Thursday, April 21, 2011

Burning Booze: Gimmicky or Geniousy?

Like a lot of guys, I possess an inner pyro.  At twelve, I was a terror to many a toy soldier, and grew into something of an aficionado of cheap firecrackers.  These days, the extent of my flame wielding is a gas grill and the occasional a fire in the fireplace.  I was thus intrigued when I watched a clip on the Small Screen Network of the making of the Rubicon, which is very similar to the Last Word, but with singed rosemary.  My bias is clearly towards burning stuff, but I wasn't sure whether the fire actually accomplished anything beyond burning off a bit of the alcohol.

1.5 ounces of gin (Plymouth)
.5 ounces of maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)
.5 ounces of lemon juice
.5 ounces of Green Chartreuse
A couple of sprigs of rosemary

Directions:  Make a ring with a fresh rosemary sprig in the bottom of a chilled cocktail glass and pour 1/2 ounce of Green Chartreuse on it.  Swirl the Chartreuse and flip the sprig to make sure it is soaked.  Shake the other ingredients with ice in a shaker.  Light the Chartruse and rosemary on fire.  I've seen this done by using a mister with chartreuse and lighting the mist, but I just used a match.  Allow it to burn for several seconds before dousing with the contents of the shaker.  Add a large handful of crushed ice and garnish with a sprig of rosemary on top.

Outcome:  I simultaneously made one version where I lit the rosemary and chartreuse and one where I did not (the latter was largely consumed by my wife, who enjoyed it quite a bit).  I'm not going to go through my typical ranking of taste, versatility, and hassle because of the very high degree of similarity to the Last Word, which I've reviewed.  My goal was to compare the cocktail with and without fire.  The latter predictably was a hair stronger because I hadn't burnt off some of the Chartreuse.  I was pleasantly surprised that there was a discernible taste difference though.  The burnt one had a bit of a smokey taste, a slightly cloudier appearance, and a much stronger rosemary flavor.  The other tasted like the Last Word, with a hint of rosemary.

My conclusion is that for myself, I probably won't make this too often and will stick with the Last Word.  However, the Rubicon mixes things up and makes for a great drink to impress company.  I'm also not sure whether I like adding the crushed ice, which I had fun breaking with a hammer but intentionally weakens the drink.  That said, this is a sipping drink best enjoyed over an extended period, so a couple cubes might not be a bad idea.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Consuming the Shame Part 2: Green Creme de Menthe

Roughly 10 years ago, I acquired a bottle of Bols Green Creme De Menthe.  As a college undergraduate, I distinctly remember being pleased with how good an alcohol per dollar bargain it was.  Back then, I used it in a concoction that also included Baileys and vodka.  I remember being impressed with my ability to replicate the taste of an Andes mint - but not impressed enough to do so very often.  Since then, I've tried to employ it a few times, with disastrous results.  Thus, I conclude that if I own any spirit that is truly irredeemable, this is it.  White creme de menthe might be easier to use and has a less severe flavor, not to mention color, but to be honest, it's pretty far down on my booze wish list.

Inventing a drink with something like creme de menthe is really about using the process of elimination.  What base spirits work with this beverage?  Brandy, scotch, and tequila: gone.  What liqueurs or secondary spirits clash particularly violently with something that taste of mouthwash?  Maraschino, Amarula, Tuaca, Contreau, Pimm's, Sloe gin, and Campari (and others): gone.  From there you have a couple of choices.  The easy path is to essentially make a dessert, much like I did in college.  Some combination of creme, chocolate or chocolate liqueur, and a very neutral base spirit like vodka for instance.  I wanted to avoid this, mostly because I've grown an aversion to making such sweet drinks, though I considered putting ice cream, creme de cacao, and the green monster in a blender and making a proper dessert, but concluded that with the clean-up it probably wasn't worth the trouble.  Now for the efforts.

Frosted Tips

1 ounce of gin
.4 ounce of creme de menthe
1 ounce of lime
.25 ounce of simple syrup

Directions:  Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

For both drinks, I settled on gin, because while relatively neutral it is not sweet like my subject.  This drink is passable, kind of a homeless man's Mojito.  The only thing better about it than a Mojito is that it is a bit less sweet.  I didn't originally include the simple syrup but added it because the creme de menthe and lime made for a very sharp taste just before the minty aftertaste.  Oddly, this drink started tasting better as it warmed up - or maybe I settled into it and lowered my standards.

Manly Mentos

.25 ounce of creme de menthe
1 ounce of gin (Bombay Sapphire)
.5 ounce of limoncello
4 ounces of ginger ale 

Directions:  Stir spirits with ice and add cold ginger ale.

For my next cocktail, I wanted to use a lemon flavor which is strong and cuts against the sweetness of the creeme de menthe but sought to avoid the sharpness of the previous attempt from pure lemon or limes.  I thus used some limocello, which a former colleague had made and given to me.  The ginger ale accomplishes two things.  One, the ginger flavor "breaks up" the mint taste, so it doesn't quite dominate the drink.  It takes it from Listerine to some sort of candy mint.  Second, anything to hide the mint is good.  I also had learned to use this ingredient very sparingly.  Nonetheless, the drink is still bright green, a fact that makes me think that the alcohol is not nearly the most worrisome component of the creme de menthe.  All in all, it was kind of refreshing.  Not something that will scratch my regular drink rotation or that I'll be showing off, but something I could drink in a pinch.

Upon reflection and experimentation, my green creme de menthe, while not quite utterly useless, will be with me forever.  I believe that it is the longest-tenured drink on my shelf, a distinction that it will carry for the foreseeable future.  To the extent that I (very) occasionally employ this spirit, it will be in tiny portions.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Consuming the Shame Part 1: Ginja

As mentioned in my last post, I have a small bottle of a Portuguese liqueur called Ginja, perhaps the most unusual thing in my liquor cabinet.  It's 38 proof and taste very sweet, like the syrup in a bottle of maraschino cherries.  It isn't as strong a flavor as my Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and does not feature as complex a flavor profile.  Traditionally, it is either sipped as a dessert or taken in shots.  Further adding to my challenge, I think I bought a crappy brand.  I saw this particular brand in a lot of stores and picked it up pretty cheap, but looking at Google Images, there are some bottles that look nicer, though I really can't gauge quality on this type of drink at all.

Before getting to the drinks, a couple thoughts about trying to salvage "challenging" spirits. 

1. Don't be afraid to fail, because you probably will.
2. Feel free to throw away bad drinks.  If something taste bad, don't feel guilted into finishing it.  It will make such experimentation most unpleasant.
3. Don't use the highest end spirits to mix your first tries.  You will waste good booze.
4. Make half drinks.  Since you will probably make mistakes, make them smaller.
5. Start simple and work towards complex.  Before you understand the basics of how a spirit works with others, avoid more complex concoctions.
6. Find analogues and work from there.  For instance, if yours is a sweeter, tarter, stronger, or weaker version of a more common spirit, consider trying a variation on a drink using that spirit but adjust the ratios of all ingredients based on the special characteristics of your new spirit.

Onto the trials and errors.
My first attempt was a variation on the Boulevardier, which uses bourbon, Campari, and sweet vermouth.  The idea was to balance the sweetness of Ginja with the bitterness of Campari.  This drink, as I will discuss, deserves no name.

1.5 ounces of bouron (Jim Beam)
.5 ounces of Campari
.5 ounces of Ginja

Directions:  Stir with ice and strain into a chilled glass and garnish with a lemon peal.

Outcome:  Utter failure.  Perhaps the ratios could have been a bit different (the Boulevardier uses more vermouth and Campari.  Really though, I don't think this had much of a shot.  The Campari overwhelmed the Ginja, which mixed with the bourbon to give a sickly, sort of medicine-like aftertaste.  I did not finish the drink.

My next attempt, which I will call The Slipper, was a variant on a martini.  This was not very ambitious but avoided the bad interplay between the bourbon and the Ginja.

2 ounces of gin
.5 ounce of dry vermouth
.5 ounce of Ginja

Directions:  Stir with ice and strain into a chilled glass.

Outcome:  Surprisingly not bad.  Not particularly good, but certainly drinkable.  If anything, I probably could have added a bit more ginja, as it kind of get's lost behind the vermouth and the gin (I used Beefeater).  As pungent as Ginja is, the drink's nose was dominated by the gin.  The balance was relatively good and the contrasts in flavors worked reasoanbly well.  At a technical level there was nothing wrong with the drink, I just didn't particularly like it.  I think this is a personal thing that I have with cherries.  I like cherries - I just don't really like them in stuff. Cherry pie?  No thanks. Jam?  I'll pass. Garnish for a Manhattan? I'll go with the orange peal.

My last attempt took for inspiration a drink I found on Webtender I think.  I'm calling it Abe's Revenge. 

2 ounces of orange juice
1 ounce of blended Scotch
.5 ounce of sweet (French) vermouth
.5 ounce of Ginja

Directions:  Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled glass.  Further recommendation, unlike what I did, strain the OJ through a sugar sifter to get rid of the pulp. It will make your drink look nicer and taste smoother.

Outcome:  Legitimately decent.  This drink was something that I might have again at some point.  The interesting thing is that the tastes seem to progress - from OJ, to scotch, to Ginja and vermouth.  The cherry gives the drink a pleasant smell and the flavors balance relatively well.  I'm still not in love with the cherry flavor of Ginja, but it works pretty well here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Back of the Liquor Cabinet: Consuming the Shame

If you are like me, online or in conversation, you are quick to talk about your latest creation employing whatever obscure, trendy, or even acceptable booze that you possess.  But behind that genever gin, Green Chartreuse, and Calvados, if you're like me, you have a few regrets.  Maybe you even banished them to the basement, but they remain in spirit.  Some might have been gifts.  Perhaps others are reminders of days long past.  Or maybe they're more recent mistakes that you just can't stomach.

In an effort to broaden my alcoholic horizons, or at least clear some shelf space, over the next couple of weeks I'm going to revisit some of these spirits and see if they can contribute to respectable cocktails.  Please let me know if you have any suggestions.  But first, I'll provide a roll call of my ignominious libations.

On the left in the picture we have Whaler's Vanille rum.  This was a college favorite (I graduated seven years ago) featuring two attractive qualities.  First, it mixed well with cream soda for an easy cocktail.  And second, it was (and I assume still is) cheap.  Very cheap.  A quick swig reveals the quality, which is low, and the sweetness, which is high.

Next we have celery bitters. It was a recent gift.  I want to like it.  I've read good things.  But alas, everything I've tried it in ends up tasting like a Bloody Mary.  I've tried it with a savory Pimm's concoction as well as a couple of other ruined drinks.  I'm not giving up yet, though the early returns discourage.

Third is Ginja, which was everywhere in Portugal.  Along with some port, I brought a bottle back when I visited a couple of years ago.  It's super sweet, and is usually imbibed via shots.  I've seen nary a word on the internets on how to employ Ginja for cocktails so my expectations are low, but at the very least my liquor cabinet will contain a nice reminder of my honeymoon.

Next is Amarula, "the Spirit of Africa", which I acquired from a former roommate.  It taste like a banana crossed with a creamsicle.  Pretty much every cocktail using Amarula that I've run across online looks more like a milkshake than a traditional cocktail.  I tend to go more savory than sweet, so this could prove challenging.

The back row starts with some generic triple sec, which may date back to college , no doubt used for cosmos or some such tomfoolery.  There is nothing wrong with triple sec per se, I'm just not sure why you would use it over orange curacao or Cointreau.  It shouldn't be hard to use, just a slightly lower quality orrage liqueur than I typically go with.

Next is dark green creme de menthe.  It taste much like mouthwash (and is probably similar in content).  I used it in college to make what turned out to be a variant on the Grasshopper.  I tend to avoid drinks like that now, but maybe I'm just getting snobby and should get over myself.  Or not.

Finally, we have the Captain.  Oh Captain.  Partly due to its size and partly because it undermines the credibility of my respectable addiction, I have banished the Captain to my basement.  My first thought now is shame.  Next come rationalization - that I purchased it years ago for I think what turned out to be a sparsely attended party, but that my tastes have matured.  Last is nostalgia.  Captain evokes the days when booze was the vehicle to drunkenness, which in turn elicited adventure and debauchery.  Although I still get tipsy from time to time, my friends and I are a more staid group now, for better or worse.  For the most part, we have polite, if not intelligent, conversation over a few drinks and turn in before the clock strikes midnight.  Captain returns me to a time when 1 AM was when the night started to get interesting.  I'm not sure whether to be depressed or uplifted by this trend in my libations and nightlife.  At any rate, I'm don't know if Captain Morgan can make for a high quality cocktail but I'll try working it into some tiki varietal no doubt.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Peruvian Sidecar: The Painted Forest Cocktail

As I discussed earlier in the month, I was pretty disappointed with my Pisco Sour experience.  Nonetheless, I have a nice bottle of pisco and wanted to use it to good effect.  Seeing as how pisco is in the brandy family, and the Sidecar is probably my favorite brandy drink, I decided to make a variant using pisco.  Pisco has a spicier flavor than Cognac and a tropical heritage so I decided to play on that.

I've always felt that the point of the Sidecar was the interaction of strong bitter (lemon) and sweet (Cointreau and sugar) flavors, with the brandy or Cognac serving as background.  I think that pisco has a slightly more aggressive flavor profile than most Cognac or brandy so I wanted to feature that more.  To do so, and to avoid too much of a cacophony in the drink, I substituted lime for lemon, lessening the sour notes, and  blue agave nectar for the sugar on the rim, diminishing the sweetness.

As for the name, we are painting the living room, occupying all of last weekend (sanding and priming) and a good chunk of the coming week, so paint is on my mind and the tropical tones of the drink lead to the forest part of the name.

1.5 ounces of pisco
3/4 ounce of Cointreau
3/4 ounce of lime juice

Shake well with ice and poor into a chilled cocktail glass with agave nectar on the rim and garnish with a twisted lime peal.

Taste (flavor, balance, and clarity): 9
I think this drink works really well on a lot of levels.  Much like The Last Word, I would characterize the Sidecar as showing a "bouncy" taste, where different parts of your palate are absorbing very sweet and very tart flavors, with the brandy holding it together.  The sweet and tart flavors have been muted a bit and the spicier pisco replaces the Cognac, resulting in an equally balanced, but more subtle drink.  Because the sweet notes are not as strong with the agave than with the sugar rim, I think the drink has a more savory feel.  I also like the aftertaste of lime better than that of lemon. 

Versatility (when and for who the drinks works) 9
This drink is neither too sweet nor bitter, as a lot of classic cocktails are.  It also features an amenable middle ground between very strong cocktails that scare off the likes of my wife and sweeter ones that hide the booze.  My wife liked (though didn't love) the Painted Forest.  Additionally, I could see drinking this in a lot of settings, though warm weather like this evening with the windows open is probably ideal.

Hassle (cost and time): 7
The drink is moderate in both time and money.  The drink requires juicing about 1.5 limes and pealing one as well.  I got the pricier of the piscos that I could find, though Cognac still usually runs far more and Cointreau is moderately expensive as well. 

Overall:  8.5
I really enjoyed this drink. I think it's an excellent cousin for one of my favorite classic cocktails, the Sidecar.  I think it would work for a lot of people in numerous settings with a moderate amount of hassle.  Additionally, it features a primary ingredient that lacks a lot of recipes.  I also like the use of agave for several reasons.  One, it is less intense than sugar.  Two, it adds more complexity to the cocktail than sugar.  And three, I enjoyed dipping the rim the glass in a ring of agave. That said, as you can see from the picture, agave, which is a bit runnier than honey, drips, which makes the drink look sort of sticky and sickly.  Oh well...

Potential Improvements
I might tinker with the proportions, perhaps taking down the lime and Cointreau to 1/2 ounce each to further feature the pisco.  No major changes though because the flavor is complex enough that any additional ingredients would likely muddle things.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mixology Monday: Calm Seas Cocktail

This month's Mixology Monday, hosted by Spirited Remix, challenges participants to describe the "best drink you've ever created," one that you have been tweaking over time.  After some thought, the drink that of late I've been fiddling with the most with pretty good outcomes uses Jasmine Cocktail as the starting point.  The Jasmine combines gin, Campari, Cointreau, and lemon juice to create a drink that taste startlingly like grapefruit juice.  I liked this drink but thought I could take it a little further and make it a bit more complex.  I wanted it to be little less about the gin and more about the interplay between the Cointreau and the Campari so I increased their amounts a bit.  I then substituted lime for lemon to make it little mellower and less tart.  Finally, mostly for scent purposes, I added a bit of St. Germain Elderflower Liqueor and a twisted lime peal.  The result is the Calm Seas.

1/2 ounce of Campari
1/2 ounce of Cointreau
1 1/2 ounces of gin (Plymouth)
3/4 ounce of lime juice
1 teaspoon of elderflower liqueor (St. Germain)

Place ingredients and ice in a shaker, shake well, and poor into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime peal.

Final Thoughts
I'm pretty pleased with the drink.  I think it maintains the grapefruit taste of the Jasmine to an extent but adds some complexity and subtlety.  My wife tends to shy away from drinks this tart (including the original Jasmine) so for her I've added about 1.5 teaspoons of simple syrup.  I might in the future try using an edgier gin than Plymouth, which pretty much plays nice with everything.  Specifically, I might try using genever (Holland) gin or Bombay Sapphire, which would add a spicey element.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Are you ready for some raw egg? Pisco Sour time!

My new booze of the month for April is La Diablada pisco, an alcholado.  It adds to my list of brandy variants, which includes two VSOP brandies, Laird's apple brandy, a pear brandy, and Gran Marnier.  The principle drink one makes with pisco is the pisco sour.  I tried this drink at a Peruvian restaurant a long time ago, though I'm not sure if I knew at the time that it had egg in it.  Anyway, I went forth with the pisco sour, though my wife was not up for it.

1.5 ounces of pisco
0.75 ounces of simple syrup
0.75 ounces of lime juice
1 dash of angostura bitters

In shaker mix pisco, lime, and egg.  Then add ice and shake and strain into a whiskey (or pisco) glass.  Add sever drops of bitters to the top.

Taste (flavor, balance, and clarity): 7

I'm not sure what to say here.  The taste was good but slightly underwhelming, and not quite as good as I remember.  The cocktail was balanced and generally tasty but left me a bit disappointed.  I think that part of the problem was that I started thinking a bit too much about the raw egg, particularly when I got to the foam at the end of the drink.
Versatility (when and for who the drinks works): 4
This is primarily a warm-weather drink (which is the case most of the time in Peru and parts of Chile.  I'm not sure if this is something that you sip inside on a cold night.  I think it's best use if on the deck while grilling or some such nonsense.  As for who would drink works for, I think you can rule out most folks based on the egg alone.

Hassle (cost and time): 3
Perhaps I need practice, but it took me a couple of tries to separate the egg white without getting any shell.  Then you have to shake it twice.  I'm not sure if anyone else has experienced this, but when I shook it to mix the egg, the shaker got some pressure and basically pushed itself apart when I was done, letting out a bit of egg goop.  The drink also involves juicing a lime and making simple syrup.  I will not be offering this drink at parties, based on the amount of time and work.  The cost was neither cheap nor expensive, as pisco isn't too much, thought the egg (I used farmers market organic to try to avoid getting sick) and the lime added at bit.

Overall: 5
Not a bad drink, but not the exotic treat I was hoping for. The flavor was nice and the texture was unique based on the egg. Nonetheless, I think that there are tastier drinks and the limited appeal and the amount of prep work makes this drink a bit limited.  I'll give it another try, perhaps tweaking the ingredient ratio, but this will not make the regular rotation.