The cocktail is an art form that peaked in the middle of the 20th century and has been in rapid decline since. As a young lad, I was schooled in the fine art of cocktailing by my father and grandfathers, I learned many valuable lessons that I plan to pass on. I also want to resurrect some of the old classics that vastly surpass the sugary & fruity concoctions made today with their simplicity, elegance and bold flavors. Most of the time I will focus on one drink, and to provide, at least in my opinion, the definitive recipe, but hope to expand to other related topics as I see fit. Please mix yourself a cocktail, read, drink, and enjoy!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Mint Julep

With the run for the roses taking place this weekend, I felt it only appropriate to cover the traditional drink of the derby.  The mint julep is the perfect accompaniment to the most exciting two minutes in sports, but is also just as appropriate at any summer gathering.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I have never been to the derby, but the coverage on the TV is very in depth and I love bourbon!

As with most of the drinks I have featured the number of variations is mind blowing.  I think that everyone will agree a mint julep needs bourbon, mint and sugar, beyond that it comes to individual adaptations. The mint and sugar pose the most options. My particular preference is to use simple syrup and to strain the mint. I also like bitters in mine. The funniest debate about this drink is the ice. There are more theories on the way the ice should be presented in this drink than any other I have ever researched. So to muddy the waters even more, I am inserting an additional option as my choice! The best ice for this drink is the little pebble ice that butchers put into the seafood cases. It is the perfect surface area to melting speed ratio. Sometimes it takes a little finesse to get them to hand over a bag of the stuff, but a little white lie about your grandmothers knee replacement surgery usually helps.

The preparation to this drink is the key between an okay drink and an epic drink. The first step is to put your glasses in the freezer at least an hour prior to serving. Julep cups are the traditional vessel to serve this, but if your bar does not include numerous special purpose silver cups, Collins glasses work just fine. Next is the garnish, rinse sprigs of mint and when almost dry, dust them with powdered sugar.

Now comes the actual construction.  For each drink you intend to make, set an empty old-fashioned glass on the bar and put 1 ½ tablespoons of simple syrup in each. Then drop 12-16 small mint leaves into each glass, add three strong dashes of angostura bitters and muddle together. Pour an ounce or two of bourbon in each glass and stir. To keep with the derby theme, stick with a Kentucky bourbon, I like Maker’s Mark, but Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby so, at least for this week, that is what I am pouring! Next, pull your frosted glasses out of the freezer and fill halfway with ice.  Strain the mint and syrup mixture into the glass and stir well.  Top the glass off with ice, fill with bourbon, and stir again. Take a garnish spring and cut the stem just below the mint leave, insert into the drink and serve.

Serve these with a couple of cocktail napkins to compensate for the cold and be ready for fast refills. If you have enough glasses, start each round with a fresh glass.  If you make these wearing a seersucker suit or jockey uniform you get extra points!

Mint Julep
¾ oz simple syrup
3 dashes angostura bitters
12-16 mint leaves, plus one sprig
kentucky bourbon
powdered sugar
Place cups in freezer an hour before serving. Rinse and dry mint. Dust garnish with powdered sugar. Add syrup, bitters and mint to mixing glass, muddle.  Stir in 1-2 ounces of bourbon. Fill frozen cups or glasses with ice, pour in mint mixture through strainer, and stir. Top with ice, fill with bourbon, and insert trimmed garnish.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks

This being my first non-drink post, I felt it only fitting to pay tribute to one of my most prized resources on the cocktail. I have had this book in my possession for many years. I do not remember exactly where or when it was acquired, but I am pretty sure it belonged to one of my grandparents based on the date of publication. It is none other than David Embury’s classic dissertation on cocktails, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.

I have a dozen or so different books, another dozen websites bookmarked, and multiple apps on my phone that I use as a reference when trying new drinks or just looking for variations on old favorites, but Embury’s is by far my favorite and most used resource. It was not until recently that I realized that this book really is a treasure. One day when looking through it, I had the great idea to pick up some copies and give them as gifts to some of my friends. I figured that I could probably pick them up on Amazon for a couple of bucks each. Boy was I wrong! I quickly realized that my 1958 edition is by far the most valuable book I have ever owned. Depending on the edition and condition of the book, they sell for well over a thousand dollars. Needless to say my friends did not receive copies as gifts. If you are not lucky enough to find one in someone’s basement there is a 2008 edition available from Amazon.

Regardless of its monetary value, its true value is that it can take you back in time. Embury’s work of art was written at the pinnacle of cocktailing. When cocktail hour and cocktail parties meant something. His recipes are not written by the beverage companies looking to promote their wares or the bartenders trying to make a few extra bucks. Perhaps I am a purist, but I like to taste drinks as they were meant to be made, before looking at the changes that have been make in the ensuing decades and passing judgment.

As I have stated in the past, many of the current recipes attempt to mask the taste of the alcohol. The perfect recipe should balance the flavors so that they complement not only each other, but most importantly, the key ingredient. Even with something as simple as a gin and tonic, I want to be able to taste the gin, but not be overpowered by it, the taste of the tonic and lime need to be in perfect balance with the gin.

The Old Fashioned is a perfect example. I have held off from writing on this classic due to the sheer number of variations in how it is made, and what is included. Depending on the source and the year published you may find a drink made with bourbon, rye or Canadian whisky. It may call for soda, sprite, water or grenadine. While some of the variations are quite good, it is hard to know where to start with so many versions available. Starting with a very simple recipe makes the search for the perfect recipe much easier.

If you are fortunate enough to have a copy in your possession, look up your favorite drink and see what David has to say about it, give his recipe a try and see what you think. If nothing else, you have expanded your horizons and spent sometime with one of the classics of American literature.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Castro’s Cuba Libre

This is not the same drink you consumed by the pool over spring break, that was a cheap rum and coke with a wedge of lime. This is a drinking man’s version of an old classic, fit for even the most discerning communist politician. The exact origin, as well as the exact timing of this cocktail is disputed, but suffice it to say, it was created in Cuba in the early years of the 20th century.

My version goes way beyond white or spiced rum mixed haphazardly with cola and served in a plastic cup with the tiniest sliver of lime. As with any great drink, a little effort goes a long way. Start with the lime, your average grocery store lime just will not do the trick this time. Take the time to find somewhere with Mexican or Key limes (if you are forced to use Persian limes, look for small ones and only use half the lime in each drink). Slice the lime in half and squeeze the juice into an empty Collins glass. Drop one squeezed out lime half into the glass and muddle gently to release some of the oils. Fill the glass with ice and add 2 1/2 ounces of premium riserva rum, Pyrat XO is what currently resides in my bar. Lastly, fill the remainder of the glass with coca-cola, but not your average store bought can. Look in the Hispanic food section of your grocery store or seek out a specialty store that carries bottles imported from Mexico. The Mexican version is sweetened with sugar cane instead of corn syrup and has a slightly sweeter and much cleaner flavor.

Grow a beard, light a cigar and invite your friends over for a Cuban themed cocktail party. Serve these along with daiquiris, mojitos, and el presidentes and you will have corrected the wrongs of bartenders all over the world.

Cuba Libre
1 key lime
2 ½ oz riserva rum
imported coca-cola
Squeeze the lime juice into empty Collins glass, drop in one of the squeezed out lime halves, muddle gently.  Fill the glass with ice and add the rum.  Fill the remainder of the glass with coca-cola. 

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Americano

Arriving on time to a birthday dinner Saturday night, I was of course the first one there so instead of sitting alone at a large table, I found my way to the bar. The establishment is one of the better restaurants in the city and serves very good Tuscan cuisine. I took a quick look at their wine list and drink menu, sitting at the very top was one of the simplest yet unique drinks that is in my usual summer rotation, the Americano.

What I really love about this drink is how easy it is to make, how well the flavors blend together, and that I can drink them by the gallon without falling over! What can be simpler than equal parts Campari and Sweet Vermouth served over ice? I find no garnish necessary, but an orange slice makes a nice accompaniment. The bitter flavor of the Campari really stands out so feel free to adjust the ratio if you like a sweater drink. This can also be mixed in a Collins glass and topped with club soda for a very refreshing summer drink.

2 oz campari
2 oz sweet vermouth
Pour the both ingredients into an ice filled glass and garnish with a slice of orange.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The French 75

I will never forget the first time I had ordered a French 75. It was New Years Eve and we had gone out to a little French bistro with a group of friends. As everyone was perusing the menu and ordering cocktails I looked over the list of house cocktails and saw the French 75. Always looking to try new drinks and thinking the combination of gin and champagne was interesting I decided to give it a shot.

Sitting next to me was a great friend and drinking buddy of mine. The waitress set down his standard bourbon in front of him and then set a champagne flute in front of me. My friend looked over with a confused look and in one sentence questioned my sexuality, insulted my wife and degraded the French before asking what it was. Once I told him, he asked if he could try it.

I have always enjoyed variations on the champagne cocktail served in the restaurants all over Paris and eagerly order the specialty of the house on most occasions. My current favorite is from the Rôtisserie du Beaujolais, but let’s save that for another time. The French 75 is slightly stronger than many other champagne based apéritifs, but a good balance of flavors.

I like the smooth flavor of Plymouth gin in this drink. Start with a cocktail shaker filled with ice and add 1 ounce of gin, add one teaspoon of bakers sugar (also called superfine and ultrafine) and the juice of one lemon wedge. Shake vigorously and pour into a champagne flute. Fill the remainder of the flute with the champagne (or prosecco) of your choice.

This is a great drink anytime of the day and all year long, but is very well suited to warm weather, green grass and lazy afternoons!

French 75
1 oz gin
½ tsp sugar
juice of 1 lemon wedge
In a cocktail shaker, combine the gin, sugar and lemon juice and shake well with cracked ice. Strain the gin mixture into a champagne flute. Top off with champagne.