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.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Sidecar

I welcomed in September with a new band and a new spirit. The Rolling Stones will be helping me through brandy month, and what better way to start it than with one of the most basic cocktails?

David A. Embury wrote "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks" in 1948 and it is one of the great classics of cocktail recipe books. His basic cocktail contains three ingredients: the base (strong), the modifying agents (sour, bitter, or aromatic), and the special flavoring/coloring agents (sweet). Like baking, the alchemy of a cocktail is based on proportions. His Sidecar is eight parts strong, two parts sour, one part sweet.

In measured terms, that means 2 ounces of cognac, 1/2 ounce of lemon juice, 1/4 ounce of Cointreau. Again, this is left entirely to taste. However you shake it, it's a simple, basic drink, but it's still a good one. My personal choice is 2 parts cognac to 1 part each Cointreau and lemon juice shaken hard over ice and served up in a chilled cocktail glass.

What you'll find with brandy, in contrast to spirits from the past months like gin, bitters, or anisette flavored liquors, is how fruity and sweet it is. It starts life from the same parents as its older sister wine, and like her, still retains close ties to France. In fact, if it's Cognac or Armagnac, it can only come from those specific regions in France.

For the sake of cocktails, it's probably not worth buying very expensive bottles of Cognac or Armagnac that are better enjoyed on their own from a snifter after a nice meal.

Experience also suggests, if you happen to be in Saigon with some high rollers, a bottle of Remy with a few cans of Coca Cola and glasses of ice might turn into a night you'll tell stories about. In fact, there may still be part of a bottle there with name of yours truly attached, along with a can of Pepsi, waiting to be reclaimed and finished.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Aviation Cocktail

There's so much going on in this drink it's a challenge knowing where to begin. The variations in flavors of different gins? The importance of fresh lemons? An unusual ingredient called Maraschino Liqueur? The drink's history?

Maraschino liqueur is the one thing which really sets this cocktail apart. Once a staple behind the bar, it's now difficult to find this clear, sweet spirit outside of the best stocked liquor stores. Astor Wines, I might add, has bottles of both the Luxardo and the Stock in abundant supply. Add it to your bar today and try out some of the true classics.

Made from Italian marasca cherries and bearing absolutely no resemblance to the lurid maraschino cherries hiding in the back of your refrigerator, Luxardo's maraschino liqueur comes in a green straw wrapped bottle with a red cap. Imported from Italy, it is one of the few liqueurs created by distillation. The cherries and their crushed pits are processed in a similar way to brandy, which explains the similar sweet strength. At 64 proof, it's not as strong as Cointreau or other quality liqueurs, but it certainly isn't for the DeKuyper shot crowd. And honestly, doesn't 'maraschino' have a nicer ring to it than 'Hot Damn!' or 'Mad Melon Liqueur'? Maraschino liqueur is not for the frat boy set. And how about this, from the wonderfully translated Italian site:

Maraschino Luxardo is a classic. The typical straw coated bottle is by now a true icon on the mass consumption scenario.

I'm not sure what it means, but it sounds good!

It should be obvious that freshly squeezed lemon juice is not optional, it's essential. Experience tells me, of course, that this knowledge is neither obvious nor widely believed. Take this piece of advice: squeeze your lemons, limes, and oranges or don't bother making cocktails. These are irreplaceable.

And now, on to the gins. My dear friend Mister Mulder over at The Daily Pour suggested we begin with Hendrick's, proudly marketed as unusual and not for everyone. What makes it unusual? Cucumber and rose petals to start. And a bottle that looks like it should be filled with magic tonic or elixir sold from the back of a wagon. But this was not the right choice for an Aviation - there was too much rosiness overpowering the sweet and sour.

Tanqueray followed. But again, it just wasn't quite the right choice. There was too much juniper berry flavor and, overall, too much gin-ness. Tanqueray also has a certain harshness to it that isn't as present in other gins. Just because I have it in my cabinet does not mean I rate it as an equal to Hendrick's, Bombay Sapphire, Citadelle, or Plymouth.

The clear winner, at the end of the evening turned out the be Bombay Sapphire. Neither of us expected this to be the case, but the combination of fresh lemon juice, Sapphire, and maraschino liqueur was the best Aviation of the bunch. But don't take my word for it. Go home and shake up a few to taste for yourself. It's a highly subjective thing, the cocktail, and you may find you really prefer Hendrick's or Gordon's or even that slum lord Five O'Clock. But there's no substitute for experience.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Savoy Hotel Special

The commute home tonight took forever. In fact, I listened to the entire "Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" by the time I got home. It's not a short album, either. I was expecting to find a little bit of someone else's orange juice left in the refrigerator and was disappointed to meet only an empty jug. Monkey Gland plans fizzled and I hit the trusty cocktail guide to find a substitute.

Nearly all of the classic cocktails have some sort of citrus juice in them - lemon is the most common but there are plenty with lime or orange. I had no fresh fruit, so it looked like martinis were imminent. Gin is still strongly represented in the cabinet and dry vermouth is there by default. But luckily I ran across two drinks, both with Pernod, suiting my ingredients perfectly. And we stick to the anisette theme!

The London Fog - 2 ounces gin shaken with 1/4 ounce Pernod and served over ice - lost the first round to the Savoy Hotel Special, mostly because I already had a cocktail glass chilling in the freezer and the Savoy has a few more ingredients.

Stir 2 ounces gin, 1/2 ounce dry vermouth, 2 dashes grenadine, and 1 dash Pernod over ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Have a look below.

The elements.



Ready to serve.

The first impression is very much like a martini - after all, it's mostly all gin and vermouth. There's a light but clear essence of anise mingled with the gin and vermouth aromas. The grenadine smooths out the bracing bite of the gin with its sweetness, but this is by no means a cocktail for all tastes. And it certainly isn't a drink to ponder because as it warms up, it snaps back.

For fans of the dry martini, this is an interesting variation. In fact, at a chain restaurant, if the bartender could even be bothered to stir one up for you, it would probably be called the Liquorice Martini or something equally banal. And you can certainly taste 1930 in there (the cocktail was inspired by "The Savoy Cocktail Book" from 1930). Pop "The Thin Man" in your DVD player, stir up a pitcher of these Savoy Hotel Specials and drink along, pondering bygone days when drinking was more than a hobby; it was a lifestyle.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Absinthe Frappe

The best cocktail book I've come ever come across was published in 1998 and co-authored by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead. At the time, there was a website called Cocktail Time, part of Wired Magazine Online. Each week the site would feature a drink with illustrations, the recipe, and a story about its history. Also included was a searchable recipe archive, descriptions of different ingredients, and instructional videos. Unfortunately the site no longer exists but the book, "Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century" continues to serve me well. If you want a copy of your own, however, you're pretty much out of luck. It has become a collector's item and sells on Amazon for upwards of $100.

My drink of the evening is the Absinthe Frappe, made with 1 ounce of Pernod and 1 teaspoon of simple syrup shaken with ice and strained into an highball glass of cracked ice. It's one of the few cocktail recipes in the book made with anise flavored liquor. (The Monkey Gland is on deck to try).

The Absinthe Frappe is not particularly complex - for fans of black liquorice, this will be a nice choice. It's sweet and spicy and obviously strong in anise flavors. But it's not transcendental. And because it's shaken it lacks the ceremony typically associated with drinking absinthe.

There seem to be two popular ways to serve absinthe - the French way and the Czech way. The French way goes back to the late 19th century in Paris with artists like Degas, Picasso, and my personal favorite, Toulouse-Lautrec. A shot of absinthe is poured into a glass. A special absinthe spoon is placed across the glass with a sugar cube sitting atop. Ice water is dripped on the sugar cube, melting it into the absinthe and causing it to cloud up. Drinking it this way is very deliberate and methodical - it's impossible to rush the melting of the sugar cube.

In the Czech mode, a sugar cube is dipped into the absinthe, then set on fire until it caramelizes. That burned sugar is then mixed with the absinthe and some water. Although it doesn't seem like it as you sip, absinthe is some really strong stuff - my bottle is 110 proof, easily the strongest bottle in the cabinet - so flaming should occur fairly easily.

The Absinthe Frappe, then, achieves much the same result. Sugar is added to the Pernod (which tastes strangely similar to Absente, the absinthe in my cabinet). Water comes from the shaking and the ice, and it ends up much colder than water dripped through a sugar cube. It also is stronger because it has far less water added. For the impatient or those not taken with ritual, the Absinthe Frappe may be a fine substitute for absinthe imbibed the traditional way.

The Monthly Sip Launch

It all started innocently enough a few months ago. A new aparment brought about old habits. Many a night had been whiled away in college, sipping Martinis or Tom Collinses or the amazing Clover Club. But cocktail night faded away in the tropics with the availability of cheap beer, attractive ladies, and uncouth friends. Relocating to New York City on a budget of zero also put a crimp in the cocktail style. That all changed in May, with the first declaration of a liquor of the month and a band to accompany it.

May started strong and was difficult to top: gin and Beatles. Has there been a greater band than the Beatles or a greater liquor for cocktails than gin? Particularly notable was the Jasmine - 1 1/2 ounces gin, 1/4 ounce Cointreau, 1/4 ounce Campari, and 3/4 ounce lemon juice shaken hard over ice. The result is like grapefruit juice with a wallop.

June introduced me to bitters and Bob Dylan - Campari, Pimm's, Cynar and others. For those of you interested, Pimm's goes down well with ice and some bitter lemon soda. Chances are you've never tried bitter lemon soda (sort of like Sprite mixed with tonic water) but if you're looking for it in the New York area, try Gristedes grocery stores.

July, and with it the heat of summer, was dedicated to the Beach Boys and rum. Thanks to my windowboxes, I have a steady supply of fresh mint for mojitos which are very refreshing on a hot summer night.

I approached August with some trepidation. What to drink? What to listen to? After much debate and deliberation (The Kinks, Queen, XTC, The Who, Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones and ABBA were all considered) the winner was David Bowie. To match Bowie, I went with anise flavored drinks - so far I have Ricard, Pernod, and a bottle of Absinthe. In the coming weeks, Ouzo, Raki, Sambuca, Arak, and others are expected.

If there is a point to this project and this blog, it is to discover and appreciate interesting drinks and interesting music. Tune in regularly to learn more!