Thursday, July 31, 2008

Angostura Orange Bitters

A lot of people have been buzzing on the web for the past year about Angostura's forthcoming orange bitters. They were available in other countries outside the US for quite some time, and are now easily ordered from Kegworks, where you can also pick up a convenient three-pack of orange bitters of the three most popular commercial brands at once.

I got my bottle a couple weeks ago and have been taking it through the rounds. I've had Regan's and Fee Brothers orange bitters for quite a while now and those are vastly different products. The Fee Brothers has a nose of almost pure orange. In fact, it's similar both to my homemade orange tincture, and to Cointreau. Regan's, on the other hand, is much more complex and spicy. Anyone who has mixed with them knows how different they are.

So what was the Angostura to be? Well, do you remember those scented markers you had as a kid? A quick search turns up this:
Mr. Sketch Scented Water Color Markers
by the good folks at Sanford, who also make the stalwart Sharpie (less pleasantly scented). I think I got my set of 12 in first grade and still remember the styrofoam box, cardboard slip cover, and most of the scents quite distinctly. For better of worse, the nose on the Angostura orange bitters reminds me of first grade. It is nearly identical (although for some reason I think it might be scented like the blue or the pink marker). Decide for yourself if this is a negative or positive association.

In gin drinks, the best word for the bitters is ASSERTIVE! In other words, a little dash goes a really, really, really long way. Dash twice and all you taste is the orange. There is nothing delicate about it and it certainly will overpower if you're not careful. But in some things, it's perfect.

To wit: Paul Clarke's recipe for the Red and White cocktail, a simple mixture of equal parts sweet and dry vermouth with orange bitters. I came to this drink out of both lethargy and necessity. Usually not a big fan of dry vermouth, I've been dragging my feet, not opening my bottle of Noilly Prat. Part of my past problem, I now realize, was letting vermouth get old and no longer tasting good. I didn't realize until relatively recently it didn't have a shelf-life like distilled alcohol. So once opened, I wanted to consume it with some speed. I also haven't felt like shaking anything. I want to stir, not use juices or other ingredients requiring a shake, and cut down on my already simple clean-up. Two vermouths with bitters? That's very easy. And since the bottles now reside in the over-crowded refrigerator, I also decided to forgo ice altogether and just stir the ingredients briefly.

Verdict? Great! The Red and White now has me enjoying dry vermouth as much as I've been loving her sweet sister in various iterations. Angostura orange works famously, bumping up the fruitiness of both wines and melding them together much more nicely than the Regan's. It's sweet and light, but still flavorful and interesting with some dimensionality. With Punt e Mes or some additional aromatic bitters, it would make a better preprandial tipple. Over ice with some seltzer water, it would be like a wine spritzer. But good. For non-fans of vermouth who think they only like the harder stuff, this may be a pleasant diversion from time to time. Especially if you have some extra vermouth on hand that needs to be consumed, or a friend who isn't a fan of the ardent spirits.

Red and White Cocktail

1.5 oz. dry vermouth
1.5 oz. sweet vermouth
1-2 dashes orange bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass.
If you're feeling lazy, stir together already chilled vermouths straight out of the fridge with bitters in a highball glass. Smile and enjoy the simplicity.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Amer Picon

It just so happens I'm about as dorky about movies as I am about cocktails. Tonight, I assembled the pieces of homemade Amer Picon as per M. Boudreau's recipe. I would like to thank Jamie for building in a math lesson and I hope "3 bottles Amaro Ramazzotti" is meant to be 3 of the 750ml, or 3/4 liter, or 25.36 oz, or 3.17 cup sized bottles. Grrrr.

After mixing the ingredients and stowing them away for another week, I popped Trouble in Paradise in the DVD player on Roger Ebert's recommendation. It just so happens that, if you watch closely, there is an Amer Picon factory visible for about 3 seconds during the Colet & Co. Perfume advertisement. Want to see it? Go to 18:24 as the man sings "Every nose in Paris knows," and you can see for yourself. So a product common enough to make it into a throw-away-shot in an Ernst Lubitsch film from 1932 is only available in this country if we make it from an Italian amaro, an American syrup, and a homemade tincture. How times have changed. Happy drinking!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Bitter Lemon Soda

Cocktail fiends are an adventurous lot: check out the wide variety of blogs and you'll come across recipes for things like falernum, shrub, pimento dram, orgeat syrup, and gomme syrup. And of course there's no shortage of discussion around the web and in print about tonic water. The latest issue of Imbibe Magazine has a taste comparison between six different commercial brands. Jeffrey Morgenthaler tackled tonic and shared his recipe with the world on his site. You'll also see links to a piece in the and Washington Post and another in SF Gate in his post. Here is the recipe from The Washington Post.

But there's another product out there that doesn't seem to get as much discussion as tonic, is far more interesting, and is obscure enough to inspire a religious following by cocktail fiends. Bitter lemon soda is produced and distributed in various places around the world, but in my searches in New York City and Seattle, I have only been able to find it in a single supermarket chain in each city. A web search will turn up various suppliers more than willing to ship wherever you are. But if you happen to be in NYC, check out Gristedes on University Place and 8th Street. I've always been able to find liter bottles of Schweppes bitter lemon soda there. In Seattle, try Metropolitan Market. I think I picked up my six-pack at their Queen Anne location.

You may wonder if seeking out something like this could be worth the effort. If you already buy tonic water on a regular basis and add citrus to your gin and tonics, I can assure you it's worth it. If you're looking for a new twist on your Pimm's Cup, because ginger ale is just too sweet and seltzer water doesn't add enough flavor, bitter lemon soda is worth your time. And by all means, if you are a fan of amari likesuchas Cynar or Averna then you are an ideal candidate for bitter lemon soda conversion.

I took a bottle with me the last time I visited Vessel in Seattle and my pleased bartender compared it to the house Collins mix. "We used to make a Collins mix with bruised lemon balm in it," Jim told me. "This tastes a lot like it." So there's one more reason to acquire a taste for this elixir - requesting a bitter lemon and Ramazzotti surely won't raise your barman's ire like demanding a Red Bull and vodka. Trust me. And in a few more weeks, er, months, when my own personal batch of M. Boudreau's own Amer Picon Recipe #3 is assembled and ready for consumption, it will also be a prime candidate for quaffing with bitter lemon soda. Can your tonic water do that?

Friday, July 4, 2008

What's in the Cabinet

It's a popular trend to list the bottles in your cabinet. Paul Clarke does it here. And here's Jeffrey Morgenthaler's. In my previous life, in Brooklyn, I had a nice collection growing above 30 bottles. I moved west, but the bottles didn't move with me. On a recent visit back east, I wasn't at all surprised to find the former roommates had emptied almost everything that could be drunk straight, as well as several things that should not have been. There were still several "creme de (fill-in-the-blank)s" but no base spirits. So much for my investment, though at least my karma points have increased.

In my new home, I started over with nothing. Building a home collection takes time, and certainly a significant investment, but it's all part of the geekiness that cocktails encourage in this day and age. It was easy in New York, with Astor Wines a few doors down from the office. If a spirit had distribution, I could count on them selling it. Unfortunately, in Seattle that's no longer the case. Were I content to exclusively drink martinis and Manhattans with the occasional rum and Coke (ha!), stocking would be no trouble. But I like the process of mixing. I enjoy ritual and time consumption. I've never made drinks requiring lemon or lime without squeezing the fruit myself. A decade ago, that was as fastidious as I knew how to be. But the times have swung even further, to hand-crafted syrups, long steeped tinctures, bitters recipes as long as your arm, and weeks-long spirit blends, so I'm on that wagon as well.

I'm working on two different things at the moment, with recipes provided by helpful bloggers. The first is Jamie Boudreau's well publicized Amer Picon recreation. I tasted it at Vessel on my first trip to Seattle and was hooked. I've been looking for it ever since I got my copy of Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead's now almost unattainable classic Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century. I love it as much now as I did 10 summers ago when I first bought it. It took 9 years before finding maraschino liqueur for purchase, so perhaps Amer Picon will eventually see American distribution again. Today I began work on pimento dram as per Paul Clarke. I have ten days + one month to wait for that to be ready. At that rate, it should be ready at about the same time I assemble the rest of the Amer Picon.

Along with those to major time-consumers, I have several more mainstream items in the cabinet.

Gin: Bombay, Broker's, Junipero, Plymouth, Rogue

Rye: Jim Beam, Rittenhouse, Russell's Reserve, Wild Turkey 101

Bourbon: Bulleit

Scotch: Famous Grouse

Applejack: Laird's

Rum: Bacardi 151, Barbancourt Reserve Speciale, Cockspur, Goslings Black Seal, Lemon Hart Demerara, Pusser's Blue, Rogue

Bitter / Herbal: Becherovka, Campari, Cynar, Fernet Branca

Liqueur: Amaretto di Amore, Benedictine, B&B, Berentzen Apfel Korn, Cointreau, Frangelico, Kahlua, Luxardo Maraschino, Maraska Maraschino, Pallini Raspicello, Pernod, Sophia's Lemoncella

Sherry: Lustau Deluxe Cream Capataz Adresm, Sandeman Armada Rich Cream Oloroso, Sandeman Don Fino Superior Fino,

Wine: Cinzano sweet vermouth, Dubonnet Rouge, Lillet Blanc, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, Punt e Mes

Bitters: Angostura, Fee Bros. Old Fashioned, Fee Bros. Orange, Fee Bros. Whiskey Barrel Aged, Peychaud's, Regan's, Stirring'

Those are all the things with alcohol. There are a bevy of other juices, syrups, and other flavorful liquids. But if for some reason I had to limit myself to just, oh, let's say 5 bottles total, I would have to keep the Plymouth gin, the Cointreau, some sweet vermouth, a bottle of rye, and probably the Campari, since it's in so many things I really enjoy. I suppose it follows that the other 38 bottles of spirits, liqueurs, and wines all just count as icing on the cake. But the urge to try everything possible is just too tempting.

So what's in your cabinet and why? What do you use most frequently and what do you think you could pretty much do without? You notice I have no vodka. I also don't have any brandy (except the applejack), but that is because of finances more than anything. Ditto for single malt scotches. I've never been a tequila fan, but I'm willing to change given the right circumstance. While my tasted used to be almost exclusively in the gin camp, the past couple years have been far more whisk(e)y-centric. I've moved from very tart, citric drinks to darker, warmer, sweeter, richer fair with plenty of bitters to keep things exciting.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Homemade Syrups

To make any of the cocktails containing citrus juice (and that is the vast majority of them) it's necessary to balance the sour with something sweet. There are a wide variety of very sweet liqueurs that can do this - Grand Marnier or Cointreau come to mind, as in the Sidecar. But in other instances you need to put more sugar into the mix.

Some recipes will call only for sugar. Others might require superfine sugar. But the best, and certainly easiest to incorporate with other liquids is a very simple mixture of sugar dissolved in water. Various recipes abound - for a while I was dissolving two cups of sugar in one cup of water, letting it cook down until all the sugar crystals had dissolved, cooling it, then putting it in an attractive bottle. That makes fine simple syrup, but is a bit time consuming when you're ready for a drink now, but don't have proper sweetener.

I like Dale DeGroff's method for speed and efficiency. In a bottle you can seal, combine equal parts sugar and water. Shake for a minute to combine. Let sit, then shake again to be sure the sugar has dissolved. After that, your simple syrup is ready to use in cocktails. If you keep it sealed in the refrigerator, you should have no problem using it for several weeks. Mine is stored in a simple container like the one on the right - the top spout can be screwed off and it becomes a jar. The lid snaps on the bottom when you use the pour spout. When not in use, wash the spout and put it away in a drawer. Cover the jar with the lid and it takes up less refrigerator real estate. It may not be the Martha Stewart version of beautiful, but it certainly is functional and makes your home kitchen seem a little bit more like a cocktail bar. But if you get to the point of installing a speed rack for your bottles, you may have gone a bit too far.

As regular readers know, I'm a big fan of Paul Harrington and a recent fan of Dale DeGroff. They both have excellent cocktail books - Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century by Harrington and The Craft of the Cocktail: Everything You Need To Know to Be a Master Bartender, with 500 Recipes by DeGroff. These are great how-to books full of knowledge and experience. My other favorite personality is Alton Brown, famous for his long-running cooking show Good Eats on the Food Network.

Alton did an episode entirely on pomegranates called Fruit 10 From Outerspace. In the episode he makes grenadine out of pomegranate juice, sugar, and lemon. It's a very simple recipe but does take some time to reduce the juice to a syrup.

Here's how you do it. Combine 4 cups of pomegranate juice (try R.W. Knudsens's if you can find it), 1/2 cup of sugar, and 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice. Dissolve the sugar over medium heat then turn down the temperature and reduce the syrup until it's about 1 1/2 cups. It will take 50 minutes or so. Let it cool, put it in a bottle, and keep it in the refrigerator. It's like the simple syrup in that it needs to stay refrigerated or it will go bad. I made a similar syrup from black cherry juice - also delicious in cocktails or just with soda.

Many other recipes exist for making your own grenadine. Some are easier and just involve shaking a lot of sugar up with the pomegranate juice. Others start with whole pomegranates - far more work than using bottled juices. Several suggest adding a bit of vodka as a preservative, making refrigeration unnecessary. Try any of them - they don't include high fructose corn syrup or chemical preservatives, they taste great, and are a huge improvement on any type of pre-made grenadine you could buy in a shop.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Goodbye Brandy and the Stones (or What I've Learned About Seattle)

A New Yorker by import, Charlie Kane of The Monthly Sip recently made a trip across the entire country to sample the sights and sounds of the Pacific Northwest. Several things immediately became clear. First, there is a major dearth of liquor selection in the Emerald City of Clouds compared to the Big Apple. Second, the prices are noticeably higher - a liter of Cointreau at Astor Wines in Manhattan goes for $35. A fifth of the same (not even available in liter size bottles), available only at state regulated Wine and Liquor stores goes for $39. That looks like a big discrepancy even before you compare oranges to oranges: 1 mL of Cointreau in NYC is $0.035, in Seattle it's $0.052. By my calculations (and I think they're right?) That's nearly 1.5 times more expensive. That's a significant difference. But booze is booze, and given a choice between none and some, the obvious choice is to have some. Or maybe it's only on imported liquors, because Laird's Applejack seems to be about the same price from both vendors. Maybe it's just anti-Franco pricing. Third, there are innumerable coffeehouses, most of them serving top-notch coffee at great prices. Fourth, there seem to be more Vietnamese pho shops here than anywhere outside of Vietnam (feel free to refute that claim - but come here and drive around first).

One of my first orders of business in Seattle was preparing hardware and software for cocktail preparation at the lowest cost. Necessary hardware must include a shaker, a measuring device, a bar spoon, and something to strain with. Every housewares shop in every city throughout the country sells some sort of cocktail shaker with a built in strainer, but you'll have to drop at least $20 for the privilege. A better, more economical option is a pint glass and a larger metal tumbler. One fits inside the other to make a Boston shaker. Combined price? About $10. Functionality? Priceless.

Rather than getting a jigger, I picked up one of those little angled liquid measuring cups - useful for more than just proportioning out spirits. There's basically one choice for bar spoons - the long twisted type with a red cap on the end. Finding a strainer was a bit less simple, but eventually I found one that works. And that is all the hardware you really need to make the majority of drinks.

September was supposed to be brandy month, and in more than a few ways it was. What it wasn't much of was cognac month. There were several cocktails made with cognac - the Stinger and the Sidecar especially. But brandy has various permutations, like the Canton ginger liquor I wrote about recently and Applejack, which I tried for the first time last week.

Laird's Applejack is the only applejack available in America. Its label claims "Laird's Applejack was first made by William Laird in Monmouth, New Jersey in 1698. Around 1790, George Washington discovered this unique beverage, asked for and received the Laird family recipe and soon introduced Applejack to the Virginia Colony." Like my beloved Michter's Rye, this spirit clearly has a history.

Coincidentally, the newest issue of Imbibe Magazine has a feature on Applejack, complete with three cocktail recipes. It doesn't include one of the most famous (and apparently difficult to locate) applejack cocktails, the Jack Rose. A variety of recipes exist for this drink, but my favourite comes from Dale DeGroff's The Craft of the Cocktail. The book is another great addition to my arsenal.

In a shaker, combine 1 1/2 ounces of applejack, 1 ounce of simple syrup, 3/4 ounce of fresh lemon juice, and 2 dashes of grenadine. Shake over ice and serve up in a chilled cocktail glass. Correctly proportioned, this is a tart, delicious drink. The grenadine is mostly for color, the sweetness coming from the simple syrup.

In a future post, I'll add some recipes for syrups I recently created at home including grenadine and simple syrup. These are necessary ingredients to make top quality cocktails and to get the most flavor for your buck, you should be making them yourself.

Finally, a note on the Rolling Stones. On the last day of September, late at night, I picked up a copy of Gimme Shelter, the Stones documentary by the Maysles brothers. I saw it for the first time a couple years ago, but this time, watching it with my lady friend, the most striking thing is how young all of the band members are.

Shot in 1969 during the Stones American tour, after the release of Let It Bleed Mick Jagger is 26 and Keith Richards is 25. Both look emaciated by today's standards, but they're already rock superstars. Rock superstars who still understood it was about the music, not about the fame. If you have any interest in rock history, in the stones, or in movies, this is an absolute must see. Enjoy it with a Jack Rose cocktail, and think of me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An Old Drink and a New

I recently picked up a copy of "The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book" by A.S. Crockett after a night at the "new" Waldorf. This looks like the best $10 I've spent in a while. Chapter titles include "Fancy Potations and Otherwise," "Cuban Concotions," and "Jamaican Jollifiers." In the "Mostly With French Spirit" chapter there's an entry about the Stinger, made of brandy and white creme de menthe. You're probably thinking that sounds like a mouthwash cocktail with added booze. That's only slightly true.

The drinks book notes W. Somerset Maugham's repeated used of "stengah-up" in his fiction about Malay states. This little misnomer morphed into Stinger (stengah is Malay for half and was the easiest way for the Brits to order small scotch and sodas from their servants). The drink became popular and is now hardly remembered.

Why is that? Part of it is the sweet candiness. But there's more to it than that. With good brandy, it's a very refreshing cocktail very simply made. The creme de menthe can't help tasting of mint, obviously, but when properly proportioned it's not offensive. In the right circumstances (and you'll just have to judge when those circumstances are), this could be the perfect cocktail. But more than two is ill advised.

Continuing with out Asian theme, recently introduced to the NYC market is a ginger liqueur originally imported from Hong Kong called Canton. Its bottle is shaped like a very thick stick of bamboo. On intensity points, this spirit ranks very high - think of it like the Cointreau or Grand Marnier of the ginger world. If you could take dried, candied ginger, liquify it, and add alcohol, you'd have something similar to Canton. And if you're not already a fan of ginger, this probably won't convert you. If you are, try the following recipe, as yet unnamed.

In a shaker, combine the juice of half a lemon, 2 ounces of vodka, and 1 ounce of Canton liqueur. Shake and serve up. Basically, you've made a Sidecar but replaced the base spirit of brandy with the white paint that is vodka, so as not to overpower the ginger. Canton replaces the sweet of the Cointreau, and the tart lemon remains basically the same. Proportions can be tweaked, but the citrus balances the powerfully sweet ginger nicely.