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.