Monday, May 30, 2011

And the Theme is Orange: The Red Lion Cocktail

With both cooking and drinking, one of the things that I've been pondering is when like ingredients work well together and when they are redundant and a better choice would be dissimilar but complementary components .  I've not devised any sort of definitive rule on the matter but am starting to accumulate some specific do's and don'ts.  For instance, do mix vanilla rum and creme soda.  Don't mix lemocello and lemon juice.  Do pair Cointreau with orange bitters.  Don't pair it with Grand Marnier.  This brings us to today's cocktail, the Red Lion which combines both orange juice and Grand Marnier orange liqueur.

The Red Lion

0.75 ounce of Grand Marnier
1 ounce of gin (Plymouth)
0.25 ounce of lemon juice
1 ounce of orange juice (preferable no pulp)

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  I first strained my pulpy orange juice through a sugar sifter.

Taste (flavor, balance, and clarity): 7
I would say that this drink is very clean in taste.  At the same time, I didn't find it terribly sophisticated.  The most interesting interplay was between the gin and the brandy of the Grand Marnier, but that was somewhat in the background.  Returning to the though above, the orange juice and Grand Marnier worked together, with the Grand Marnier adding a sweet but citrus element that was balanced by the lemon juice.  The flavors were all on the cool side and worked to make a crisp taste that accentuated the orange juice and tasted like a classy Mimosa.

Versatility (when and for whom the drink works):  8
I though that this drink was pretty accessible, as many drinks with strong fruit juice components are.  Even with the gin and the brandy, I think that a number of folks could enjoy it.  I'm not sure what the ideal setting for the drink is but I also can't think of when it wouldn't work.

Hassle (Cost and Time):  8
This drink isn't particularly expensive, with the Grand Marnier being the only sort of pricey spirit.  Juicing the lemon takes a bit of time but not too much.  Overall, this is a pretty simple drink to put together, especially since it lacks a garnish.

Overall:  7.5
This was one of those drinks that I can't really come up with anything wrong with.  Perhaps its because I've gotten a bit snobby and want to play with more exotic ingredients, nothing about the drink terribly excites me either though.  I think that its best and highest use is as a substitute for the Mimosa - though I'm not sure if a drink with this much booze is always the best idea at brunch.

Potential Improvements:
I think that next time I will take the orange juice down to 0.75 ounce and maybe take the lemon juice a hair as well to accentuate the gin and brandy a bit.  Another option is to jettison the lemon juice and try using orange bitters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Explorations of a Stubborn Spirit: Beyond the Pimm's Cup

Certain spirits are inherently tied to a specific cocktail and lack a whole lot of ink on what else to do with them.  For instance, you aren't going to find a lot of recipes for pisco beyond the Pisco Sour.  Pimm's is kind of like that.  I like the spirit.  It has both sweet and savory elements and is more of a subtle than a powerful spirit.  I wanted to make something with it that was a bit boozier than the Pimm's Cup but maintained the sweet/herbal balance.  I've tried doing so before with very mixed results, including a cocktail that thanks to some celery bitters, ended up tasting like a Bloody Mary.

Pimm's Sipper

2 ounces of old Tom gin (Ransom)
0.5 ounce of Pimm's
0.5 ounce of dry vermouth (Nolly Prat)
0.75 ounce of lemon juice

Shake ingredients with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon peal.

Taste (flavor, balance, and clarity):  6.5
This drink hammers the savory notes with the Old Tom Gin being the dominant flavor but the vermouth adding some bitterness.  It does not feel as balanced as I might like but picks a direction and goes with it in a fairly coherent manner.  It's pretty strong as a general matter but the flavors seem to complement each other.  I actually enjoyed it a bit more as I drank it after a first swallow that was kind of startling.

Versatility (when and for whom the drink works):  6
I would classify this drink as "challenging" much as I would a Negroni so I'm not sure how many people would enjoy it.  On the plus side, I think it works in a lot of settings and is not strictly a patio drink like the Pimm's Cup.

Hassle (cost and time):  8
This drink is not a lot of trouble to make beyond squeezing some lemon juice.  The old tom gin, which I think is essential given its much more herbal flavor than London dry gin, is pretty pricey but the other ingredients are cheap.

Overall:  6.5
I'm not sure what to make of this drink.  It was pretty challenging but I like the intense and multifaceted herbal flavors.  I think the lemon was also important (I tried making it as a martini without the lemon but it tasted muddled).

Potential Improvements
I might try using sweet as opposed to dry vermouth which could make it more accessible.  Using lemon bitters might work as well.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Booze Pairings: Cocktails with the Game

A couple of posts ago I wrote about pairing cocktails with specific activities.  I noted that some such pairings were more intuitive than others.  As I was watching the NBA playoffs the other day, it dawned on me that I don't really have any association with sports viewing and cocktails, save the mint julep and the Kentucky Derby.  This seems strange.  A lot of people watch sports.  I'm sure some of them drink booze.  Yet I can't remember any commercial or pop culture reference of any sort linking cocktails and watching sports.  Historically, this might have had something to do with most stadiums only serving beer, but far more people now watch sports at home or a bar, where booze is available.

Thus my contemplations started.  There are times, perhaps at home or at a bar where the taste of the drink is paramount despite any ongoing conversation.  When I get certain cocktails, particularly more complex or challenging ones, much of my concentration is on the drink.  Conversely, when watching sports, the game gets the bulk of my attention, leaving the remainder for talking to others and paying attention to the drink.  That doesn't mean that the taste is irrelevant, only that perhaps simpler is better.  Particularly for home viewers, it might also be nice if the drink wasn't too much trouble to make - relatively few ingredients and little juicing, muddling, or use of eggs.  The drink should also be one that you can milk for a bit while watching, where even a commercial break is sometimes not enough to make a cocktail, so something with ice makes sense. 

The And One

2 ounces of bourbon (Jim Beam)
0.75 ounces of lime juice
a bar spoon (healthy splash) of maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)

Shake ingredients with ice and pour into cocktail glass with ice cubes.

I was pleased with the drink, which is a variant on the whiskey sour. Despite the juicing, it wasn't too much effort to make.  As with the Last Word, the lime and maraschino liqueur mix well and the bourbon works with both.  The taste starts with what I'd described as a the peanut flavor of Jim Beam Black and transitions to the lime, with the maraschino adding flavor and a hint of sweetness latter in the swallow.  I think that the drink was traditional, and kind of many befitting sports with the bourbon, but had a bit of flair from the maraschino.  Further, because of the ice cubes, I was able to nurse it for most of the first half of the game, where normally I feel compelled to finish cocktails before they warm up too much. I'm sure there are other cocktails that work for watching sports, so I and hopefully readers will come up with a some other ideas.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Explorations in Sloe Gin: Sipping the English Countryside

Since purchasing a bottle of sloe gin a while back, most of the resulting cocktails have have been relatively light and citrus based, like a Cloudy Sky (sloe gin, lime, and ginger ale) or a sloe gin fizz (sloe gin, soda water, simple syrup, and lemon juice).  These are very tasty drinks but not particularly complex and pretty thin on the alcohol front.  I wanted to try or create drinks that were a bit more challenging or at least stronger.

The first of a couple of half-sized drinks that I made was simply called the Sloe Gin Martini, found though the wonders of the internets.  I wouldn't call it a martini, as there is no gin (no, sloe gin is not gin) but it seemed interesting regardless.  I stirred rather than shook it but otherwise followed the recipe.

Sloe Gin Martini

3 ounces of sloe gin (Plymouth)
1 ounce of dry vermouth (Nolly Pratt)
4 dashes of Angostura bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Garnish with a lemon twist.

Pretty good.  The first thing that hit me was the sweetness of the sloe gin, which had me thinking "uh oh."  But before the sweetness could get too intense, in the mid swallow the bitters and vermouth came to the fore.  The drink turns out to be well balanced, if a bit light.  This drink got good reviews from my wife, who drank the bulk of it, and I think would work for a pretty diverse crowd.  Given the amount of sugar, I'm not sure if you would want more than one, but it was a relaxing spring beverage, though not as sweet as most cocktails with sloe gin.  Another plus was that it was really quick to make, involving relatively few ingredients and no syrups, juicing, muddling, or any such nonsense.

The second sloe gin cocktail, which I came up with, was a bit stronger and more complex.

English Accent

2 ounces of sloe gin
1 ounce of old tom gin (Ransom)
1 ounce of lemoncello (homemade and relatively strong)

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Garnish with a lime wedge.

This drink really shined.  Despite its relatively low amount, the old tom gin was the initial and probably strongest flavor in the drink.  Its slight sweetness and herbal quality complemented the liqueurs.  I like to think of sloe gin and lemoncello as cousins because both were traditionally made with fruit by farmer types in the countryside.  Homemade hooch is the best.  Anyway, they worked well together.  The swallow ended with a twisting of the two liqueurs followed by a bit of a warm taste from the gin.  All in all, most pleasant.

It's a bit more challenging than most sloe gin concoctions, being cut with nothing but liqueurs but still relatively accessable.  Also note that the lemoncello that I used was relatively strong and not too sweet.  Otherwise you might need to use some bitters or at least amp up the amount of old tom gin.  The English Accent was also very easy to make.

Next time I might try garnishing it withe a rosemary or mint sprig to play up the herbal flavor instead of the lemon wedge, which slightly cuts down the sweetness and amplifies the lemoncello.  I also think that I could dial back the sloe gin to 1.5 ounces and perhaps up the old tom gin to .75 ounces.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Booze Pairings: A Cocktail for Any Occasion

One preoccupation of certain wine aficionados is matching match specific wines, sometimes down to the brand and vintage, with specific meals.  As someone without much of a wine palate, the extent of my matching is drinking red wine with red meat and white wine with fish or poultry (I guess vegetarian dishes and pork go either way).  Although I think this activity, taken to the level of detail that I've seen, trends on absurd mysticism and pretentiousness, the idea of thinking through the best time for various drinks has merit.

I think that, particularly for cocktails, which for the most part I don't drink with meals, such matching should be approached broadly, considering the occasion for the drink rather than the food.  Let me give a couple of examples before getting to my first entry.  For celebrations like graduations, promotions, or engagements match with drinks that are fairly light and can be quaffed relatively quickly.  Champagne cocktails sound right while heavy and complex drinks like a Last Word or Negroni do not.  The first nice weekend of the spring might be a good time to break out the Pimm's while a Sazerack might go well with the first cool day of autumn.  A lot of this matching is intuitive like imbibing tequila or rum primarily when it is warm, but I think that other occasions might merit a bit more contemplation. 

Onto today's example.  On this beautiful Washington Sunday, my wife and I (more her than me) attacked the garden for a bit.  Light labor in the sun seems to yell for a rum or tequila but I wanted to go another direction, but still drink something with a fruity or herbal edge befitting the setting.  An drink called Black and Brown that I'd run across seemed to fit the bill, with its unusual combination of fruit, bourbon, and brandy. 

Black and Brown (courtesy of Food and Wine)

2 ounces of bourbon (Buffalo Trace)
1 ounce of vanilla brandy (Tuaca)
1 dash of Peychaud's bitters
7-10 blackberries
1 ounce of lime juice

Muddle the blackberries in the shaker, add other ingredients, and shake with ice.  Strain (I used both the shaker top and a sugar sifter to catch most of the lime and blackberry pulp) into a chilled cocktail glass that you have coated the edge of with lime and added a bit of sugar to.  Garnish with a lime wedge.

Despite the odd brandy and bourbon pairing, I thought it worked well.  The swallow started with the bourbon and transitioned to the lime and blackberries.  The Tuaca only came through a bit in the aftertaste and the bitters were also hard to pick out but probably tempered the sweetness of the fruit and Tuaca.  All and all, this was an amazingly smooth drink (and dangerous giving the whopping three shots of booze in it).  I think that the sugar and lime on the rim was unnecessary.  However, it added to the visual appeal of the drink, which was quite gorgeous with the lime and blackberry mixing in the center of the cocktail.  Next time, I might add a bit more bitters but thought it was quite nice.  One note: make sure you have some time to kill, as this drink takes a while to make with the juicing, muddling, and coating of the glass rim.  Nonetheless and importantly for this discussion, the Black and Brown proved a pleasant accompaniment to our gardening and was refreshing despite its punch.  I'd love hear what others think are the best drinks for specific occasions or activities.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Consuming the Shame Part 4: Celery Bitters

Of all of the spirits that I have endeavored to salvage, my Bitter Truth Celery Bitters had the most promise.  First, unlike most of the other spirits, it is neither super sweet or a basic spirit but of low quality.  Second, and more important, it is interesting.  More than anything else, "interesting" ingredients are what separate drinks at high end bars from those of more conventional bars or restaurants.  They use rosemary infused vodka instead of Stoli for instance.  Celery bitters falls into that group of interesting ingredients, which could help make unique cocktails.  The trouble is that it is really strong and tends to dominate drinks.  The several times I've tried to use celery bitters, the drinks all came out tasting like a Bloody Mary, which was never the intent.

One thing that I've learned about these bitters, more so than orange or angostura bitters, is that they are potent and should be used in very small doses.  I've also come to the conclusion that bitters should help shape a drink, but in most cases not be a featured flavor.  With that in mind, following a decent bit of contemplation, I came up with a very tasty cocktail.

Old Glasshouse

2 ounces of Old Tom Gin (Ransom)
1 ounce of Dry Vermouth (Nolly Pratt)
1/2 ounce of Elderflower Liqueur (St. Germain)
1 dash (6 drops) of celery bitters (Bitter Truth)
Stir ingredients with ice, pour into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon peel.

This is a legitimately good drink, which is at its heart a martini variant.  The celery bitters mix nicely with the elderflower liqueur.  The bitters did not overwhelm the drink but kept the St. Germain from giving the drink a sweet lingering aftertaste that I've experienced in some drinks with the spirit.  The sweet herbal quality of the Old Tom gin works with both the floral taste of the St. Germain and the savory quality of the celery bitters.  This cocktail might fall just a hair sweeter than my preference on that scale but it works.  In fact, my wife, who likes her drinks a bit on the sweet side really liked it.  Though I lack it at the moment, I think genever gin, which like Old Tom gin is very herbal, but isn't quite as sweet, might prove better still.  This drink is good enough that I might submit this or a variant of it for this month's Mixology Monday.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mixology Monday: South of Tuitan

This month's Mixology Monday, hosted by The Barman Cometh, challenges participants to devise a cocktail using a floral ingredient.  This theme dovetails nicely with a cocktail I'd been playing around with, whose final iteration I've named South of Tuitan.  From the beginning, the intent was a subtle but flavorful drink based on blanco tequila and featuring Elderflower Liqueur or Creme de Violette as well as grapefruit juice and some sort of bitters.

For this cocktail, I sought to feature the flavor profile of the tequila while hosting an interplay between the grapefruit juice and the floral liqueur.  After playing around with the ratios, use of red or white grapefruit juice, use of Angostura or orange bitters, and stirring or shaking, the final version is as follows:

South of Tuitan

1.75 ounces of blanco tequila (Tres Generations)
.5 ounce of elderflower liqueur (St. Germain)
2 dashes of orange bitters (Bitter Truth)
.75 ounce of red grapefruit juice

Stir ingredients with ice, pour into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a twisted grapefruit peal.

I think that the drink works really well.  The orange bitters kept the aftertaste from coming off too sweet, while playing up the citrus of the grapefruit juice.  The swallow first features the tequila and gives way to both the grapefruit juice and the St. Germain and I believes maintains good balance.  I think that the drink works with Angostura bitters as well, though they are a more assertive portion of the flavor profile than orange bitters.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Revisiting a Shunned Spirit: Tequila

Like many people, I got turned off from tequila in college.  I didn't have any singular "tequila night" but more the combination of lame experiences and the ghastly taste of Jose.  It seemed the novelty of tequila was to take something really nasty, combine it with lime and salt, perhaps with the assistance of someone of the opposite sex, to hide the taste, and show your mettle by quaffing it.  The point was, if anything, overcoming the nasty taste of the tequila.   It seemed like one of those things best left at school.  Since then, except for the occasional margarita at a Mexican restaurant, I've avoided the stuff.  I've recently gotten around to buying a decent bottle of blanco and giving tequila a second look.  One of the first recipes I started with was the Lolita, which includes tequila, angostura bitters, lime juice, and honey.  Below is a spin on it called the Road to Juarez.

Road to Juarez

1.5 ounces of blanco tequila (Tres Generations)
.25 ounce of lime juice
3 dashes of orange bitters
1 teaspoon of agave nectar

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Garnish with a lime wheel.

Taste (flavor, balance, and clarity):  8.5
Though I'm a neophyte regarding tequila, I really enjoyed this cocktail.  I never extpected to write that a drink with tequila was smooth and dangerously drinkable.  The flavors worked very well together with the orange bitters combining with the lime to enhance the citrus flavor.  The agave nectar took the edge of the tequila and lime to soften the drink wihtout standing out too much.  The tequila taste lingered after the swallow in a nice way as well. 

Versatility (when and for whom the drink works):  8
I think that this drink could be enjoyed by a lot of folks because its is fairly mild.  While quite strong, it doesn't taste to boozy.  I do think that this is more of a warm-weather drink though.

Hassle (cost and time): 8
The drink included decent tequila but all in all was not too expensive.  I had to juice a lime but otherwise it was quicker to make.

Overall:  8
I really enjoyed this drink.  It was flavorful but subtle and unexpectedly smooth.  Not a bad drink for a party at all.  No specific improvements for this drink come to mind.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Consuming the Shame Part 3: Amarula

One of the laughable goals that I have for this blog is for it to at some point yield me free booze from marketing departments of liquor companies.  This entry will not help in that endeavor, as I'm about to trash a spirit at length.

That spirit being Amarula, perhaps the least favorite piece of booze that I own.  As previously mentioned, the "Spirit of Africa" is a sickly sweet concoction of creme and some fruit I'd never heard of.  I have problems with Amarula on a couple of grounds.  First, at a visceral level I don't like the taste.  I don't hate all sweet drinks.  I've had Bailey's on the rocks and it wasn't too bad for a desert drink.  I like port quite a bit as well.  Amarula might be sweeter than all of them, and the fruit causes the aftertaste to waft around upleasantly.  Second, from everything that I've found on the web, Amarula doesn't lend itself to the type of cocktails that I enjoy, or want to enjoy anyway.  I you look around, most of the cocktails combine Amarula solely or primarily other sweet and weak (Amarula is only 34 proof) spirits like banana, mint, or coffee liqueurs.

To the extent that any base spirit can mix with this, without trying all of them, I can only imagine that rum or vodka will work because anything too harsh would clash horribly with the fruit.  My first cocktail attempt, which shall remain unnamed (and unloved) includes the former.  The thinking was to mix Amarula's fruit and creme flavors with with real fruit and rum to make some sort of bastardized tiki drink.  So as not to waste good rum, I'm using the Whaler's Vanilla Rum.  I'm not giving Whaler's its own Consuming the Shame entry because to be honest it's not a "difficult" spirit, so much as one that just of pretty low quality, much like my generic triple sec.  I used blackberries because they are juicy and I didn't think anything citrus would work too well with Amarula.

5 muddled blackberries (or strawberries)
.75 ounce of Amarula
.75 ounce of light rum

Muddle blackberries, combine with booze, stir with ice, and strain into a glass, garnish with a blackberry.  Serve with ice.

My initial reaction was that this drink sucked, which was also my final reaction - but it was only mediocre in between.  Let me explain.  Unless you actually use a juicer for the berries (and it can't be worth the mess for a drink like this), the muddled berries combined with the Amarula will make for a very thick drink.  It reminds me of Jamba Juice, which is fantastic, but here it makes for an odd drinking experience.  My reaction after the first sip was that this was rough stuff.  It left a sugary and oddly warm taste in my mouth, though not in a good way like whiskey.  It also lacked the synergy of a good smoothie, like the way bananas and strawberries complement each other.

However, as the ice melted just a bit to thin it out (and booze Stockholm Syndrome set in) I started thinking that maybe I was being too harsh on the drink.  Just when I was going to upgrade my evaluation, I got to the end and ate the garnish blackberry.  The wonderful clean taste of the blackberry juxtaposed with the muddled mess that was this drink and made me realize that I'd just wasted some good fruit.  I'd never actually been angry at a drink before.

My next drink, called the Spirit of Moscow, was somewhat less creative and a bit more successful, though perhaps because the Amarula made up a smaller fraction of the beverage.  It played off of a White Russian, though substituting Amarula and dark creme de cacao for Kahlua, as I'd seen those two team up in a number of cocktails online. 

Spirit of Moscow

1.5 ounces of vodka (I used Skyy)
.75 ounces of creme
.38 ounces of Amarula
.38 ounces of dark creme de cacao

Mix ingredients in a glass with ice the Dude style.

It's OK but unnecessary.  It's certainly drinkable, tasting much like a White Russian, but with a bit of a fruity note.  Nonetheless, it doesn't add as much to the White Russian in nuance as it removes in coherency.  All in all the Spirit of Russia is a passable drink but nothing I'd have again.

Clearly there are folks that like Amarula, but I'm not one of them.  Maybe it's a me thing.  Just like I don't care much for beats for instance, perhaps there is something about the flavor of Amarula that disagrees with me through no fault of its own.  More likely, it's a candy cane sweat spirit that has a whiny fruit aftertaste.  Although my general orientation is to collect as much booze as possible, this may be one to give away. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Spirit of Costa Rica: Guaro?

Yesterday, we returned from a tremendous vacation in Costa Rica.  Even before I took a serious interest in mixology, I tried to see the local booze when out of the US.  For instance, my wife and I went to port lodges in Portugal.  Prior to a little pre-trip research for this journey, I wasn't aware of any booze native to Costa Rica or any rum produced there.  It turns out that Costa Rica is home to a spirit named guaro that is made from sugar cane.  The national brand is Cacique, which was established in 1853.  The locals seemed to regard it with a mixture of civic pride and mild disdain.  One tour guide said that guaro tears a hole in his stomach.  A bartender described it as closer to vodka than rum, based on how mild it was.  Needless to say, I was intrigued.

Although I didn't manage to get to the distillery, I had several cocktails with guaro, most of which were versions of a daiquiri or sour.  The ones pictured here were not so much classic cocktails as giant vats of awesome consumed with my wife next to a pool with an ocean view in front and monkeys overhead (no joke).

The first drink was called a Guaro Sour and contained some mix of guaro, lime juice, and simple syrup.  Crucially, the limes were much better in Costa Rica than in DC.  They were sweeter and were light orange inside, probably because they ripened on a vine as opposed to in a shipping crate.  The drink was quite tasty, though not very strong.

The next drink was called Mango Moonshine and was a signature cocktail of the hotel.  It contained blended mangoes, ice, and guaro.  Importantly, the mangoes were locally grown and delicious.  This drink was also a wonderful poolside sipper, though it was neither strong nor complex.

As a means of remembering the trip and adding an obscure spirit to my collection, I bought a bottle before leaving (FYI, it was very cheap).  Sipped straight, it tastes like a mix of rum and vodka, with only mild hints of the sugar.  Not the best drink, but certainly usable.  In the coming months, I'll no doubt figure out more interesting ways to employ it.