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.