Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cocktail Chat | A Critical Mixology Lesson

Every year, The Partner and I host a Pride brunch.  Most years we have about 15-25 people show up.  We cook easy brunch things, serve up the usual brunchy cocktails like Mimosas, Bloody Marys, and Screwdrivers.  This year we had two occasions to change things up and go all out.  First was our deck.  We've just finished an expansion of it that includes a fun new outdoor bar.  The other occasion was this little project we're on with the bible and the blog. 

As we planned our respective menus, I decided that the usual drink fare were fine, however the morning would need something new to reflect our growing expertise in the mixological arts.  Given that the morning moves quickly and we're on a schedule to walk over to the parade by late morning, the special bev would have to be something I could mix a batch of in advance and just pour into a glass when requested.  Not wanting to experiment with something new for a party, I turned back to the blog, zeroing in on both the "Make it again, Sam" and "summer" tags for inspiration.  Everyone remember the Jasmine ("I'll have a Jaaaasssmine...")?  Seemed perfect.  It was breakfasty in its ingredients, tasted like grapefruit juice when mixed, and bonus of bonuses for the day:  IT WAS PINK!

After a trip to Costco for some large scale high end ingredients (I was mixing for 40.) and a cool, spigotted dispenser, I got to work the morning of the affair.  I collected the ingredients, pulled my measuring cups, squeezed six pounds of fresh lemons.  I mixed it all together and tasted.  Now here's the lesson: unless the drink is specifically a punch, you can't just scale it up.  A simple and proportional conversion from ounces to cups simply does not work -- which is what I did.  How clever and mathematical I felt!  But when finished mixing and adding a healthy amount of ice, I didn't have a punch, I just had a cocktail of Brobdingnagian proportions.  It was amazing how something that is so delicious and refreshing in a four ounce martini glass was utterly lacerating in a twelve ounce drinking glass filled with ice.

What was supposed to be a simple mixing task had now become a rescue mission.  Guests were minutes away from walking in the door and I had to find a way not to waste over $100 of perfectly good premium liquor.  Taking a moment, I breathed and with a little positive self-talk I told myself that I would not panic.  This was now an improvisation, no different from when I'm cooking without a recipe.  It would just require some thought to the ingredients necessary to achieve the desired flavors and textures coupled with a routine of mix and taste, mix and taste until all elements were balanced and harmonious.  Luckily, The Partner had already made a pitcher of simple syrup just to have on hand.  Luckily, too, we live across the street from a Whole Foods.  Figuring my budding Pride Punch was suffering from an over abundance of sharp base and accent liquors as well as an acidic juice, it would need more sweetness to soften it up.  I grabbed a carton of sweetened lemonade from across the street and added about two cups of that to the mix.  Next, I added about half a cup of the syrup.  With a few more tweaks with each new ingredient I finally arrived at the perfect balance of sweet to tart, brining the sharp presence of alcohol down to a mere suggestion.  Mixed with ice and it was the perfect cooler on a sunny, summer Pride morning!

It's here that I have to give a shoutout to our neighbor, Y.  She came over right on time and before everyone else and was the instrumental set if taste buds and opinions that helped me complete this concoction.  Y, babe, I know this was not your cup of tea, but you took one for the team to save the day, and I appreciate that.  Clearly, we were successful.  As the picture shows, it was popular.  Peeps were so disappointed when the barrel ran dry two people were picking the tankard up off it's base and tipping it ten ways to Sunday to eek out the last few drops from the tap.  Ah, I love an enthusiastic Pride!
LOOK at all those "Jasmine Pride Punches"!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Rob Roy | 26 down 249 to go

Chicago this spring has been miserable.  I’m not sure if I’ve cracked this joke in an entry before, but even if I have, the weather’s been sucky enough that repeating it bears up:  I don’t remember moving to Seattle. 

So, we’re sitting on the deck, getting to the end of our Moscow Mules – a decidedly warm weather bev.  The Partner asks, “So what’s next?”  It’s at that moment that I realize the gloriously warm sunny day has turned gray and damp yet again.  This is no longer Moscow Mule weather. 

“Feels like a we need something warming, with a brown liquor,” says I.

“Yes, I’ll have a Manhattan!” says he.

We’re not making repeats today, thinks I, and I hit the bible.  Rob Roy!

While H & M declare, “When all else fails, we turn to the Rob Roy ….”  Here’s my declaration:  A Rob Roy  is the poor, country cousin to the Manhattan.  Wooo!  What a difference an ingredient makes.  Not wanting to give up on a second round, I made another for myself.  Sometimes drinks get better with another round.  And for The Partner:  a Manhattan.  (“No, really, can I please have a Manhattan and can you make it with the good bourbon?”  Sure, baby.  Why miss a chance for a side-by-side comparison?) 

Seriously.  Night and day.  And it’s not just the difference between a maraschino and a lemon twist.  A RR is noticeably rougher.  Less refined.  It stings the back of the throat – relatively speaking – to be sure.  It even looks anemic sitting next to its Uptown cousin. Ok, really, I guess it wasn’t horrible.  But if a bartender can make this then he can make a Manhattan and why wouldn’t I want a Manhattan then?  Unlike H & M, we’ll be able to try another route when all else fails.

From time to time, I must admit that The Partner has a point. 

(Don’t tell him that though or there’ll be no living with him.)

Old Fashioned
2 oz. whiskey
½ oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir with cracked ice; strain into chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a lemon twist or a maraschino cherry.

Moscow Mule | 25 down 250 to go

It’s been a week.  Actually, it’s been several weeks.  In a strange flip, I had to work on Saturday and The Partner did not.  I made it known that when I got home I would be thirsty and would want something tall, cold and refreshing.  By 7am yesterday morning I had already settled on the Moscow Mule to fit the bill. 

The Partner had attempted to make these years ago when I found a set of the special copper cups and asked what they were for.  He snapped right to and made some in response to the question.  To be honest, I don’t remember liking it too much.

This time around, though, it was just what the doctor ordered.  The ginger beer made for a nice spicy note that hit the tongue and throat with a good gingery smack.  The copper totally imparts a metallic note.  The Partner says that’s what he likes about it – that copper zing reacting with the acid of the lime and the zap of the ginger.  I, on the other hand, am still uncertain about this.  I am certain, however, that if I put the contact end of my power cord to the cup it could recharge my cell phone!  I made it both in the copper and in a Collins glass.  Both were cold and refreshing and one can absolutely taste the difference between copper and crystal.  No matter the vessel, these go down super easy.  [Say it like Wile E. Coyote says, "Suuuper-Geeenius...."]

H & M tell the elaborate story of how the MM came to be.  Here's the 30 second version.  A Connecticut-based food and liquor distributor rescues Smirnov vodka from the Bolsheviks and its exile in France, anglicizes the name to Smirnoff and nearly gets fired for it because it's the 1930's, Americans don't drink vodka, and there's the whole pinko-commie thing happening.  He hits the Left Coast with his vodka and meets up with a failing Hollywood restaurateur who makes ginger beer on the side to keep his business afloat.  They in turn get together with a friend who also has business troubles and is trying to unload a stash of copper cups she bought from some copper factory.  Together they concoct the Moscow Mule, sold in copper cups with a kicking mule on them -- "warning of its bite."  During the Korean War, the MM gains notoriety due to a fit of typically American anti-communist pique akin to the whole "freedom fries" nonsense after 9/11.  Then with some post-pique marketing legerdemain it becomes the drink of the youth culture.  Only in America.

Moscow Mule
2 oz. vodka
1 oz. lime juice
4 oz. ginger beer
Stir the vodka and lime juice in a glass with cracked ice.  Top with the ginger beer and garnish with a lime wedge.

UPDATE:  Ahhh...  the mule!  How refreshing.  What a palate cleanser.  What a reset during a long, hot day on the roof.  And while there have been only four vodka bevs featured on the blog, it's good to have this one available when dear friend, S., is over.  Can't drink gin, you know.  Causes barney-mugging.  Next time you're antiquing, do look for the official cups.  They're a definite conversation starter.  Plus, just look how they sweat!  Ahhh.... 

Friday, June 10, 2011

All caught up

Well, the blog is finally caught up and updated.  There's been a lot going on in the lives of The Dilettante and The Partner in the last few weeks.  Work has been crazed.  Birthday and holiday weekends have come and gone.  But mainly we've been under the weather and totally unmotivated to cocktail or blog.  However, as of this post, the blog is completely caught up.  Work is still crazed and health is not yet 100%.  But hopefully we're turning a corner.

Some housekeeping:  All the "new" entries have been posted in their chronologically imbibed order.  So you will find them in posts back in May.  They include Maiden's Prayer/Between the Sheets, Old Fashioned, and a Cocktail Chat linked to the MP/BtS.

We're looking forward to getting back on track and hope you'll continue to join us along the way.

The Dilettante

Cocktail Chat | Prohibition v. Today

Quite a time, Prohibition.  At a time when liquor production and consumption were driven underground, purveyors used drink names to entice imbibers.  Pussyfoots, Cubanolas, Bosom Caressers, Maiden’s Prayers, Between the Sheets were just some of the “clever” names for cocktails of the day.  And since Prohibition did away with a regulated alcohol industry, that meant individuals were left to brew their own liquor for speakeasies and customers.  The results were often low-quality and foul tasking brews.  Thus many other – usually sweet and upwards of 5 to 8 ingredients – were added to mask the terrible flavor of the base spirits. 

Additionally, many inferior brews had the unfortunate & permanent side effect of killing many of those who drank them.  In 1927 alone approximately 12,000 people died from drinking substandard, homemade spirits.  Interestingly enough, it’s worth noting here that the common notions of blindness & death from drinking poorly distilled spirits is a myth.  These deleterious effects were a result of people mixing ethyl (grain) alcohol with methyl (wood) alcohol to extend the overall product.  It’s methyl that’ll blind or kill.  In fact, even low-grade distillation won’t kill.  Though poor distillation is likely to cause a hangover bad enough to make one pray for death if the levels of fusel alcohols are too high.  So there really is something to the notion of premium and top shelf liquors having less deleterious effects.  That is, if they’re highly distilled and not just a faddish label.  But I start to digress….  

All this fascinating info causes the Dilettante to consider two things:  First, in this day and age that is about as opposite from Prohibition as one can get, with vast quantities of some of the finest liquors ever produced, why are cocktail menus hawking such cloying concoctions calling themselves “martinis” such as the Godiva Chocolate, Key Lime Pie, and the Tango Mango?  Certainly there’s no need to mask inferior base products with all that sugar and nonsense.  Given what The Partner and I have experienced through this grand experiment thus far, namely that many classic cocktails tend towards the bitter and sour, perhaps the current cocktail age is a reaction to that of our parents’ and grandparents’.  Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of taste.  Back in the day, the taste was towards the sour & bitter.  Today it’s towards the sweet.  Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that there are so many different flavors that can be infused into vodka that mixologists feel compelled to create concoctions that make use of them.  It’s kind of like war –rarely is a weapon created that doesn’t get used.

The second consideration is the cleverness quotient.  A quick perusal of gives us a flurry of silly names that are familiar to most anyone: Sex on the Beach, Kamikaze, Blow Job, Incredible Hulk, Redheaded Slut, Liquid Marijuana.  While bartenders are still creating goofy names, what’s changed is that they’re not as clever as they are obvious in their references to sex & drunkenness.

I think something’s lost when we rely on flavoring a base and letting that carry the cocktail.  Cocktailing is not unlike making tea or coffee.  All three kinds of drinks include a certain amount of ritual and ceremony in their preparation and a level of sociability in their consumption.  There’s an artistry and process with cocktailing that is as much a part of the whole shebang as the drinking.  After all, what’s more interesting and exciting:  getting some grapefruit flavored vodka, splashing some 7-Up in it, and tossing a lemon twist on top?  Or shaking gin, Cointreau, & lemon juice until the tin is frosty, frosty, then popping a bottle of Champagne to top the mix with, taking a sip and discovering, "Hey, it’s Fresca!"
Before March, I wouldn’t think to pose such a question.  Since then, I’ve come to prefer the latter for the artistry, the conversation, the fellowship, the surprise, and of course, the gentle buzz.

Harrington, Paul, and Laura Moorhead. Cocktail: the Drinks Bible for the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 1998. Print.

Smiley, Ian. The Home Distilling Professionals - Smiley's Home Distilling. Web. 10 June 2011. . Web. 10 June 2011. .