently legally required in order to label them with the term "whiskey". Essentially, they're the pure stuff, as close to a straight expression of the grain as it's possible to get.

The Oat version that I brought home is sweeter on the nose than other new-make whiskies, bordering on the round sweetness of a classic eau-de-vie, only... tropical, somehow. The body is beautifully smooth and creamy, without a hint of burn; the grain is a predominant flavor, providing a persistent sweet quality reminiscent of oatmeal (duh). As it sits on your palate there are little pops of maple, vanilla, apple pie, guava, and a growing spicy character (think allspice and white pepper) that lingers into an extended finish. From what I recall of the other white whiskies, they differ mostly in the details; the rye is unsurprisingly spicier, for example, but shares the same impeccably smooth, silky-sweet palate. Every single one is amazingly smooth and delicate for such fresh spirit, a great testament to Koval's distilling practices.

Second, we've got Koval's Toasted Barrel expressions, which were the most exciting find for me. This whiskey is distilled just like the others, then decanted and aged in barrels whose oak staves are briefly heated to "open up" the wood grain without developing the char characteristic of bourbon barrels. It's instructive because even though it's produced in the same fashion and aged for the same length of time, the result is totally different from the other styles. That's easily seen in the pale gold color, which resembles scotch or a delicate Irish whiskey more than it does most caramel-brown American whiskey.

Out of the available options, I chose the Spelt to take home (made from a subspecies of wheat) because it was the most unique of the available grains and also because it edged most into complex, delicate scotch whiskey territory. As with all of Koval's products, it's a little sweet and grainy on the nose, but also carries a pleasantly sawdusty aroma like fresh-cut wood. That's reflected on the palate, which is delicately sweet at first with notes of nougat like a good Irish whiskey, touched up with a vaguely floral note, like a very subtle chamomile. A spicy presence grows and grows, with intensely peppery notes and the drying presence of the wood tannins, all against a backdrop of honey, wheat, and a bitter-herbal character that puts me in mind of absinthe. It's one of the sweeter toasted barrel versions, less spicy than the rye, less floral than the millet, and I can't think of a single other whiskey I've tried made from spelt, so it gets points for uniqueness too. The only problem is that it's a very limited release, quite possibly sold only at the Koval distillery, and I've been unable to find it anywhere locally.

Finally, though by no means last, are the more traditionally styled whiskies aged in charred oak barrels, in the same fashion as bourbon (in fact, bourbon is included among them, but distinguishes itself by using millet in the mash). Again, these are aged in small barrels for a shorter amount of time than larger producers. The size of the barrel, and the resulting increase in surface contact, is partly what produces the classic rich caramel color despite only about two years in oak. But don't worry - the flavor is still distinctively Koval.

My selection of these was the Four Grains whiskey, made from a combined mash of oat, barley, rye, and wheat (what proportion of each isn't specified). This strikes an intriguing balance between the qualities of all those constituent grains. It's spicy and fruity on the nose from the rye, with big hints of orange peel and malt. Sweetness is immediately evident on the palate, in a fruity/floral combination that reminds me a lot of maraschino liqueur with some honeyish acidity. It grows increasingly grainy in a breakfast-cereal sort of way, with the airy quality that I always associate with wheated whiskies, and a light undercurrent of char. Eventually it turns to cinnamon and nutmeg, and winds up in an intensely peppery and lingering finish with a hint of licorice. It's one hell of a whiskey with a lot going on, though it maintains the sweet fruitiness consistent with Koval's other expressions. This bottling, fortunately, is one of the easier versions to find, and well worth hunting down!

All three of these (and the expressions that they represent) are excellent products, and Koval a very welcoming distillery. I highly recommend visiting! You can taste to your heart's content, view the workings of a true craft distillery, and pick up products that can't be found anywhere else. For us, it was the perfect endcap to our vacation.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Spirits: Flavorful Vodkas

I'm on record as something of a vodka hater; despite my always-rotating spirit collection, I rarely keep vodka around, and I admit to usually turning up my nose at vodka cocktails. Part of that might be rooted in good old nerd snobbiness, but if you think of spirits as a core element of flavor in cocktails (as I do) then vodka starts to seem a bit silly. Most mass-produced vodkas are designed for and advertised by a complete lack of flavor. They'll use terms like "clarity" and "smoothness", but what producers really mean is that it will get you drunk without tasting boozy. Combine it with a mixer, and you'll just taste the mixer.

So, vodka doesn't add anything other than punch, and with a little experimentation I've found that just about any vodka drink can be enhanced flavor-wise using another white spirit. Gin can readily replace vodka in just about anything; light white rum is a good choice in fruity drinks; blanco tequila or pisco can make interesting substitutions too. All of these will bring something distinct to the mix beyond the alcohol.

Let's not even discuss the scourge of flavored vodkas, okay? They're generally heinous, almost always lower-proof and created using disgustingly artificial extracts. There are a handful of craft producers making good product, but the more readily found stuff is shit. And the flavor arms race between those big makers is reaching satirical levels of absurdity. I mean, whipped cream? Salted watermelon? Fucking Cinnabon vodka? Awful. (For the record, I have tried the salted watermelon stuff, and it is easily the worst spirit I've ever sampled. It's undrinkable. Do not buy it, not even as a gag.)

But, if you look carefully, there are diamonds in the rough. In among the mass-produced vodkas are a few spirits that distinguish themselves by actually tasting like something. Yes! Vodka can have a distinctive flavor when it's not filtered down to nothing. It can taste subtly of the grains (or potatoes) used to produce it, with a flinty and vaguely alkaline character. It can have notes of vanilla or lemon peel or spice; it can be sharp and medicinal or soft and creamy; it can taste of something more than just the filtered-down essence of ethanol. Yes please. Let's try some good stuff.


About: There's a long-running and vigorous argument between Poles and Russians over the exact origin of vodka. Personally, I haven't done enough research to say one way or the other, but I do know that Russians have a prejudice against potato vodka. On that point alone, my vote's with the Polish. Luksusowa (which translates to "luxury") is a triple-distilled potato vodka, reasonably popular in Poland, and despite some questionable marketing I can understand why. This stuff is tasty, and moreover it's very reasonably priced, usually coming in under $15 per bottle. I initially picked this up as a value brand, but now I think of it as one of the best values to be found.

Tasting Notes: Luksusowa is intensely medicinal and mineral on the note, which makes you think it'll be a lot rougher than it is. On tasting, it develops a creamy and rich texture, with distinct flavors of cocoa, vanilla, and fresh cream. That turns into a somewhat oily, peppery character with more mineral, fading into an extended medicinal finish with a gentle alcohol burn. At this price point it's a great mixing vodka with whatever you've got. I like it with tonic, cola, ginger beer, passionfruit juice... practically anything, really.


About: Reyka is a unique product, the only spirit I've ever seen that's produced in Iceland. Hell, I can't even think of any other product imported from the tiny, picturesque island nation. It's also unusually produced, using volcanic activity at multiple points in the production process. The vodka is distilled from grain through an interesting hybrid design called a Carter still, then filtered through lava rocks. It's further cut with glacier water naturally filtered through volcanic springs, and the whole operation is run on geothermal power. Neat! Green! Also pretty dang tasty.

Tasting Notes: This is also a bit medicinal on the nose, but it's also got kind of a dried-herb, floral character; think herbes de provence, maybe with some white pepper. That herb character carries over to the palate, along with a slightly flinty quality, but mostly it's stony, a bit sweet, and clean with a creamy texture. The finish develops subtle notes of vanilla bean and lemon oil, then develops into a lingering peppery quality. I like this one straight out of the freezer, where the stony texture gets reinforced by cold temperatures, and the subtle flavors all come into alignment.


About: Produced by a fellow with the unlikely name of Tito Beveridge at the first microdistillery in Texas (or so goes the marketing copy) this vodka is the only domestic product represented here, and it's got a hell of a backstory. More to the point, the bottle says that it's produced in pot stills, which produces a spirit with more character than the modern column stills used for mass-produced vodkas. That's probably why I like it so much, and why I'm not alone; this won a unanimous Double Gold Medal at the World Spirits Competition when it debuted.

Tasting Notes: This has a lightly medicinal nose with hints of orange oil and wet stone. On the palate, it's lightly sweet (kind of a lightly acidic honey character) with some candied orange notes, a grainy bourbon-esque quality, spicy cinnamon, and bitter licorice. The finish is lightly peppery, with a mild burn reminiscent of young whiskey that I really enjoy on its own. Mostly though, I like this in a Vesper, where the sweetness and the spice get along beautifully with gin and Cocchi Americano.

So there you have them! Some weirdo vodkas that I (also a weirdo) actually enjoy. All of these sell at a reasonable price point, by the way, because I think it's ridiculous to pay any more than $25 for a spirit marketed for its lack of flavor. These examples break both those rules, and for that I think they deserve a shot in your home bar.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Blood Moon Panic

This kind of one-off cocktail post is becoming a rarity! Still, tonight's a special occasion: a super-cool lunar eclipse, which as a space nerd I just had to watch. I joked to my wife that I should make a drink to celebrate the occasion, then demurred when she agreed, and rapidly changed my tune again.

I'll list this in slightly weird order, because I made a non-alcoholic version for my wife that excluded the rum:

1 oz lemon juice
3/4 oz sour cherry syrup (made from preserves)
3/4 oz apricot nectar
3 dashes Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter bitters
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
(2 oz aged rum, specifically Ron Methusela)

Shake and strain into a large glass over a frozen watermelon cube, then top with 2 oz (with booze) to 4 oz (without booze) soda water and stir gently.

I wanted something with the deep brownish-red color of the lunar eclipse, and in this I succeeded, though in retrospect I might have made this a beer cocktail with a dark stout of some kind. It's pretty tasty as is, though, and I like having a booze-free variant available.

The name, by the way, refers to a particular brand of apocalyptic idiocy that I find entertaining, if completely wrong. The so-called "blood moon" is cool, and rare to see, but an entirely predictable phenomenon!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Spirits: Local Gins

"More gins?" I can hear you asking already. You're damn right, more gins. I won't be stopped.

These particular gins are all unique in that they hail from distilleries located near my hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. There's been a boom in local distilling lately, and it's a curious fact that the first products turned out by most of them are various takes on gin. The reason's simple: gin doesn't have to be aged to develop flavor the way that whiskey does, so you can ship product out the door and start recouping your investment immediately, rather than having to sit on barrels for a year or more. Gin's just a smart start-up booze.

The thing about gin is that you have to find a way to distinguish yourself in order to sell it. Clever marketing will only get you so far; with so many other distilleries pumping out product, producers have to make the booze itself unique in order to attract attention. These, friends, are some dang unique gins. They sure caught my eye, and I am only too happy to share.

Bent Brewstillery Gunner Ghost

About: Starting off strong is a gin distinguished by its proof. The dramatically rendered ship on the label ought to be a dead giveaway that this is navy-strength product, the stuff that sailors used to slop all over their gunpowder. (Not intentionally, it just happens after having a few, or when enemy fire fucks up a barrel.) Bent Brewstillery is also my most local of the distillers featured here; heck, our bank is located right across the street from their taproom. They produce a number of unique beers, and the brewery does double time producing mashes for their stills. Hardworking fellows over there.

Tasting: No surprise that this is pretty potent stuff from the nose on up. The botanical mix features some surprises, but the first whiff is full of classic juniper, dark herbs, and an intriguing maltiness. Lighter, grassier elements (hello apricot, lemongrass... and hops?) take over on the palate at first, but the alcohol makes itself known pretty quickly. The swallow is full of malt and spice and a rounded sweetness, plus a sort of cola flavor that's weird to encounter in gin. It's different from other navy-strength bottlings in the same way that American gins are different from London Dry versions: a bit sweeter, a bit more robust, less focused on juniper. I like it, particularly in shaken drinks.

Norseman Strawberry Rhubarb Gin

About: Norseman is a micro-scale distillery run out of the hipster-heavy northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, with a strong focus on local sourcing. Even though it appears to be run by two guys and their dogs, they've really ramped up production and their products can be found at many local liquor stores (including bigger chains that will let you order product online). Those products span a few different spirits and they're starting to release aged whiskies and rum, but this is a seasonal release of their gin, one version of a few. I'm guessing that the strawberry and rhubarb are distilled in with the botanicals; I keep meaning to email the distillery for clarification on that, but haven't gotten around to it. Heck, at this point they might not even remember, this being a rather limited-edition summer edition that you might now be hard-pressed to find.

Tasting: This is a rather sweet gin, and it starts from the nose, which is filled with candied strawberry. On the palate, it's pretty one-note, but it's a complex note: think good strawberry-rhubarb pie, filled with both of those plus lemon peel and vanilla. After the swallow, a bit of white pepper hangs around, but there's really not much juniper presence here; good for the novice gin drinker. On the other hand, it's nowhere close to the artificial sweetness that you might expect from the name, and it makes for a fantastic gin & tonic on a hot day.

J. Carver Barrel Gin

About: The J. Carver distillery is a bit further afield, located in the outlying city/exurb of Waconia, not quite in what I'd consider the Twin Cities metro area but close enough that I'm considering an afternoon trip to their tasting room. They make a few "premium" gins and vodkas, but this is the odd duck of the bunch, a gin distilled with local botanicals, grains, and wild rice (definitively Minnesotan, if a bit unusual) then briefly aged in also-local newly charred bourbon barrels. Making a barrel-aged gin is a bit of a gutsy move, but it paid off. I actually first learned about this spirit from Robb Jones of Spoon and Stable, a man I trust in all matters spiritous, who liked it so much that he bought an entire barrel of the stuff for his bar. Smart move.

Tasting: It shouldn't be surprising that this is an atypical gin, with a nose more redolent of star anise and orange peel than juniper. I get a little whiff of the juniper right at first tasting, but that rapidly gets layered with licorice, vanilla, dark spices, and a building bourbon-barrel char character. The finish is a bit tannic and drying, with more of that oaky finish, a wash of black pepper, and a sort of sweet dried-herb background. It's complex, nicely aged, and a little bit rough but still sippable. With the oak presence and sweetness, this makes one hell of a Martinez.

So there you go, more weird gins! I love the motley collection that I've assembled, and you can be certain that I'll keep on adding to it in future.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Spirits: Crooked Water Bourbon

Been deficient around here, friends! I can't claim that tonight's post will be that lengthy, long in coming as it is. I just realized that I've been meaning to do so a post on this stuff for months now, and since the bottle is nearly gone it's go time.

This is a rare whiskey that I didn't hunt down myself! A few weeks ago we hosted a cocktail night, I asked a couple friends to bring a bottle of bourbon, and they showed up with this stuff. As the story goes, they'd tried the first batch of this before it sold out within a week, and were lucky enough to try the first version of a similar sherry-finished product. After trying this, I'm not so surprised that it went quickly.

Crooked Water appears to be a fairly new producer based around Lake Minnetonka, making only a handful of unique products for now. This one is a young bourbon, finished for a relatively long time (6+ months for a less than 2-year-old bourbon) in ex-port barrels.

Personally, I don't normally favor port-finished whiskeys (notably Angel's Envy, which despite being very highly rated I don't actually like much) but the young, sweet character here gets along really well with the raisiny character that the port contributes. It's still got a bit of hot, marshmallowy, congener character that indicates a young spirit, but not to an overwhelming degree. Balancing that out is a really nice spice level with a rounded, sweet mouthfeel; the only thing that really mars the flavor is a rather peppery and hot finish, but it's not overwhelming. Really surprisingly sippable for a whiskey of such a young pedigree, and as we discovered during our cocktail bonanza, it mixes really nicely too. Those hotter spicy notes stand up well to stirred cocktails and the port character makes for a really tasty Manhattan in particular.

I'll have to keep an eye out for some other Crooked Water products!

Friday, August 21, 2015


I had to write this one down immediately.

1 1/2 oz Koval White Oat Whiskey
3/4 oz Casoni 1814
3/4 sweet vermouth

Stir and strain into a cocktail glass over a large cube.

Really, this is more of a Boulevardier, but the unaged whiskey makes it something else. Yum.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Hemingway Variations

I make no secret of my love for the Hemingway Daquiri, a variation on a classic that has become a well-known recipe all its own. Though everybody agrees that the drink was named after Ernest Hemingway, and that it was born at the El Floridita bar in Havana, Cuba, the history is otherwise a bit muddled. What seems clear is that Hemingway's original drink was made with double the alcohol and far less sugar than a typical Daquiri, nowhere close to the version with grapefruit and maraschino that we've got today. I prefer using the name Papa Doble for the original drink, which was also typically blended or served over shaved ice, where today you often see Hemingway Daquiris served up in a cocktail glass. Where all those differences emerged is a real mystery, but I'm pretty happy with the end result.

After doing some research I was also surprised that my personal version seems to feature a lot more sugar than most published recipes, many of which feature at most 1/2 oz of maraschino for sweetness. Fortunately, when I cracked open Speakeasy, the proportions were a lot closer to those I provide here. Personally, I like nodding to Hemingway with a strong cocktail, but prefer a somewhat sweeter drink.

The other fun thing you can easily do with this recipe is swap out simple syrup (which actually doesn't appear in many recipes) for a flavored syrup. While dicking around a couple weeks ago, I also tried swapping out the normal white rum for other spirits, resulting in the concoctions below.

2 oz aged rum (Scarlet Ibis for me; you want something moderately aged and funky)
1/2 oz maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)
1/2 oz spiced syrup
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
3/4 oz lime juice

2 oz blanco tequila (El Mayor)
1/2 oz maraschino liqueur (Luxardo, obviously)
1/2 oz grenadine
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
3/4 oz lime juice

2 oz pisco (Macchu)
1/2 oz maraschino liqueur (I said Luxardo)
1/2 oz thyme syrup
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
3/4 oz lime juice

For all of the above, shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish if you wish, or do what I did (a move pilfered from the excellent Marvel Bar) and lower in a single cube from the shaker with a barspoon, to keep the drink cool without diluting it much further.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Salers Substitutions

A few weeks ago, rummaging around my favorite liquor store for finding unusual products, I came across a bottle of Salers Gentiane, which I'd heard mentioned on cocktail blogs but had never found in person. Did I buy it? How is that even a question?

In all fairness, I brought it home not having much idea what I was getting into. I knew it was similar to other bitter aperitif liqueurs, namely Suze and Aveze, which I'd tried before in drinks like the White Negroni and in a drink or two at the esteemed Pouring Ribbons. What I didn't understand was how distinct these gentian liqueurs were from other aperitifs that I've known and loved.

Salers, as it turns out, is a different beast because of what's used to make it bitter: gentian root. A post on Fred Yarm's excellent blog, recapping a talk at this year's Tales of the Cocktail, first helped me get a handle on this difference. Gentian is a distinct bittering agent from either wormwood (used principally in vermouth, and more famously in absinthe) or cinchona bark (the bittering agent in tonic water and in other favorites like Cocchi Americano*). Like vermouths and other aperitifs, gentian liqueurs are fortified wines, starting life as relatively-bland white wine that's then boosted with sugar and spirits to add flavor and shelf life.

*This is actually a little weird, because Fred's post points out that gentian is generally used in "americanos" but Cocchi is indeed flavored with cinchona. Because this sort of linguistic confusion is everywhere in the world of food and spirits.

What makes gentian different is the quality of its bitteress, which sits between wormwood and cinchona on a continuum. Wormwood is intensely herbal and sharply bitter; cinchona is flat, sweeter, and woodier; gentian falls in the complex territory between. It's like taking a deep whiff of wild brushes. Trying my newly acquired Salers on its own, the flavor was intensely vegetal, bitter like a green pepper, brighter and more herbal than the citrus notes I'm used to in Cocchi Americano or Campari. Still, I reasoned, the formulation, alcohol level, and sweet/bitter balance are all roughly comparable to other liqueurs in the category. Why not give it a spin in recipes that call for other bitter liqueurs?

Pink Negroni

A Negroni riff seemed an obvious first move, the White Negroni already having been established as a good use of gentian liqueur. However, I'd purchased my Salers in lieu of other white fortified wines, so I decided to use up the last of my Aperol instead. Glad I did, too, because what a pretty color!

1 1/4 oz gin (using the last of my Bombay Sapphire East)
1 oz Aperol
1 oz Salers

Stir and strain over a large ice cube in a rocks glass; garnish with a broad strip of grapefruit peel.

This went down way too easily. It didn't have quite the richness of a traditional Negroni made with sweet vermouth, but the sweetness was on-point and the orange-rhubarb notes from the Aperol balanced the vegetal-lemon flavor of the Salers beautifully. I would happily add this into a regular rotation if I had such a thing.

Poison Ivy

Given the multiple comparisons I've already made to Cocchi Americano, not doing a Vesper riff would have been stupid. I tried plugging Salers into my standard Vesper recipe, but the final version took a little tweaking to get right.

1 1/2 oz gin (Beefeater this time)
1/2 oz vodka (Lususkowa, a vodka I hope to cover in a near-future post)
1/3 oz Salers
2 dashes Regan's No. 6 Orange Bitters

Stir very, very well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a lemon twist expressed over the top of the glass. Next time I might try discarding the peel and adding a basil leaf, just to nail home the look.

I normally use about 1/2 oz of Cocchi (about twice what Ian Fleming's original recipe calls for) because I like the flavor, but Salers was a bit overwhelming at that level. Backing off and supplementing with orange bitters lent a better balance of citrus and greenery.

In conclusion: like so much I've talked about here, Salers is funky stuff. But if you've got a hankering for something unusual to try in spirits-focused cocktails, it might just be worth seeking out.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Few Random... Martines?

I'm not quite sure what to call these. They're sort-of Martini variants, in that they consist of a gin stirred together with an aromatized wine, but in each case it's a sweeter aromatic than dry vermouth. Yet they're missing the additional sweetening that would make them a Martinez, leaving them in a weird grey area.

Oh, and... yeah, I made all three of these at once. And I poured all three at once. And then I drank all three in quick succession. It's fucking amazing that I managed to collect these recipes.

#1 (middle above)
1 1/2 oz Bombay Sapphire East gin
3/4 oz Cocchi Americano
2 dashes Bitter Truth Tonic Bitters
2 dashes Regan's No. 6 Orange Bitters

Stir and strain into a cocktail glass; garnish with a thin lime wheel.

Drink first as preparation.

#2 (left above)
1 1/2 oz Norseman Strawberry Rhubarb gin
3/4 oz Byrrh
2 dashes Bitter Truth Tonic Bitters
2 dashes Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter Bitters

Stir and strain into a slightly fancier cocktail glass; garnish with a strip of lemon peel.

Drink second to steady yourself.

#3 (right above)
1 1/2 oz J. Carver Barrel gin
3/4 oz Bonal
2 dashes Regan's No. 6 Orange Bitters
2 dashes Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter Bitters

Stir and strain into your fanciest cocktail glass; garnish with a brandied cherry.

Drink third to forget.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Freethinker Punch

As is becoming our yearly tradition, we hosted the 4th of July again this year, an event that plays well to my main culinary strengths: pork and booze. Per my standard party trick, the latter was a non-alcoholic punch base flanked by spirits and wine, a configuration I can't recommend highly enough. Not suggested with fireworks, though; we loaded up on lawn games instead.

I got a bit of feedback that this wasn't my best punch to date, which is fair. I wasn't too much bothered, since this capably performed its dual mission of fueling the party and soaking up a ton of random shit that had accumulated in my fridge, which is a thing that happens. Sigh - such trials and tribulations!

This is about a quarter-serving of the amount for the party, so based on the amount we had left, I'd say enough for 6-8 people or so?

4 oz lemon oleo-saccharum (we've made this before, but it deserves a rundown... just not now)
4 oz mango shrub (a cup each of diced mango, apple cider vinegar, sugar, and water, allowed to steep together in the fridge for 2-3 weeks)
4 oz lime water (a bunch of spent lime shells, infused in water for about 2 weeks)
4 oz lime juice (not the juice of said limes, because 2-week-old lime juice is nasty)
8 oz cantaloupe juice (spiked with about 1/2 teaspoon citric acid for balance)
8 oz green tea
12 oz ginger beer (Reed's)
16 oz soda water

Combine in a punch bowl over copious ice. Serve with your favorite white spirits and wine.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Few Random Old-Fashioneds

I find it hard to resist an old-fashioned. Here I'm talking about the simplest classic cocktail. Booze, syrup, bitters; full stop. For a "fancy" version, add a dash or two of something flavorful.

Simplicity is a virtue here. Made well, a classic bourbon- or rye-based old-fashioned is a perfect and uncluttered masterpiece. You've got a delicate sweetness, an accenting punch of spice, a rich mouthfeel, all taming the base spirit but never letting you forget it's there.

Flexibility is another core aspect of the old-fashioned. A traditional version is made with whiskey, but it doesn't have to be. Any spirit that you wouldn't mind drinking straight will do. Likewise syrup; there's no need to stick to plain old simple when you've got variously flavored varieties. And there are a million different craft bitters out there today. Grab some of each, and combine them over a large ice cube. Boom: old-fashioned.

Here are a couple good combinations I've stumbled into recently.

2 1/4 oz Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt whiskey
1/4 oz lemon syrup
4 dashes Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter bitters

2 1/4 oz Mezcal Sacrificio Reposado
1/4 oz honey-ginger syrup
2 dashes Bitter Truth Xocolatl Mole bitters
2 dashes Regan's No. 6 Orange bitters

2 1/4 oz Norseman Strawberry Rhubarb Gin
1/4 oz cinnamon spice syrup
2 dashes Bitter Truth Tonic bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters

For all of the above, stir briefly and strain over a large ice cube. Don't even think about garnishing.

What? No mention of hiatus? Shhhh what hiatus, what silliness is this?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wise Man

Hey look, another lapse! It's another season where I just haven't been mixing much original stuff - largely gin & tonics and daiquiris, for some reason. Just to keep the suspense from building too much, here's a backlog item for you.

I started screwing around with this concept a little while ago after purchasing a bottle of Bombay Sapphire East, which was an unusual purchase for me. I'm not a fan (at all) of standard Bombay Sapphire, but a bar-master friend had me try a competition drink of his once using this as the base, and I got hooked. This version adds lemongrass and black pepper to the normal Sapphire botanicals, which I think adds some depth and spice to what is otherwise a fairly bland gin. I got to thinking one morning (don't judge me) how the "eastern" concept might get along nicely with tea, so I assembled this the moment I got home from work. It's still a work in process (I don't think the balance is quite there) but let's record it anyway.

1 oz Bombay Sapphire East
1 oz cognac (any decent VS or better brandy ought to do)
1 oz Bonal (honestly, I might try straight-up sweet vermouth next time)
1 oz chilled oolong tea (can't remember exactly what kind)
1/4 oz Licor 43 (to balance the astringency of the tea)

Stir and strain into a chilled coupe glass. A lemon twist garnish is a good idea here, but don't tell anybody I said so.

The mix here was based on the Ampersand, which I think is something of an unfairly obscure lost cocktail. Again, I don't think this exact recipe quite nailed the balance, but I find the concept intriguing, and the drink's light body quite fit for summer. Some further renditions might pop up here soon.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Pink Ribbon Punch

Barbecues are among my favorite events to throw. This is thanks primarily to two easy, delicious things: grilled meat, and punch. I like to think that our summer gatherings are becoming known for both.

This particular version was inspired directly by cheap, tasty-looking watermelon, so I garnished it with some frozen into large ice blocks, with watermelon frozen in the middle, you guys! This is something I've always wanted to try but never had the foresight to manage; my wife, however, dubbed it "very Martha Stewart," which I'm pretty sure was derogatory. Whatever! It looked nice.

The following makes about half of the gargantuan amount seen to the left, which still didn't quite make it to the end of the party. I admit that I may have dumped a bit of it on the table trying to pour the dregs out of the punch bowl.

1 L watermelon juice (well-strained)
750 mL prosecco (something cheap and dry)
500 mL white rum (Bacardi)
500 mL soda water
4 oz lime juice
4 oz lime-coriander cordial
4 oz cranberry grenadine
4 oz Cocchi Americano

Combine in a punch bowl and float some large ice cubes to keep things cool (it helps if everything's well-chilled beforehand).

That's a pretty damn weird mix of metric and imperial units, I know, but it's how I measured, and it turned out really nicely, so I'm recording it verbatim.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Review: The Worst Cocktail Day

A little something different for you this evening, friends. I don't normally skew into reviewing other peoples' writing; after all, those people get published, and I do this just as a hobby. But my wife sent this to me earlier today and I nearly had a stroke at my desk.

Did you know it was World Cocktail Day today? Despite my obvious interest, I had absolutely no clue, being not only generally oblivious to the date but also a committed hater of fake holidays. (And anyway, if you're going to celebrate a cocktail-themed holiday, why the fuck wouldn't it be it Repeal Day?) Fortunately we have David Holloway, writing at, to tell us all about it.
Today is World Cocktail Day and I can hear many of you muttering under your breath reading this space you thought everyday was World Cocktail Day.
You can practically fucking hear him chortling as he writes this. Not off to a good start.
You can celebrate accordingly but I know how I plan to mark the occasion; more on that in a minute. 
Okay, I'm sure you've got some good options lined up! Maybe we'll get some historical gems: a Sazerac, a Sidecar, a Martinez, something special and authentic...
A cocktail is defined as "any generic alcoholic mixed drink, cocktail may mean any beverage that contains two or more ingredients if at least one of them contains alcohol."
That can mean just about anything and rightly does.
...Not promising, David. Cocktails should be special! "Just about anything" doesn't cut it.
You never know when somebody will ask me a question about a Fuel-Injected Sidecar Cocktail and I better know the answer. 
I... wait, what? First of all, that sounds like a horrid shot-of-the-week that some hungover college town bartender cobbled together after reading the back of a discount-rack cocktail guide. Second, do you own and manage a bar that you forgot to mention? Do people actually ask you shit like this? Are you that desperate for friends? Is that why you seem so desperate to "mark the occasion"?
...the adult libation of choice for me will most likely be a variation of a classic drink made popular by one of the great movie spies of all time.
Oh no. No, no, no no no no no...
James Bond's drink of choice (at least the early Bond played by Sean Connery) was a vodka martini.
God dammit, David! A vodka martini? That faux-sophisticated bastardization of a real, proper cocktail? Let's get one thing straight: a "vodka martini" is not a Martini. Neither gin nor vermouth are optional. Granted, they take a little care to assemble, but together they make for one of the most sublime cocktails around, one which has quite rightly lasted for over a hundred years. Why would you mess with that, David?
I fell for them straight off. But it wasn't until I discovered the dirty version of that iconic ligation that I really fell for them.


The Dirty Martini is a martini in which the bartender adds a healthy dose of the olive juice to mix to make it extra special.


I once ordered a dirty martini in a bar in New Orleans and the bartender asked me if I wanted it Britney dirty or Madonna dirty. I went for the Madonna version.
OH HAHA, HAHA, HAHA. SUCH FUNNY. It's funny because Madonna is so dirty, and also because a dirty martini is like drinking a salt lick! Especially when you make it like this:
...1 fluid ounce brine from olive jar...
A whole fucking ounce? GODDAMNIT DAVID WHY ლ(ಠ益ಠ)ლ
So to be the best host you can be how about pouring some extra olive juice into a small glass and serving it with the drink so that your guest can add more if they desire? And if it's me, I will most likely do just that.
How about no, because that is not a thing that ANY human with even a rudimentary set of taste buds would EVER WANT. That's fucking ENOUGH out of you, David. Go sit in the goddamned corner and eat a garnish tray of olives. You deserve it. Afterwards if you're good we'll let you suckle the bar mats. I'm sure you'll give us another 2,000-word masterpiece out of the experience.

Do me a favor, folks. Listen to nothing this man says about this or any other topic. Do not drink a dirty "martini", ever. It is a garbage drink for garbage people, people such as David. Grab a cocktail book, pick a page at random, and make that. You will have a better World Cocktail Day, I guarantee it.

Next year, let's show him how it's done.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Plaza Nueva

So you've got all this god-damned weird booze hanging around and you're wondering what to do with it. The answer, of course, is to make several of these. Okay, it's a partial answer, but it'll take care of half the bottles.

Regular readers (all 3 of them) may recognize this name as a throwback to one of my earlier personal recipes, one of the few that's ever actually made it onto a menu. Plaza Vieja, meet Plaza Nueva. I think I would tout this one as both a more faithful and much tastier take on the original Vieux Carre, but my past self might accuse me of bias.

Also, linking back to those older takes makes me realize that I've been keeping this little blog for over three years. God damn.

1 oz Fidelitas Obstler
1 oz Espolon Anejo
1 oz sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica)
1 dash green Chartreuse
2 dashes Regan's No. 6 Orange Bitters
2 dashes Bitter Truth Xocolatl Bitters
2 drops salt solution (or a couple grains of sea salt sprinkled into the mixing glass)

Rinse a cocktail glass or small snifter with mezcal (which I keep in an atomizer, same as the absinthe, for just this sort of application) and place in the freezer. Stir the remaining ingredients and strain into this glass, then garnish with a lemon peel expressed over the top and discarded (so that it doesn't get in the way, you see).

Hanging Garden

I love mint in cocktails, but it's an annoyingly short-lived ingredient. A properly stored syrup will keep for months; you can keep citrus in a bowl for at least a week; mint, once it's picked, will only make it a couple days before it starts to wilt. It's sad - but even sadder, that's one of the exact reasons that we're planning on hanging planters on our front porch. Fresh mint on demand!

1 oz vodka (Moskovskaya)
3/4 oz Fidelitas Obstler
3/4 oz gin syrup
3/4 oz lime juice
12 mint leaves

Shake the liquid ingredients first, then add the mint leaves and shake briefly and brutally; you want to break up the mint a bit without bruising it too much. Strain (but don't double-strain; you want those lovely green specks) into a cocktail glass and gaze at the frothy goodness that requires no additional garnish or fine, float a fucking mint leaf on top, then, if you've got extra.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Coriander Gimlet

A very straightforward drink here, but a good one! Among the first cocktails I was introduced to when I turned of age was the gimlet, and I grew to dislike it pretty quickly. I blame Rose's lime "juice" (nope) for turning me away, though shitty rail vodka probably contributed too. But that's unfair to the poor gimlet, which is a classic in its own right, and which can be much improved with a little care.

A homemade replacement for Rose's crud is really the core here, but I'm intentionally leaving off the recipe for now. I've got a roundup planned for some of the syrups and mixers that we saw pop up over Mocktail Month, and this will be included there, since I actually created it in April but never used it in a mocktail worth recording.

2 oz gin (whatever you like; I believe I was finishing off a bottle of New Amsterdam)
1 oz lime-coriander syrup
1/2 oz lime juice

Shake and strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass. Garnish? No, you fool. Drink it and garnish with a refill.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Spirits: Bizarre Booze Roundup

Woohoo! Having finally escaped the clutches of Mocktail Month, we can get back to serious drinking! Sipping. Sampling. Analysis. Whatever.

It was a good month, and certainly a helpful way to recalibrate, but now it's been a while since we did some spirits review. Heck, it's been a while since I went out and bought a bunch of booze based on whatever caught my eye - but that was exactly what happened the other evening.  It started as an innocent stop (honestly) with the notion of grabbing a bottle of wine, and ended with whatever you'd call this motley collection. God-damned strange is what I'd call them. Some very appealingly, others... less so, but still interesting. Let's have a taste, shall we?

St. George California Agricole Rum

About: The wizards of St. George Spirits feature prominently in one of my favorite recent non-fiction books, Adam Rogers' Proof. They make one of my absolute favorite gins, plus a California single malt, plus a great domestic absinthe, so I tend to trust their judgement. This is, according to the bottle, their rendition of an agricole-style rum (and, to be fair, if I'm going to blatantly ignore the whiskey/whisky debate, it seems pedantic of me to point out that it should be spelled "rhum" here) and is pot-distilled from fresh sugarcane. The label also includes the word "audacious", which... yes. That is a positive term for it.

Notes: The instant I opened this it smelled familiar, but impossible to place. I had to enlist my wife's help (she has a much better sense of smell than I) and she nailed it immediately. Olives: this stuff absolutely reeks of olives, specifically buttery little castelvetranos for some reason. The nose is so one-note and intense that it's really offputting; it's overwhelming even from a few inches above the glass. After a few minutes to sit it starts releasing some rhum-y notes of rubber and gunpowder, which is good because damned if I want to drink it before then. On the palate, those olive notes mercifully take a backseat; it's a more traditional rhum character, with fresh grassy sugarcane, intense vegetal notes, more petroleum (sounds like a bad thing, but it's very central to the style) and a little bit of melon. Then, god-dammit, the olives take over the finish with their vague brininess, backed up with modest congener funk that lingers for a while. A little lump of ice actually brings out the brine much more than I would have thought. I'm going to have to reserve this one for cocktails, where the saline character might bring some intriguing depth; I fucking love olives, but apparently not in my rum. Gotta say, I'm pretty disappointed in St. George right now. Either I got a poor batch of this, or they're being very "audacious" indeed.

Fidelitas Obstler

About: The name, and the origin, is extremely German. It looks to be an unaged brandy, and the label tells me it's a blend of 20% pear and 80% apple brandy, though it doesn't say whether they're combined before or after distillation. This delightfully translated page tells me that the distiller makes a number of other products, some of which I think I've tried, notably a raspberry brandy. However, my favorite part is this:
Especially the pear brandy is popular and well known among friends of the fruit moth. He is sorted fired from the Williams Christian pear, which has a particularly strong flavor.
Indeed. I have no idea who these "friends of the fruit moth" might be.

Notes: Very ripe and delicate compared to a lot of unaged brandies I've had; the nose smells like nothing so much as smelling the outside of a ripe, sweet Bartlett pear. Interesting, given that it's only about 20% pear brandy. Creamy pear predominates on the palate too, though there are some sweet apple notes present, with boatloads of vanilla and a little amaretto-ish sweet almond flavor for backing. Really dig the sweet, smooth body of this one. The finish is quite gentle too relative to similar spirits, just a little tickle of white pepper and a touch of lingering heat. This would be a really nice dessert sipper, but I'm looking forward to a trial run in some cocktails too.

Espolòn Añejo Tequila

About: This one may not look like an oddity at first, but it definitely is for two reasons. First, it's a relatively cheap yet high-quality añejo tequila! That's neat, but not a big shock given how much I enjoy Espolòn's reposado product. After spending about a year aging in classic white oak, this older edition is also finished in ex-bourbon barrels, ones from the Wild Turkey distillery, no less (yum). This has a subtle but definite effect on the final flavor, adding a bit of charred bourbon character to an already complex spirit. Here is a decent interview with a more detailed description of the process and product. I am totally on board, especially given that I found it for less than $30, at which price I really should have grabbed another half-dozen bottles before they realized their terrible mistake.

Notes: All classic, aged tequila on the nose. Rich, vegetal, full of ripe pineapple and oxidized notes reminiscent of a medium sherry. That's a pretty apt description of the palate, too. There's definitely a lot of rich caramel, pineapple, and guava. Some grassy and red-pepper notes provide a bit of backup, but the interesting part is a very dry-sherry-like saline character, with even a little bit of the iodine notes that Islay scotch is famous for. The bourbon finish takes hold in an oaky flush towards the end, with some dark spicy notes and more of that oxidized sherry flavor. Tequila that reminds me of scotch? Yeah, actually, and it's awesome!

Koval Millet Whiskey

About: Remember when we talked about Koval's oat whiskey and I off-handedly joked that they had a millet variety too? Well, I fucking found it! Right next to the oat product, and a "four grains" variety; not too surprising, I wouldn't have known where to shelve this either. Looking at this induces a kind of vertigo for me, as my most personal experience with millet is when I fed it to my childhood pet parakeets as a treat. Since it's gluten-free, and has a protein content very similar to wheat, it does appear to have had a slight resurgence in health-food circles as an alternative grain, but I don't know if I'll ever see it as anything other than birdseed. And here's some whiskey made from the stuff. God damn, don't we live in strange and exciting times?

Notes: Another very unusual nose for the category, this one like nothing so much as bubble gum. There's some woody scent behind that, and a sort of amaretto character, thankfully; this isn't a repeat of where we started. It's just a very odd scent to encounter floating atop what appears to be a fairly standard American whiskey. Unsurprisingly, that floral sweetness carries over into the palate, which is mostly inoffensive; very perfume-y, to be sure, but with a bit of rye-like bite and a good caramel presence that keeps things from being one-note. I'd describe the spice as being heavy on nutmeg and clove; maybe a bit like apple pie, complete with the apple. The finish delivers much the same but ends on that very floral character, kind of like rose water. Not sure I like this one as much as the Oat Whiskey, but it's still fascinating in its own way, and the flowery notes might make a good match for summer.

Those, my friends, are some strange spirits. I'm still figuring out what to do with them (aside from the tequila; it's Cinco de Mayo tomorrow, after all) but I will gladly report my findings.

Mocktail Month Addendum: Berry Motijo

Mocktail Month being officially over won't stop us. Increasingly my wife (aiming to provide a health-conscious counterbalance to, well, me) is requesting booze-free drinks, and I'll be damned if I won't build up a repertoire to keep her happy. After all, she's dealt with me building up a high-test repertoire to keep myself happy. It's the least I can do.

This is really just a tea-soda hybrid; an iced tea augmented in the same fashion as sparkling water, with a hefty handful of mint to boot.

5 oz chilled green tea
1 oz strawberry-lemon syrup
3/4 oz lemon juice
12-15 mint leaves

Muddle the mint in the bottom of a shaker with the syrup. Add the juice and tea, shake like crazy to break up the mint, and strain over fresh ice in a highball glass. Garnish with a wide swath of lemon peel, or another big bunch of mint, or a fresh strawberry, or all of the above.

Mo-"tea"-jo? Get it?!? (I know, it's fucking terrible, but it works.)

I think we might take this whole Mocktail [insert arbitrary unit of time] concept and generalize it into another regular thing. The Mocktail Moment. I like it!