Category Archives: Mixology

MxMo XLV Tea!

mxmologoXLV, XLV, hm. How does this work again? Subtract 32, divide by 9, multiply by … uh, wait, that’s not right. Oh, oh, I see. It’s 45. 45?! Geez, whodathunk. The theme this month, chosen by the boffins at Cocktail Virgin, is tea (tisanes included). Pip pip!

With a month or so to go before Cook & Brown opens, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cocktail menu. So when I’m mixing drinks at home, I often have an eye out for drinks that might play well on the menu, both immediately upon opening and also months down the road. To reiterate, the remit at Cook & Brown will be to source our ingredients locally when possible and to cook (and mix) with a seasonal focus. So if I’m going to play with tea, it should be local tea. That in mind, I returned to a farmers market vendor I’ve mentioned here before, Farmacy Herbs. A couple of their teas had promise, but for my purposes I chose the Unwind Your Mind blend, of chamomile, catnip, and lemon balm. One purpose of a good cocktail is to relieve stress and banish the worries of the day, and I thought a relaxing tea might help.

Relax and float downstream

I figured I’d add a little local honey and because they’re available right now, Meyer lemons. I shook it and topped it off with a little Q Tonic to make a refreshing twist on the ol’ Gin and Tonic. Not seasonal to dead of winter, sure, but should be lovely in the hotter months. Gotta think ahead, y’know. For the actual C&B menu, I’ll probably use the tonic from a local soda brand, Yacht Club, instead of Q. And eventually, I’d like to play with a house-made tonic.

Blackstone G & T

  • 2 oz tea-infused gin
  • 3/4 oz. Meyer lemon juice (will probably use regular lemon in summer)
  • 3/4 oz. honey syrup (equal parts honey and water heated on the stove)

Shake over ice, strain into ice-filled chimney glass. Top with tonic water.

DISCLAIMER: I am no longer a part of Cook and Brown.

Quick, Robin, to the Liquidlab!

Two weeks ago, I was in the Riverdale section of da Bronx, getting all mad scientist in Junior Merino‘s Liquid Lab. Junior’s a consultant and former bartender who created the Liquid Lab in a Riverdale apartment, as a facility where he can create and test new recipes for cocktails and food flavored with spirits. The Lab is stocked with thousands of bottles of spirits, liqueurs, mixers, and bitters–many of which are otherwise unavailable in the United States.

Gird Your Belly!

Junior’s wife, Heidi, had warned me in advance that I needed to start my day with a hearty breakfast, to provide a base for all the spirits and cocktails I’d be tasting. So after a hearty repast, I caught the subway up to the Bronx. When I arrived at the Lab, I met my fellow attendees: bartenders from Drink and Craigie on Main in Boston, and drink slingers from Hotel Delmano, Pranna, and Eleven Madison Park in New York. Rounding out the group was Village Voice writer Chantal Martineau, who’s beaten me to the roundup scoop, with her writeup here. We signed a release form (no photography or video allowed, which is why I have no pix of my own here), donned lab coats, and got ready to go.

The Gang

All photographs are the property of The Liquid Chef Inc. and are used with permission.

First up, though, was a true breakfast of champions: punch-spiked cereal. Talk about yer basic snap-crackle-burp!

Aroma Architecture

Next, Junior launched into a section he called Aroma Architecture. He passed around various herbs and greens, and urged us to sniff and taste each one, to think about using their flavors in cocktails, and also to think about how similar flavors come through in the taste of certain spirits. Some of these herbs are relatively common cocktail ingredients–mint, sage, dill, hibiscus. Others were surprising, but upon tasting them in this context, I could start to make some connections between my salad plate and my mixing glass; among these were baby chard, baby kale, carrot greens, borage, and pea shoots. When we started down this road, I knew I was in for a great time at the Lab because I knew I’d be tasting new flavor combos all day long.

Willy Wonka Cocktailing

Then we got into the heart of the Lab. Now, if you’ve never been, let me explain how it works. Junior secures sponsors for each Lab, for both base spirits and liqueurs. Each Lab is broken into five flights and mixing sessions. For each flight of base spirit, you blind-taste five examples of that spirit and discuss the flavors and aromas with Junior and your fellow participants. So, for example, you taste five piscos or five gins. Then you get to mixing with that base spirit.

The rules of the Lab are, you make two drinks per base spirit. Each of your two drinks must include the sponsor’s product, plus at least one of the sponsor liqueurs. Any other ingredients are your choice, using any spirit, liqueur, herb, spice, bitter, syrup, salt, or garnish that Junior has available. You mix up one drink, divvy it up among nine tiny cups, and distribute those out to Junior and the other guests (leaving one for yourself, of course).

The Lab!

That’s a Lotta Cocktails!

How many? Let’s rock some mathemagics now. For each base spirit, you’re mixing two cocktails, which means that over the course of the day, you’re creating 10 new cocktails. Eight other people in the room are mixing 10 drinks a piece (including Junior), and you’re tasting every single cocktail. Including your own drinks, that adds up to 90 cocktails. Zam! Now, each taste is only about half an ounce, but that still means, if you actually drink each one instead of just taking a sip, you’re consuming about 45 ounces of cocktail over the course of a day. That’s roughly 15 full-size drinks. Luckily for us, we had ample supplies of bottled water, but now you see why Heidi urged us all to have a large breakfast first.

Tipsy & Overwhelmed

Our base spirits, in order, were pisco, cachaça, rum, tequila, and mexcal. In each category, Junior had bottles of the spirit on its own, and he had several infused bottles. You could choose to use the plain spirit or one (or more) of the infusions. I wish I could tell you what I mixed up for these spirits, but I simply can’t remember, and it wouldn’t matter anyway because to be honest, my drinks weren’t that good. The thing you have to understand is that the Lab is fast-paced; I mean lightning fast. I was around professional bartenders here, who serve some of the top restaurants and bars in the Northeast.

In a very short time, we had to choose between the plain spirit and the infused options (tasting if you wished before you decided), then choose the liqueur, and then track down a third ingredient and anything else we wanted in there, and not just once, but twice. For an amateur, it was a challenge. I tried to get creative; I was grabbing bottles and herbs and whatever, just to see what worked together and what didn’t. Tequila, coca liqueur, and ginger-hibiscus syrup, with muddled electric Szechuan buttons? Why the hell not, what have you got to lose? (A bartender from Eleven Madison teased me at one point: “Why not use that? No one likes your drinks anyway.” At least, I think she was teasing.)

The Lab

But when I said my drinks weren’t that good–well, I don’t really know whether they were or not. It was a little beside the point, in a way. I mean, yeah, you want to make good drinks whenever you pick up a shaker. But often the cost of creating a really great drink is mixing your way through many bad ones first, until you find the right notes. I do know that at one point, I was playing with the tequila, and I paired it with Combier triple sec and something else. I realized the balance was off and added lime juice. Then I smacked myself in the head when I realized I had reinvented the fucking Margarita. Dammit!

My problem was, I was a little cowed by the talent around me, and I was letting it get to me, and starting to play it safe. After the fucking Margarita, I started taking chances again and having more fun as a result.

It’s Not Just About the Drinks, Though

At one point, Junior passed around plates of edible cocktails, and these were fun and surprising:

  • Macchu Pisco sour marshmallow
  • Siembra Azul tequila and Combier Liqueur D’Orange gummy
  • White chocolate, Castries Peanut Rum Creme, Chairman’s Reserve Rum, and Domaine de Canton truffle
  • Leblon cachaça and Vita Coco coconut-water popsicle

The truffle, of course, was amazing, but I think my favorite “edible” was the pisco-sour marshmallow, which really captured the essence of a pisco sour. Lunch, served I think after the cachaça round, was an amazing spread of booze-infused food. Here are just a few examples:

  • Tuna Lollypop: sushi grade tuna, marinated in whiskey that has been infused with pinepeppercorns, some asian spices, herbs, and grenache vinegar. Served with a cube of watermelon and topped with Koppert Cress Basil Cress.
  • Guava Chipotle BBQ short ribs: short ribs braised for 12 hours in herbs and cinnamon, and dressed with a bbq sauce made with guava, chipotle, and Chairmans’s Reserve Rum infused with vanilla and other spices. Served with a cipollini onion roasted with Royal Combier and topped with Koppert Cress Atsina Cress, that has light licorice notes.
  • Elotes: traditionally a staple in Mexican households, this dish is made by cooking ears of corn, then smothering it in a homemade Scorpion Mezcal aioli, queso cotija (aged dried cheese), and powdered chipotle pepper.

The Feast

Traditionally, Junior and Heidi then take everyone out for dinner and drinks. We wound up in the Bar Room at The Modern, a Danny Meyer restaurant connected to the Museum of Modern Art. This was a little heady for me, since the only other Danny Meyer place I had ever dined at was Shake Shack! Coincidentally, I was in the middle of Meyer’s book, Setting the Table, which covers the role of hospitality in business, so it was fun to both talk to the Eleven Madison bartenders about his book, and also see his concepts in action at The Modern. Everyone was pretty wiped out after dinner, so we chose to eschew the post-dinner cocktail round.

Was It Worth It?

Oh, hell yes. I’d do it all again if they’d let me, but I know they need to spread the joy around to many other bartenders. I took a lot from this day of creativity and rabble-rousing. First, as I said earlier, I loved sampling all the various herbs and thinking about creative ways to use them in drinks. Next, just being in the room with such talented and witty people was energizing. It made me really want to try to push my own ingenuity forward. It was also nice to see that nearly every bartender turned out at least one dud. Why wouldn’t that happen? You’re trying crazy new ideas, and not all of them are going to work. Finally, the day was just fun. Junior and Heidi kept a good, positive spirit flowing in the Lab and made it a really great experience.

I’d recommend Liquid Lab for anyone in the spirits industry; it’s that good.

Repeal Day!

Happy Repeal Day! On this day in 1933, Utah ratified the 21st amendment, fulfilling the three-quarters majority needed to repeal Prohibition, so hoist a glass of your favorite beverage today to celebrate. As for me, I’ll be in New York, preparing for a day of Willy Wonka cocktailing tomorrow, at Junior Merino‘s Liquid Lab.

I’m excited about this. A couple of times a month, Junior and his wife, Heidi, open the doors to his Bronx office to a small group of bartenders and spirits writers, allowing them to mix and discuss cocktails, talk about techniques and ideas, and sample unique and unusual ingredients, some of them otherwise unavailable in the United States. This is followed up with dinner and cocktails, and the whole day is paid for by liquor-company sponsors that Junior and Heidi line up.

I hope to have photos and a follow-up post in a few days.

Raising a glass in thanks

With Thanksgiving approaching, it’s time to plan for festive cocktailing! Mrs. Bitters has already started prepping our locavore Thanksgiving (there’s a story behind it being locavore, but you’ll have to wait for it), so now’s the time for me to plan my approach. I haven’t quite figured it all out yet. I know I want to get some Calvados and make a batch of sage simple syrup, so that I can mix up the Apple Sage Old Fashioned I created for the autumn issue of Edible Rhody (still on the stands, so if you’re local, grab a copy–it’s the one with the cranberry bog on front).

For my second drink, I’m still working my brain on it. In Friday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, Malt Adovocate editor John Hansell edited a small advertising supplement on whiskeys. Included was a piece on cocktails by Gary Regan, or gaz regan as he apparently prefers to be called these days. Old gaz included four cocktails in the piece, one of which I think I’ll adapt for Thanksgiving. Here’s the gaz version:

Babbling Brook

  • 1-1/2 oz. scotch
  • 3/4 oz. B&B liqueur
  • 1/4 oz. absinthe
  • 1 lemon twist, for garnish

Stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add garnish.

As gaz discusses in his piece, scotch marries well with anise flavors, and we definitely found that to be the case here.

Earlier this year, I picked up a bunch of anise hyssop from a local herbalist. Back then, I used it in a variation of the New Orleans classic cocktail, the Vieux Carre. On Saturday, when we were at the market, we stopped by the Farmacy table to pick up some local honey for Thanksgiving baking. They happened to have as well some small jars of honey infused with the anise hyssop. I immediately started thinking about cocktail applications and eagerly bought a jar. I might do a variation on the Babbling Brook. Or, I might do a scotch Sazerac instead, with a syrup made from the hyssop honey. I don’t think I’ll go wrong either way.

How about you? What Thanksgiving-themed drinks are you planning to mix this year? Do you have special Thanksgiving snacks that pair well with cocktails? Sound off in the comments!

My so-called month of rum: Mai Tai

Boy, this has been the longest “month” ever. My month of trying new rums and rum cocktails began August 18, with a look at the excellent Royal Bermuda Yacht Club cocktail. I explored the Lytton Fizz and the Corn and Oil, and I tested a couple of El Presidente recipes. Along the way, I grew to love the following rums, some of which were new to me:

  • Mount Gay Extra Old
  • Mount Gay Eclipse
  • Cruzan Black Strap (and if you want to try something delicious, get yourself some homemade orgeat syrup, and blend that into an old-fashioned with Cruzan Black Strap and a dash or two of Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters)
  • Myers Platinum
  • Myers Dark
  • Both Tommy Bahama varieties (sent as samples and not used for any of these recipes)

I’ve even gone a bit mad and made my own damn orgeat syrup, using a variation of the method Rick Stutz wrote up here. I bloody-well love the stuff now. I want to mix it into everything; I want to eat it on my cereal or top a steak with it. I want to wash my mustache with it so I can smell it all day. I want to–oh, nevermind.

To go out on a high note, I decided to mix up the possibly most famous tiki drink in the world, the Mai Tai. Better writers than me have already detailed the history of this drink, and you can see an excerpt from one such writer’s work here.

I can’t even improve on Curtis’s recipe: one ounce of Jamaican rum, an ounce of Barbados, orange curacao, lime juice, and orgeat (although I decreased the amount of curacao), so what I will say is which rums I used. The first time around, a couple of weeks ago, I used Myers Dark and Appleton Estate, which of course are both Jamaican rums. Not sure why I went that way, but I did. Last night, however, I used Mount Gay Eclipse and Appleton Estate. It’s hard to say which I prefer: both are delicious.

And behold, the Mai Tai:

Mai Tai

photograph by Jennifer Hess

Do dooo de do do, do do de do, do dooo de do do, de do do…

Recently, I received samples for review of House Spirits Distillery‘s Aviation Gin and Krogstad Aquavit. I’ve bought several bottles of Aviation over the last couple of years. I like it, even though it’s considered a “New Western”-style gin–meaning it de-emphasizes juniper to focus on other botanicals. Now, I like a juniper-forward gin. I always have a 1.75L bottle of Beefeater to keep on hand and threaten the cats with, and to my mind there’s no better martini than one made 3 parts Beefeater to 1 part vermouth. But I also like tripping through other styles of gin, and Aviation’s no exception.

The Krogstad, though, is new to me, and to be honest, so is aquavit as a spirits category. I can’t really judge the Krogstad except on its own merits, since I’ve never sampled its competitors. I really like it, though. It carries notes of anise and caraway right at the front, and it’s very tasty. I’m looking forward to what some might consider an unconventional use for it. I have a recipe for home-cured salmon, and where this recipe calls for Pernod, I’m planning to use Krogstad in its place. Yummy, yeah?

Mah Nà Mah Nà

UPDATED with photo by Jennifer Hess

But I’m not here today to review the products or speak of charcuterie. I’m here for cocktails, and I have a doozy that I whipped up to showcase these spirits. I call this the Mah Nà Mah Nà. If you want to know why, you’ll have to buy me a drink and I’ll tell you. This quaff, though, is a botanical bomb, all the more reason to love it.

Mah Nà Mah Nà

  • 1 oz. Aviation gin
  • 3/4 oz. Krogstad aquavit
  • 1/2 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz. yellow Chartreuse
  • lemon twist, for garnish

Shake it over ice like Animal, strain it into Miss Piggy’s slipper, and enjoy.

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/kfXKZYRf_NY&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0&border=1

The perfect starter cocktail

The other day, a reader commented:

I’m new to cocktails. I’m intrigued by cocktail menus at restaurants, but could never decide what to order. Could you recommend a good “starter” cocktail for a novice? I’d like to try Wondrich’s basic recipe but don’t know what kind or brand of spirit to buy.

I’ll go back into the Wondrich recipe later, but for now, let me make some suggestions for what to order and what to mix at home.

How I Started

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photograph of the missus and me by meriko borogove

When Jen and I got into cocktails, we were lucky. It was 2005, and we were living in New York. Flatiron Lounge had been open a couple of years and we were starting to go there once a month or so, often enough that some of the bartenders recognized us. (We wound up there with our wedding party after getting hitched at the marriage bureau in Manhattan, but that’s a story for another day.) Pegu Club opened later that year, so we had an excellent choice of bars at which to meet after work and bend our elbows.

It was at Flatiron that I first fell deeply in love with a cocktail. That drink was the Sidecar. It quickly became one of my favorite drinks, and I believe it’s a perfect starter cocktail, both to order out and to make at home. Here’s why:

  1. When made right, it’s delicious, absolutely yummy, and one of the finest drinks ever invented.
  2. It’s a great introduction to cocktail theory, or the art of balancing the booziness, sweetness, and tartness of a cocktail. A good cocktail is an aperitif, an eye-opener. It eases you out of the stresses of the day and prepares the mind and appetite for a good meal. A drink that’s too boozy, too sweet, or too tart dulls the palate. Where the right balance lies varies from drinker to drinker, though. Some like a tarter Sidecar than others. You’ll figure it out.
  3. It’s easy to make right, unless you’re a cretin.
  4. Its ingredients (cognac, lemon juice, triple sec/Cointreau/Grand Marnier) should be available in just about every bar you’d walk into. If you’re in a bar that doesn’t have all these things, order a beer. If you’re at a bar that has cognac and triple sec, but only sour mix, order a beer. Or find another bar.
  5. Any good bartender should know this drink. If you have a bartender who doesn’t know this drink, you can easily walk him or her through it, unless the bartender’s a cretin.
  6. It belongs to a certain family of drinks that mixographer Gary Regan calls New Orleans Sours. I’ll leave aside the origin of that term, and provide you the names of the sidecar’s best-known cousins: the Margarita and the Cosmopolitan. What these drinks have in common is their basic structure: roughly 3 parts spirit, 2 parts triple sec or other orange liqueur, and 1 part citrus juice. (The Cosmo adds a hit of cranberry juice.) So once you learn the Sidecar, you’ve essentially also learned the Margarita and the Cosmo. And also the Pegu Club cocktail, the Between the Sheets, the Maiden’s Blush, and so on.
  7. Once you’ve learned the New Orleans Sour family, you can improvise and make your own version.
  8. Finally, when making a Sidecar, you can engage in a bit of theater. When you twist an orange peel to spray the oils from the peel into the drink, you can flame the twist so the oils ignite before hitting the drink. This never fails to get a response from guests, whether at a bar or at home. And it’s fun for you, the home bartender.

The Sidecar has a simple recipe; let’s look at the formula I mentioned earlier: 3 parts spirit, 2 parts triple sec or other orange liqueur, and 1 part citrus juice. You can go down-market with this, as I explained in my post about the Flea Bag Sidecar–inexpensive American brandy and basic triple sec–but I suggest you don’t. Not if you really want to love this drink.

The problem with the Flea Bag variant is that American brandy and standard triple sec are both sweeter than their French counterparts, cognac and Cointreau. To counteract that, you need to up the level of lemon juice in the drink, to balance the flavors out. Then the drink risks becoming too lemon-flavored. It wouldn’t necessarily be too tart, but it would upset the balance of orange and lemon flavors that this cocktail requires. That said, the Flea Bag variant is great if you’re skint, but otherwise, I urge you to stick with cognac and Cointreau.

Now that we’ve established the cognac, things get a little confusing. Go to a good liquor store and look at a couple of bottles. In the range that you can probably best afford, you’ll be looking at either VS or VSOP. (A good liquor store will also have an XO, or Extra Old, but if you can afford that, buy it for sipping, not for mixing.)

Sidecar

photograph by Jennifer Hess

What’s the difference between VS and VSOP? VS is Very Special, or barrel-aged for at least two years. VSOP is Very Superior Old Pale, or aged at least four years but often much longer. VSOP is a richer, more flavorful cognac than a VS, and thus makes a more flavorful Sidecar, but it’s also more expensive. Frankly, to start out, I’d buy a 200ml or 375ml bottle of a VS, of a known brand like Martell, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, etc.

Then play with the formula. Start with the classic–3 parts cognac, 2 parts Cointreau, and 1 part lemon juice. A “part” here is 1/2 ounce for one drink, 1 ounce if you’re mixing for two. Here’s the basic recipe:

Sidecar

  • 1-1/2 oz. cognac
  • 1 oz. Cointreau
  • 1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • Orange twist, for garnish

Shake over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add garnish.

Now you can start playing with that. If you’re a nerd like I am, you can take up the better part of an evening, watching old noir movies on the DVD player while testing Sidecar variants. The drinks writer David Embury liked his cocktails superdry and very boozy. His formula was 8 parts cognac, 2 parts lemon juice, and 1 part Cointreau. (That’s 2 oz. cognac, 1/2 oz. lemon juice, and 1/4 oz. Cointreau.) Way too medicinal and harsh for my tastes, but maybe you’ll love it!

Okay, then, have fun, and salud!

Month of rum: El Presidente smack-down, part I

Are you ready for this? Are you hanging on the edge of your seat? After delays of the bad kind (an inability to find a certain rum without special-ordering it) and of the very, very good kind (more on that, I hope, on Wednesday, 9/16), I finally had the chance to run a couple of El Presidente recipes through their paces. Verdict? One recipe is excellent, and the other, not so much.

First, a reminder: the El Presidente has four ingredients–rum, curacao, dry vermouth, and grenadine. I’ve been using Martini & Rossi dry vermouth, and my grenadine is home-made. Those two ingredients are the same in both drinks. (I may in the future try a different vermouth; if so, I’ll note that in my writeup.)

Proportions will vary from drink to drink as I try various permutations.

El Presidente

photograph by Jennifer Hess

Version 1

Let’s start with the Not So Much recipe and explain what might have gone wrong. I started here, with the classic recipe. For the rum, I used Myers Platinum, as Paul Clarke recommends in that link. It was this rum that I had to special-order. I have no idea why; every liquor store I’ve been in in Providence carries the Myers Original Dark, but not one of them carries the Platinum. I wanted the Platinum for three reasons: first, I like the way Paul describes how it tastes in the drink; second, I’m not a huge fan of Puerto Rican rums, and even less a fan of Bacardi; third, and most important, one major point of this project is to get me trying new rums.

And the Platinum is good enough for mixing, I think. Let’s back up. Myers’s Platinum Rum is a white rum (obviously–platinum should give that away), pot-distilled, aged in oak, and charcoal filtered. The aroma’s not complicated, I’d say–tones of vanilla and caramel, of course, from the oak aging, plus a hint of chocolate. The flavor’s light and crisp, without the chemical aftertaste of some white rums. Some say it’s a bit flat; I don’t agree, but then I don’t have the experience with rum tasting that others do. This is a rum for mixing, though, not a rum for sipping.

For the curacao, I went with Grand Marnier. (Yup. If you have experience with this cocktail, you’re starting to see why this version didn’t work for me.) Orange curacao is strangely hard to find around here, so I decided to grab something from my shelf rather than getting a special bottle. And I had a feeling the Grand Marnier might not work for me, but I thought I would learn something about building rum drinks by trying anyway.

At the classic proportions (2 parts rum; 1 part each of vermouth and GM; and a dash of grenadine), the drink bombs. The Grand Marnier gallops over every other ingredient. You can taste the rum, but it’s not the centerpiece that it should be. You cannot taste the other ingredients, or at least I couldn’t. A Platinum Presidente merits further exploration, but it certainly needs work.

Version 2

The second version was built precisely according to Matt Robold’s comments and specs, left here in a comment:

One thing on the El Presidente.

I’ve been playing around with the recipe a bit, and I find that the orange liqueur seems to dominate the drink a tad [gee, Matt, ya think?]. My current favorite approach is:

1.5 oz gold rum (I’ve been using Mount Gay Extra Old)
.75 oz dry vermouth
.25 oz orange liqueur (using Clement Creole Shrubb)
1 tsp grenadine

I’ve even been playing around using a lemon peel twist instead of orange, which oddly enough was working beautifully last night.

Now this is  a much better drink. Delicately balanced and crisp, this version lets every ingredient express itself.

A note or seven on the ingredients: Mount Gay Extra Old is a brown rum, with aromas of caramel, toffee, warm spices (cloves, allspice, nutmeg). On the palate, it’s spicy and almost peppery. A great sipping rum, this one also mixes well, as this cocktail demonstrates. Rhum Clement Creole Shrubb is among the drier of the orange liqueurs, a little more subtly orange, and generally less of a hit on the palate. There’s a reason Grand Marnier is often sipped neat after dinner: it’s so viscous and sweet that it coats the tongue and palate, easing them to sleep after a great meal. The Creole Shrubb isn’t like that; I wouldn’t say it’s an eye-opener or an aperitif, but it’s certainly peppier.

I’ll be working through other variations in the next few weeks, but it’s safe to say, Robold’s version is the one to beat.

Month o’ rum: El Presidente prelude

havana-american-jockeyTo continue my month of rum, I want to turn now to a classic rum cocktail that’s sadly little known outside of cocktail-geek circles–the El Presidente. But which El Presidente cocktail? There appear to be at least three. A 1967 issue of Gourmet magazine discusses a version made of gin, orange juice, apricot brandy, pineapple juice, and grapefruit juice, with a little bit of grenadine. My god, that sounds awful, and just the sort of crap people were drinking in the 1960s. Why even bother with the gin? Just use vodka and enjoy your sticky sweet fruit juices without anything flavorful getting in the way.

There’s a daiquiri variant (remember, a daiquiri is simply rum, simple syrup, and lime juice) that takes away the simple syrup and adds pineapple juice and grenadine as the sweetening agent. That sounds like a good drink, but it’s not what I’m going for.

History in a Glass

Nope, the version I want uses rum, orange curacao, dry vermouth, and a hint of grenadine. This version arose in Havana, during or just before Prohibition. Accounts, however, differ as to the specifics. Cocktail historian David Wondrich attributes it to an American bartender named Eddie Woelke, who fled the Great Experiment and set up shop overseas, as many American bartenders did during those years. Woelke apparently bounced around a lot, tending bar in Philadelphia, New York, Nice, and Paris, before finally coming to Havana, where he created many once-popular cocktails, including the Mary Pickford. By this account, Woelke created the drink at the Jockey Club, naming it for then president Gerardo Michado.

Eric Felten, writing in How’s Your Drink?, however, isn’t so sure. He offers an alternative explanation–that the drink was created (by an unknown bartender, presumably, since Felten doesn’t name names) at the Vista Alegre Club in Santiago. In this version of history, the drink is named not for Michado but for an earlier presidente, Mario Garcia Menocal. Who knows? As Wondrich has said elsewhere, the history of the cocktail is inevitably murky because it’s a history that goes down in bars, when people are drinking.

Nonetheless, El Presidente is a drink of Cuban origin, invented to please Americans who traveled to Cuba during Prohibition to drink legally in an exotic environment. Steamships would leave ports in American cities, bound for Havana, and as soon as they entered international waters, teams of stewards would circulate through the ship, bearing cocktails for the passengers. Among the drinks invented or popularized during this period were the daiquiri (and Hemingway’s version, the Papa Doble), the Cuba Libre, the Mary Pickford, and the El Presidente.

Varieties of Orange Liqueur

But enough of the history lesson. As I work through my El Presidente variants, I’ll be trying various combos of rums and orange liqueurs. The vermouth and grenadine will remain the same, although I may play with the quantities a bit. So it’ll be instructive, at this point, to describe and define the classes of orange liqueurs that are on the market. Their differing qualities will bring various flavor elements to play in the drink.

0817smurfCuracao. You’ll notice the recipe calls for orange curacao. This isn’t an unfamiliar product; most people who’ve ever attended a party or two in their lives have seen artificially bright drinks made from a similar product, Smurfy blue curacao. Because of this, curacao has a bad rep, I think, reminding people of cheap party drinks, bad decisions, and awful hangovers. I know that I personally seldom seek out bottles of curacao when I’m restocking my bar.

But curacao doesn’t have to be merely another element in a regrettable weekend; a well-made curacao is an excellent ingredient for many different cocktails. It’s made by taking bitter orange peels, drying them, steeping them in neutral grain alcohol, removing them (and adding other herbs), and then distilling the results of that maceration. The most common brands available are Bols, DeKuyper, and Hiram Walker. These are, from what I understand, pretty interchangeable in drinks.

Grand Marnier. According to some sources, Grand Marnier is a grand curacao–that is, a premium version of curacao. With a brandy base, Grand Marnier is the richest and perhaps the booziest of the orange liqueurs. Mixing with it requires a subtle hand.

Triple Sec. Sweeter than curacao, triple sec is another orange liqueur. Also made from bitter orange peels, it’s triple distilled and therefore higher proof than curacao. Cointreau is a brand of premium triple sec. In fact, Cointreau carried the words “triple sec” on its labels until lesser varieties came along and cheapened the term.

Creole Shrubb. Finally, we have Creole Shrubb, which is a different beastie entirely. Instead of having a base of neutral grain spirit or brandy, Shrubb is based on rhum agricole, a type of rum built on sugarcane juice instead of molasses. Again, this product starts with dried orange peels, which are macerated with spices in sugarcane juice, and then blended into a mix of rhums agricole before being aged in oak barrels. Shrubb is crisper and spicier than any other product on the market.

Mixing up the variants begins tomorrow. Cheers.

Good touch, bad touch

So, I get a lot of PR pitches. Most cocktail, wine, and food bloggers do. Some of them are smartly targeted and personalized, but many of them are just kind of dumb. I opened my Gmail account one day to see an email that started “Dear Dash.” An amusing nickname, true, and I suppose that’s better than the “Dear <vname>” message I got one day. And, frankly, I can’t even begin to imagine what the PR folks for Women’s Health magazine are thinking in sending me information on dieting, women’s nutrition, and Madonna’s organic lifestyle.

Now you’ll understand why it was a delight to read a PR email that started this way:

Hey Michael,

Hope all is well. I couldn’t help but notice, from reading your blog, that you have a thing for ginger.

Pitch-perfect PR. By my rough count, there are… let’s see… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 posts that feature or mention something gingery as a drink ingredient. So thank you, Yun Yu, from Fox Greenberg Public Relations, for actually paying attention to what I do and what this blog’s about–not specifically ginger, but about creatively pairing strong flavors and fresh ingredients with spirits.

Thank you, too, for sending up a bottle of Xanté pear and cognac liqueur while all my pals were at Tales of the Cocktail. This stuff is tasty. It’s hard to balance the flavor in a product like this, to keep it from being cloying, but the distillers did a fine job on this one. Morgenthaler describes it well, in a piece where he rightly and humorously sends up its marketing (Xanté’s PR firm is great, but its marketers are insane):

The opening nose is reminiscent of pears poached in cinnamon and wine. The first sip reveals a moderate amount of heat, which dissipates quickly leaving behind an extended finish of basic sugars, pear, light caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and banana.

I find it just a little too sweet to sip neat or on the rocks, but it blends beautifully into cocktails. I think my favorite use for it is in a sidecar variation, with lime juice instead of lemon, and the triple sec reduced just a smidge.

I also find that it pairs well with rum, in an old-fashioned, with Fee’s Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters. In fact, the marriage of pear, vanilla, and Fee’s warm Christmas spices reminds me so much of Yuletide that I’m going to tuck some of the Xanté away for the holiday season.

Xanté Ginger Martini
photograph by Jennifer Hess.

Now, what’s this to do with ginger? Well, Yun, in contacting me, suggested the Xanté Ginger Martini cocktail. I know, I know, I know; I’m not crazy about the name either. A martini is strictly a drink with gin and vermouth and maybe some orange bitters. It’s not a drink with cognac liqueur and anything else. But call it what you may, it’s a damn fine drink. Here’s the recipe as Yun sent it.

Xanté Ginger Martini

  • 1-1/2 ounces Xanté
  • 1-1/2 ounces lemon juice
  • 1 ounce simple syrup (I’d cut this back to 1/2 ounce, personally, but I was using a rich 2:1 syrup made with Turbinado sugar)
  • 1 piece of fresh ginger
  • 1 thin slice of fresh ginger, for garnish

In a mixing glass, muddle the ginger. Add Xanté, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Shake over ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and float garnish on top.

Tell you what. Not only is this a fine drink, where all of the elements play well together, but the ginger really helps to bring the pear to the fore. And as we found out last night, Spanish Marcona almonds make a perfect accompaniment to this cocktail. I almost didn’t want to have dinner.