Monday, November 23, 2009

Food Français…

…holds a great appeal to me for a variety of reasons. Say what you will of the French nation and its inhabitants, but one should first consider the debt which modern Western cooking most assuredly owes them - in matters of technique and codification, if nothing else.

Then again, it may be the composite flavors of the culinary tradition; the herbes fines, various ‘mother’ sauces or even the generous application of cheeses, shallots, charcuterie, wine and mushrooms that often characterizes the cuisine. Flavors subtle and bold (sometimes both), with almost any and all of them delightful in their own rights. But, to make no bones about it, any culinary tradition that flings offal, Cognac or duck fat around so willfully (and skillfully) certainly deserves a major vote of confidence!

And indeed, more often than not the very best examples of the French cuisine on which I wax so fondly are the oft-simple preparations; the “peasant fare” or regionally-diverse preparations which crop up all about the country. The oft-bewildering entirety of haute cuisine which one so rarely encounters these days (Escoffier anyone?) is, broadly-speaking, derived part & parcel from the “elevation” of such dishes.

While each section of France certainly has its own signature dishes, I think some of my favorite examples hail from disparate ends of the country. Normandy in the far north and Gascony to the south – both of these encompass culinary traditions which, particularly in the colder months, bring about immense gustatory pleasures.

Right about now you’re probably asking yourself where I’m going with this particular ramble – is it an altogether too-lengthy introduction to a discussion on some tidbit of cookery (admittedly something unseen here for quite a time). Sort of…

It just so happens that one of my favorite holidays has just gone by; an affair filled with delights both culinary and social in nature. Better than Thanksgiving, my longstanding tradition of hosting a dinner party for friends which eschews the classic ‘turkey with trimmings’ has finally come - and as of this posting, gone. Previous incarnations of this event (ironically-entitled “Turkey Day”) have seen every kind of fare from Turkish to English/Irish pub ‘grub.

But now - finally - we’ve made it round to French, which, from my musings above you may note I am rather fond of. To best honor the culinary traditions featured this year, the menu is composed of tasting portions, so that each might be conveyed in a few delightful bites to the guests. Hell, we even had a Green Hour...

So, without further ado, I should like to present the menu from this gloriously Armagnac-soaked event for your perusal good reader. If you should find yourself curious as to the exact composition of anything you see, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to pass along a recipe or three…once the gout dies down…

Canapés de Brie aux Damsons
Butter crackers mounted with Brie cheese & Damson Plum preserves
Fromages et Crutons
Gruyère & Brie cheeses; served with Garlic-toasted slices of homemade Baguette
Trois Oeufs a la Diable
Devilled Eggs served three ways - black Truffle-fried Leeks; Gruyère & Bacon; Paprika & Garlic-spiced
Rillettes de Canard
A coarse pâté of Duck confit, Armagnac and Prunes; served with toasted slices of homemade Baguette

Tranches de Pain avec Beurres Composé
Homemade Baguettes; served with Rosemary, confit Garlic-Marjoram & pink Sea Salt butters
Salade Verte de Mesclun
Romaine and Chicory Endive tossed with caramelized Pear, Bôucheron cheese & a Walnut-Cider vinaigrette

- I -
Saucisses de Lapin aux Pommes
Pan-seared sausages of Ginger-spiced Rabbit; flambéed at-table with caramelized Apples
Gold Potatoes poached in Duck stock; stuffed with melted Raclette cheese, black Truffle Butter, Garlic and Thyme

- II -
Brochettes de Pruneaux au Romarin
Bacon-wrapped Prunes; lightly-grilled on skewers of fresh Rosemary
Confit de Magret au Pommes de Terre à la Sarladaise
Confit of Duck breast with herbs; served over Yukon Gold Potatoes sautéed with Duck fat & fresh Sage

“Vichyssoise” de Canard
A petite serving of creamy soup; Gold Potatoes and Leeks simmered in Duck stock; served chilled

- III -
Echalotes Caramélisées
Coarsely-chopped Shallots; caramelized with herbs and Côtes du Rhône then baked until crisp
Coq au Vin
A classic fricassee of free-range Chicken; simmered in Côtes du Rhône with Mushrooms & herbs until tender
Salade Tiède de Lègumes et Lapin Confit
Julienned Mushrooms, Celery, Apples and Almonds sautéed in dry Sherry & Dijon Mustard; tossed with pulled confit of Rabbit

- IV -
Sauce des Pommes au Pruneaux
A coarse purée of spiced Apples and Plums, spiked with Armagnac brandy; served warm
Galettes de Potiron
Crisp pancakes of spiced Winter squash; served warm with a Chervil & Vanilla-spiced Crème Fraiche
Rouelle de Veau au Cidre
Veal shanks & Mushrooms slowly braised in dry Cider; served over Pasta finished with black Truffle Butter

Sables de Caen
Buttery Shortbread cookies
Glace Crème au Miel de Lavande
Homemade ice cream; made with Lavender Honey from Provence
Café du Monde (au Lait)
Orleans-style dark-roasted Chicory Coffee; served hot with raw Sugar & warm sweet Cream alongside

Served with Sugar cubes and ice Water for the traditional ‘drip’ preparation:
Kübler - a Swiss-style Absinthe blanche (white); extremely well-balanced
Vieux Carré - an American Absinthe verte (green); light with Spearmint notes
Served straight, iced, with Soda or ‘en Momisette’ (Soda with Almond syrup):
Herbsaint - a spicier, herbal-flavored American pastis
Pernod Liqueur d’Anis - a sweeter-flavored French pastis
Manguin Pastis au Víolette - a rare, drier-flavored French pastis; flavored with Violets

Ponche de Gascogne
XO Armagnac brandy, homemade Fig, Date & Honey liqueur, black Tea, fresh Lemon and Bitters
Hugel "Gentil", Gewürztraminer, 2007
Paul Jaboulet Aîné “Parallèle 45”, Côtes du Rhône, 2006
Cidre et Bier
Woodchuck #802 Cider
J.W. Dundee Honey Brown Ale

In closing I should like to extend a tremendous thanks to those who assisted with much of the prep for this event - it would not have been possible without you my vatos locos! Equal thanks to those who attended this year's event - I hope you had as much fun eating as I did cooking!

Cheers & Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

PS - Yes, I am well-aware that Vichysoisse is not, in fact, a French invention. It's no less delightful for the fact. Deal with it friends...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Highlighting Flavors…

…in creations of the kitchen as well as the bar, is so often a question of paying close attention to ones’ ingredients. In the case of spirits, particularly well-crafted ones, this can alternately be quite straightforward or delicately-complicated; but it is always a joy, both in the compounding as well as the final result(s).

The goal of a well-made cocktail should, of course, always be a balance of its constituents; a poise achieved by manipulating the characteristics of the beverages’ ingredients according to their nature(s). Sometimes the desired outcome is as essential as highlighting flavors found within the ingredients. In other instances, a completely new flavor – one formed by the interaction of a drink’s various components – is aimed for.

The key to achieving either result is to know the ingredient(s) – particularly the really important stuff: how they taste and smell, with particular notice paid to the volume or intensity of such characteristics. In terms of such factors, what flavors stand out? What lurks subtly in the background? How assertive (or not) are they? Do these flavors, aromas, &c. draw to mind any other ingredients (whether experienced singly or in-tandem), alcoholic or not?

These remain questions one should always ask before beginning the delicate additions and subtractions of other ingredients which so often lead to quality recipes. On the topic of such questions, calculations and considerations of ingredients, some time ago a lovely bottle of Cachaça passed into my hands - an artisanal example of the spirit called Boca Loca.

A fairly-unique example of the distillate, Boca Loca's product seems to veer away from the flavor profile of most Cachaças. Within the category, even among the better examples, there seems a tendency towards bold and (sometimes agreeable) oily flavors of grassy sugarcane. In well-treated and carefully-distilled products, the complex, peppery ‘funkiness’ this can lend is often a pleasure, while in poorer (or “industrial”) distillates this character comes through as smoky and rough.

Not so with Boca Loca, however. This Cachaça is light in texture, with very little of the oily character mentioned above, while remaining redolent in both flavor and aroma. It does possess the grassiness one would expect, but this is offset by a number of more (and less) ethereal flavors. Heavier notes of Apricot or Peach are immediately obvious, while ghosts of white Pepper, Honey and berries come through in a more subtle, if pleasantly-so, manner.

So what to do with this rather intriguing spirit? To be sure, it makes a perfectly-acceptable Caipirinha, but the heaviness of the Lime and Sugar has a tendency to bury the base spirit. So why not try and play up (or off of) some of those interesting flavors found within by bringing in some complimentary ingredients? For the first of these, I (shamelessly) stole a page from the inestimable (and generally-speaking, equally shameless) Jeffrey Morgenthaler – whom Boca Loca apparently employs to compound drinks for them…

Earlier in the year, Jeff wrote of a small concoction – the Caneflower - he had come up with, using St. Germain liqueur and Aperol to play up certain elements in the Cachaça. It’s a really fantastic drink already; one where the floral sweetness of Elderflower plays delightfully against the delicate sugarcane grassiness of the base. But what about coaxing that grassy note, or the peppery-honey flavor that lingers on the Cachaça’s finish, to the foreground? For that we’ll turn to a different floral ingredient (and bitter modifier); re-jiggering Jeff’s formula to run in a different direction…

Honeysuckle syrup
1 Cup: Water
1 Cup: superfine Sugar
2½ Tblspns. dried Honeysuckle
2 Tblspns. Clover Honey
⅛ Tsp. fresh Lemon zest
If you’ve purchased dried Honeysuckle rather than collect it locally, pick out only the flowers, discarding any leaf or stem you may find. Combine ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer over low-medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer gently – do not boil – for two minutes before removing from heat. Cool to room temperature (~20 minutes), fine-strain by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c) and bottle.
Give it a try in the following cocktail; though make some extra, as it’s showing considerable promise with Rhum Agricole & certain Gins too (©):

Videira de Caña
1½ oz. Boca Loca Cachaça
¾ oz. RinQuinQuin
¾ oz. Honeysuckle syrup
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and shake well. Strain up into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with small twists of fresh Lemon & Tangerine.

Another idea stemmed from the aforementioned presence of various stonefruit(s) in the overall flavor profile of the spirit; one which proved well-worth highlighting through the use of the following ingredient:

Apricot-Tea syrup
1½ Cups: superfine Sugar
1 Cup: Water
1x Tazo Vanilla-Apricot teabag
1x slice: candied Ginger, julienned
1x dried Apricot, julienned
Combine prepared ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan & bring to a gentle simmer over low-medium heat, stirring to dissolve the Sugar. Simmer gently for one minute before removing from heat. Cool to room temperature (~20 minutes), fine-strain by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c) and bottle.
Try it out in the following twist (©) on the venerable Clover Club cocktail:

Capricious Club Cocktail
1½ oz. Boca Loca Cachaça
½ oz. dry Vermouth (Noilly Prat)
½ oz. Apricot-Tea syrup
½ oz. fresh Lemon juice
½ oz. fresh Egg white
Rinse ¼ oz. Apricot Brandy (a drier brand; Marie Brizard)
Combine ingredients and dry-shake to emulsify; add ice & shake well. Rinse a chilled coupe with the Apricot Brandy. Strain up into the prepared glass & garnish with a thin slice of dried Apricot.

I enjoyed the flavors which the stonefruit combination highlighted and wondered how the spirits’ characteristic would fair in a cleaner/simpler format. Quite well indeed if this variation on Tí Punch – a standby of (the similarly-grassy) Rhum Agricole - is any indication (©):

Loca Tí
1½ oz. Boca Loca Cachaça
½ oz Apricot-Tea syrup
1 d. Fee’s Peach bitters
1x dried Apricot, halved
1x small slice: Lemon peel
Combine prepared dry ingredients - Lemon peel should be cut from the side of the fruit and be no larger than a quarter - with syrup & bitters in a short glass (~6 oz) and muddle. Add Cachaça & fill with crushed ice. Swizzle briefly to chill and incorporate; top with crushed ice & savor.

Cheers & Enjoy!

In the interest of full disclosure, a sample of Boca Loca Cachaça was provided (some time ago) for my use.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bitters Make it Better, part III

As I’ve been wont to say on numerous occasions, delightful flavor combinations can often be found in the culinary cultures of one's neighbors - even if said neighbors tend to live several thousand miles away on a different continent. The flavors enjoyed in the farther reaches of the planet (or, depending on your locale, right down the street), which were so coveted by our ancestors, are often culinary delights to even the most jaded palette and in many instances can create truly unique experiences in the works of both the kitchen and bar...

Such is certainly the case with the spice blend(s) known as Ras el Hanout, which typically hail from the distant (to me at least) shores of Morocco in North Africa. Literally-translated as “head (sometimes “top”) of the shop”, the term is used to describe a combination of (the best) spices whose composition - in modern times as well in days long past - was the provenance of its compounder.

Much like Curry or Garam Masala, the actual ingredients of a given Ras el Hanout are many – some blends are purported to contain as many as eighty (!) ingredients – with no standard ratio of preparation and therefore can vary widely based on the recipe of the shop, business or individual who blended them. Typical additions include spices common to the region (and its cuisine) such as Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Cumin, Coriander, Mace, Nutmeg and various types of Peppercorns; though more unusual flavorings also crop up regularly. Certain examples of the blends’ are formulated according to function. “Standardized” (by modern commercial spice companies) recipes sold under the name (often including the above ingredients alongside Paprika & Turmeric) are commonly used on poultry or meats.

Yet as the blend varies, so do its potential uses. There exists varieties for pastries or other confections, others utilized in flavoring couscous, rice or bulgur and dozens of others which accommodate culinary applications as widely-varied as the ingredients that make up a Ras el Hanout. It is to one of these blends – a mysteriously-complex and spicy combination of fourteen ingredients – that we turn our attention to today.

However, it is in the application of this mixture (which as a dried spice is ordinarily used for flavoring coffee) that I think you will find the most interest. For you see, good reader, today we’re going to make a new (and positively delightful) variety of bitters with it…

Ras el Hanout Kahwa bitters
8x green Cardamom pods, crushed
6x Cloves, whole
2x Allspice berries, cracked
1x Nutmeg, cracked
1” piece: Canella Cinnamon, crushed
1½ Tsp. Sesame seeds, whole
½ Tsp. Aniseed, whole
½ Tsp. Fennel seeds, whole
½ Tsp white Peppercorns, cracked
10 oz. 151° Demerara Rum (El Dorado)
4 oz. Bonded Rye Whiskey (Rittenhouse)
4x Rosehips, whole
3x pieces: Galingale, thinly-sliced
1x piece: Ginger, thinly-sliced
2x blades: Mace
Prepare the ingredients as specified; Ginger & Galingale should be sliced to the approximate dimensions of a half-dollar. Combine the first nine ingredients in a non-reactive pan & toast over low heat until fragrant (~1 min). Place toasted ingredients in an airtight container; add the remaining six ingredients & shake very well. Infuse for eight days, shaking occasionally, before straining by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c). Reserve this infused liquid (setting ½ oz. aside) and ‘used’ spices in separate containers.
3½ oz. Water
½ oz. Infused liquid ()
6x Espresso beans, cracked
⅛ Tsp. Gum Arabic powder
⅛ Tsp. Quassia bark
Combine ingredients in a small non-reactive saucepan. Bring water to a light simmer – do not boil - over low-medium heat, stirring vigorously to dissolve the Gum. Continue to simmer for two minutes then remove from heat & pour over the reserved ‘used’ spices while hot. Infuse this mixture for three days before fine-straining by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c). Combine this infusion with the remaining reserved liquid, shake well and rest for a final three days. Fine-strain by preferred method, as necessary, until liquid remains clear & bottle.

The resulting bitters match up very well (obviously) with any beverage, hot or cold which contains coffee. As such, the addition of a few dashes to any of the classic hot coffee drinks (the Café Diablere, Nero, or Brûlot, for example) adds a mysterious bittersweet spiciness which is not to be missed.

In other applications, these bitters mix quite well with a number of ‘brown’ or aged spirits; most notably spicier Ryes and mellow Cognacs. A Manhattan with equal dashes of these and Angostura Orange is a delightfully-unique twist, as is a Rum Old-Fashioned treated in the same way. Likewise, they show serious promise when mixed with equally-complex modifiers such as Carpano Antica Formula, Benedictine and certain (sweeter) potable bitters like Amaro Nonino. Hell, after a little experimentation I found two dashes of them even improves upon a pair of cream drinks – specifically a Brandy Alexander and White Russian.

Even if you don’t want to compound this formula as a bitters, I might recommend adding the Gum Arabic to the other dry spices (nixing the liquids, Quassia & Esspresso beans from the blend) and running the whole mix through a spice or coffee grinder until finely-powdered. Once sieved, the resulting spice blend makes for a truly incredible cup of coffee – merely add a ¼ teaspoon to every ½ cup of your favorite ground beans prior to brewing it…

Cheers & Enjoy!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Flirting with Flora: Bubbles, pt. I

If past articles here are any indication to you, good reader, I've got something of a fond place in my palette for exotic or unusual taste profiles. Not the least of these are floral or botanically-derived flavors; examples of which I am constantly seeking to incorporate into (or play off of already-existing elements in) my drinks. For inspiration (in all things, not just this particular flirtation), I often turn towards ideas hailing from culinary cultures outside of my own or from days long-forgotten. I reason that I couldn't possibly be the first half-clever (and that's a generous evaluation) git to realize that A plus B with a dash of C tastes great, and then acts upon this notion to mix it up...

Take my favorite floral ingredient – Hibiscus - for example. As I've discussed here in past articles, this lovely tropical flower (which apparently grows quite well in New Jersey, go figure) is often compounded into a tisane. The same beverage is made just about wherever Hibiscus grows - in the Middle East its called Karkade, North & West Africans refer to it as Bissap or Tsobo, while natives of Hawaii & the Caribbean islands know it as Red Sorrel. Sometimes the resulting infusions are spiced to add an additional character, sometimes not.

But note what our clever friends in Mexico have done with the traditional agua fresca: carbonate the already-refreshing brew into a soda. To be frank, all they've really done is integrate a floral ingredient into the ranks of the modern (sugar & soda-saturated) palette; to re-introduce to younger generations ingredients & flavors which their parents, grandparents (and earlier relations still) were wont to compound into something delicious with fair regularity.

In much the same vein, observe a centuries-old European floral ingredient which has only recently become widely-celebrated (again) for its considerable virtues: the Elderflower. Similarly, an uncommon (and uncommonly tasty) blossom hailing from the same regions: Meadowsweet - while still (occasionally) a botanical constituent in Gin, it was once also a component in tisane recipes of all stripes. And what of Honeysuckle - the delicately-sweet perfume of spring & summertime evenings? Finally, the bane of suburban gardeners and amateur winemakers alike: Dandelions, whose slight bitterness is often offset by coupling with yet another all-too common meadow weed: Burdock.

In some way, all of these edible flowers (and many others too) were well-regarded in the kitchens of days gone by. A primary reason for this is that, in certain proportions, all five of them play off of or highlight the other ingredients with which they are mixed in a multitude of fascinating ways. Such blending, to say nothing for these ingredients' already marvelous flavors on their own, allows for the creation of wholly-unique flavor profiles.
Such is certainly the case with the following three homemade sodas (& the delicious libations made with them), so dust off your soda siphons and meet me in the middle...

Strawberry Fields soda
2¾ Cups: Water
1¾ Cups: fresh Strawberries, hulled
½ Cup: superfine white Sugar
¼ Cup: dried Meadowsweet flowers
¼ Cup: dried Honeysuckle flowers
2 oz. Elderflower cordial
Scant ⅛ Tsp. Pectic Enzyme (optional)
Clean, hull & halve the Strawberries. Place in an airtight container & toss with Pectic Enzyme, if using. Freeze for several hours.
Bring Water, Meadowsweet & Sugar to a light simmer over low-medium heat in a non-reactive saucepan. Simmer very gently (the volatile oils in these flowers are a bit delicate) for approximately two minutes until sugar is dissolved; add frozen Strawberries. Simmer very gently (again,
do not boil) for five more minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, cool to room temperature & add Elderflower cordial. Fine-strain several times by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c.) to remove any particulate; pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.
Pour into a soda siphon (should fill a standard iSi exactly). Carbonate, shake & chill according to your model's instructions
, then give the following libation a try (©):

Morango Campo
1½ oz. Boca Loca Cachaça
½ oz. Yellow Chartreuse
½ oz. fresh Lemon juice
5-6 oz. Strawberry Fields soda
Build ingredients in an ice-filled Collins glass. Stir gently; garnish with a slice of fresh Strawberry & an edible flower.

If you happen to be out camping (as in the picture at left; by Ken Cleary) a pair of brandied Cherries will probably do just fine for garnish.

When creating new recipes, or even fiddling with established ones, there is a concept which chefs & sommeliers often espouse. Having seen it spawn more than a few delightful combinations, I also tend to agree with said notion, wherein "things that grow together, are often best served together". Examining this thought a bit more broadly, flavors (or combinations thereof) which are popular in a given locale often blend beautifully with other ones enjoyed in the same general area.

Again, take the delightful agua fresca known as Jamaica; a refreshingly-tart, floral beverage well-suited to the climate of Mexico. Even better for our purposes (and in line with the aforementioned theory), it blends wonderfully with Tequila. Particularly a smooth, grassy - almost sweet - example of the category like Tequila Ocho's 2008 Plata. Better still, certain of this artisanal spirits' component spice notes - a pleasant blend of Cinnamon & Citrus-y flavors - are themselves a common addition to a glass of Jamaica; like so:

Jamaica soda
3½ Cups: Water
¾ Cup: dried Hibiscus flowers
¼ Cup: raw Sugar
2 oz. light Agave nectar
1½ oz. Cinnamon syrup
¾ Tsp. Citric Acid
¾ Tsp. fresh Lime zest
Bring the Water & dried Hibiscus to a boil in a non-reactive saucepan before stirring in the Sugar & Citric Acid. Reduce heat & simmer for 5-6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, stir in Syrups & Zest, cover & cool to room temperature (~3 hours). Fine-strain by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c), pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible.
Pour into a soda siphon (should fill a standard iSi exactly). Carbonate, shake & chill according to your model's instructions
, then give the following libation a try (©):

Paloma de Flor
1¾ oz. Tequila Ocho Plata (2008)
¼ oz. fresh Lime juice
5-6 oz. Jamaica soda
Build ingredients in an ice-filled Collins glass. Stir gently; garnish with a twist of fresh Lime & an edible flower.

As an optional touch, two sprays via an atomizer of good-quality Mescal into the glass prior to building lends a further agave complexity.

For our final homemade soda we turn to the aforementioned bane of many an amateur winemaker (I’ve never seen an old home vintning guide that didn’t include one such recipe): Dandelions.

The moderate vegetal bitterness (think Mesclun) that the green portions (which won't be used below) of this ubiquitous weed impart is offset considerably by its roots and flowers, which provide a vaguely-honeyed sweetness. Furthermore, the addition of another common aromatic wildflower, the dull purple Burdock, rounds out the bitterness with a complex (almost like a fruity take on star Anise) herbal flavor. This combination has been a popular flavor in British sodas for many years, and quite rightfully so. When blended with a bit of rich sugar and offset by a touch of citric acidity, the resulting ‘fizz is delightful - particularly with a measure of flavorful Gin tossed in. But don’t just take my word for it:

Dandified soda
3¼ Cups: Water
1 packed Cup: dried Dandelion (½ root, ½ flowers), cleaned
½ Cup: dried Burdock (½ root, ½ flowers), cleaned
½ Cup: light brown Sugar
2 Tblspns. white Sugar
2 Tblspns. golden Raisins
1½ Tblspns. fresh Ginger, minced
2 Tsp. Cream of Tartar
¾ oz. fresh Lemon juice, finely-strained
Peel of 1 Lemon, pith removed & julienned
Bring the flowers, roots, Raisins, Ginger & Lemon peel to a boil over medium-high heat in a non-reactive saucepan. Slowly stir in the Sugars & continue to simmer for about fifteen minutes. Remove from heat & cool slightly (10 minutes or so). Strain once by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c.), pressing gently on solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Stir in the Lemon juice and Tartar, then set aside & cool to room temperature. Strain again if necessary.
Pour into a soda siphon (should fill a standard iSi exactly). Carbonate, shake & chill according to your model's instructions,
then give the following libation a try (©):

Posh Dandy Cooler
1½ oz. Hendrick’s Gin
¼ oz. blended Scotch (Yamazaki 12yr)
¼ oz. Honey syrup
1d Fee’s Cherry bitters
1d Peychaud's bitters
5-6 oz. Dandified soda
Build ingredients in an ice-filled Collins glass. Roll once to mix; garnish with a Lemon twist & brandied Cherry.

Something Completely Different
As I indicated in my last post, the past month or so has been full of experiments and the fine-tuning of a great many new recipes, ideas, etc. One group of these, inspired by conversations at ‘Tales and carried out primarily at my portable bar, has involved the use of a soda siphon. Good thing you dusted it off, no?

The conversations in question pertained to carbonation, both in long drinks as well as some speculation about a new gadget which is appearing in certain circles – the Perlage/PERLINI system. Seems some clever folks cobbled together a device which (in addition to preserving Champagne) is capable of efficiently-carbonating spirits; causing, as Robert Hess put it, “[Tequila] to drink just like Champagne.”

An interesting if very scary proposition, I think. As for the long drinks, certain aspects of the (hazy – this was ‘Tales after all) discussions in question centered around the problem of incorporating a carbonated mixer into the remaining non-carbonated ingredients, say a Tom Collins, without losing an undue amount of the ‘bubbly…

Stirring gently, rolling, allowing the roiling carbonation to blend everything (as in a French 75). Even the old Fizz-maker’s trick of adding a spoonful of sugar at the last moment; all of these work reasonably well. But I couldn’t help but feel that sometimes a given drink would benefit from having its ingredient combined and well-incorporated, then carbonated together; especially when a homemade soda (in particular those made with heavier syrups) gets involved. The presence of an additional siphon (lent by a friend; in which I could keep Seltzer while carrying out my trials) at the bar only helped to facilitate these experiments.

In short – it works brilliantly. Every single sip positively pops with the fat, roiling bubbles a good siphon creates. The components blend seamlessly with no separation of flavor and the introduction of carbonation into ordinarily-still ingredients such as juices and spirits makes for a delightfully-smooth, fascinating textural component that I daresay even improves upon old standbys.

After compounding five beverages - Singapore Sling, (Morgenthaler's) Dark & Stormy and the three already listed above in this fashion, the results were positively fantastic. The Singapore Sling in particular – a drink which I make with more than passing regularity – was one of the best I think I’ve ever had.

As for how this is done – in short, very simply – merely total up the volume of your recipe, determine how many ounces your siphon will hold and do the math. The only point on which one should be cautious is in fine-straining your mixture, particularly if citrus or other juices are included, as you wouldn’t want to clog your siphon up with particulate. For instance, the drinks I’ve already discussed thus far are prepared in my siphon (which comfortably holds about 32 oz.) like so:

Morango Campo (via Siphon)
6 oz. Boca Loca Cachaça
2 oz. Yellow Chartreuse
2 oz. fresh Lemon juice, fine-strained
22 oz. Strawberry Fields soda
Combine ingredients in a pitcher and stir well to incorporate (or just combine in the siphon & shake well). Pour into siphon, carbonate according to manufacturer’s instructions & chill. Serve & garnish as above.

Paloma de Flor (via Siphon)
7 oz. Tequila Ocho Plata (2008)
1 oz. fresh Lime juice, fine-strained
23 oz. Jamaica soda
Combine ingredients in a pitcher and stir well to incorporate (or just combine in the siphon & shake well). Pour into siphon, carbonate according to manufacturer’s instructions & chill. Serve & garnish as above.

Posh Dandy Cooler (via Siphon)
6 oz. Hendrick’s Gin
1 oz. blended Scotch (Yamazaki 12yr)
1 oz. Honey syrup
4d Fee’s Cherry bitters
4d Peychaud's bitters
23 oz. Dandified soda
Combine ingredients in a pitcher and stir well to incorporate (or just combine in the siphon & shake it well). Pour into siphon, carbonate according to manufacturer’s instructions & chill. Serve & garnish as above.

Cheers & Enjoy!

In the spirit of full disclosure, samples of both Boca Loca Cachaça and Tequila Ocho Plata (2008 bottling) were generously provided for my use. And bloody fine acquisitions both of them were...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Long Journeys & an Unexpected Absence...

...but not without cause, or rather a variety of them. By my feeble calculations, in the not-insignificant period of time since my last posting, I've traveled some 3500 miles! Between work, all this 'legging about the country and the requisite prep/cleanup prior to or following such travels, my (deplorable) absence from writing here might be understandable, however unfortunate it may be.

Yet, by way of apology, rather than wax poetic on every tiny detail accross a handful of posts, I reasoned a collection of highlights might serve best to catch you, my good reader, up on my spirits-doused activities of th
e past month or so.

'Tales 2009
First up in early July, my trip down to (all-too sunny) NOLA for this year's Tales of the Cocktail - an incredible and educational exerience to be sure. While at this spirited event of the year I attended seminars on all manner of fascinating cocktailian topics, sampled spirits from all over the world, wiled away the evenings in the friendly company of my fellow bloggers over at the Mixoloseum house and, in the end, nearly gave myself a hernia hauling home the mountain of 'schwag that was foisted upon the attendees at every turn.

I also took part in a cocktail competition of fairly epic proportions - a joint effort between the various chapter cities of the
USBG and the wonderful folks at Leblon Cachaça. The theme of said competition was to craft a riff on the venerable Caipirinha, and the collection of immensely-talented individuals (two for each USBG chapter city) chosen to compete certainly brought some of their best tricks to bear, much to the delight of the ~400 person guest list!

Such was assuredly the case with my teammate (& fellow New Jerseyian), Tad Carducci of
Tippling Bros. & USBGNY fame, who took the People's Choice Award for the event. Likewise with Tobin Ellis and Andrew Pollard of the Las Vegas chapter, who took the Judge's Choice Award. For a glimpse at the incredible show that Leblon, the USBG & all eighteen of us put on (as well as the various recipes concocted for the evening) check out the video stream below (the idiot in red with Pelé socks on his arms would be yours truly):


Pennsic 38
Of Portable Bars...
For those of you who have been tuning in here for a while (and who haven't been terribly put off by my recent absence), you may recall that this is the time of year when the Pennsic War takes place in the wilds of upstate Pennsylvania. Although this year's trip out was considerably shorter than previous years' (in span, the journey was just as mind-numbingly long), I could hardly miss it, as this was our local group's 30th Anniversary - which corresponded exactly with the date of our annual party. But more on that in a moment...

Along for the ride, as always, was my very own portable bar (which some of you may recall I promised pictures of last year). Finally having gotten around to actually getting photos taken of the thing, I reasoned that this is the perfect opportunity to present my hand-built creation in all it's devious detail, including its spirited contents. This handy tool & workspace is a direct solution to the many frustrations I often encountered at my first bartending gig; a catering outfit.

The overall design is fairly straightforward - three moulded countertops of treated mahogany, poplar & oak which bolt together discretely to form a back-bar with plenty of work & storage space. Straight and rear-facing angled legs of spun oak screw onto plates on the bottom. A number of "speed rail" boxes which fit into several positions on the bar surfaces (dependant on my needs at a given event) via fitted wooden pegs. Space for additional spirits runs along these boxes (which are watertight, so that ice may be placed inside of them in especially hot conditions) with a large drawer & watertight hinged box providing additional storage space for tools or miscellaneous items.

Other features include folding hooks on the bottom of each segment from which small baskets can be hung, a wall-mounted bottle-opener on one of the legs, an angled marble cutting board (complete with a removable trough for catching juice & seeds) and a pair of inset stainless steel foodservice bins for holding my bar tools. Bottles of Simple and Demerara syrups are mounted on a speed pouring rack (which dispenses 1 oz. pours), a butane-powered burner provides heat for warm drinks or making syrups when necessary. A combination of magnetic lights and lanterns provide me with light in the evenings and a sterile space is alotted for drying & storing my glassware. And yes, good reader, I bring glassware out camping...

A pair of double-walled coolers accomadates my mixers (Vermouths, Champagne, soda, juices, additional fruit &c.) and Ice, respectively. As ice can be a devilish thing to maintain without refrigeration in hot weather, I do the best I can by procuring several 10lb. blocks of ice, then pack cubed ice around these. For stirred drinks (or others requiring careful control of dilution) I utilize a brass hammer and ice pick to secure suitable chunks from the blocks, while shaken drinks get a combination of cubed & block ice (with careful attention paid to shaking times & temperatures). And as for what I actually stocked for all this mixing; my selections are listed from left to right more or less as they appear on the bar itself (pictures courtesy of the incomparable Ken Cleary):

Plymouth, Bols Oude Genever, Bols Genever, Boodles, Bluecoat, Tanqueray, Right, Beefeater, Beefeater 24, Martin Miller's, Distillery 209, Citadelle Reserve, Magellan.

Gomme, Pineapple Gomme, Ginger, Falernum, Cinnamon, Orgeat,
Horchata de Melon, Raspberry, Passionfruit, Elderflower, Berry-Apple Shrub, Hibiscus Grenadine.

Salignac Cognac, Lautrec VS Cognac, Cardinal Mendoza Solera Gran Reserva, Fundador Solera Reserva, BarSol Quebranta Pisco, Laird's Bonded Apple Brandy, Metaxa 5-star.

Sazerac 3yr & Old Overholt Rye(s), Hudson, Bulleit, Old Graddad & Evan Williams 7yr Bourbon(s), Yamazaki 12yr, Pig's Nose Scotch.

Rum & Cachaça
Brugal white, ONO white, Cavalier Antigua white, Ron Zacapa 23, Mount Gay XO, Appleton's V/X, Rhum Barbancourt 3-star, El Dorado 5yr Demerara, Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc, Sailor Jerry spiced, Lemon Hart 151° Demerara; Boca Loca, Leblon & Inacca 5yr Cachaças.

Bitters & Tinctures
Angostura, Peychaud's, Regan's Orange, Angostura Orange, Fee's Peach & WBA, Spiced Lemon #1, Honey-Tangerine, Boker's, Improved Bitters mix; Orange Flower Water, Rosewater, Jasmine, Tahitian & Bourbon Vanilla(s), Candied Ginger; Atomizers of Del Maguey SV Mescal &
Bitters Mist.

Tequila & Mescal
Inocente Plata, Tequila Ocho Plata 2008 & 2009, El Jimador Reposado, Del Maguey SV Mescal.

Amaro, Pastis & Absinthe
Pimm's No. 1 Cup, Torani Amer (Picon), Zucca Rabarbaro Amaro, Amaro Nonino, Fernet Branca, Campari, Aperol; Pastis au Violette, Herbsaint, Pernod; Vieux Carre, Obsello, Kübler Absinthes.

Speed Spirits
Benedictine, Grand Marnier, Luxardo Maraschino, Amaro Abano & Amaretto, Yellow Chartreuse, Carpano Punt e Mes, Morello Cherry-infused Carpano Antica Formula, house dry Vermouth, house sweet Vermouth.

Wines & Liqueurs
Dry Sack & Lustau PX Sherry(s), Cockburn's Ruby Port; Cointreau, Tuaca, Marie Brizard Apry, Tia Maria, Hiram Walker Crème de Cassis & Crème de Cacao, Chateau Trimbach Pear, Domaine de Canton Ginger.

Oval, Van Gogh Espresso, Zubrowska.


...And (Quite) Successful Parties
As I mentioned previously, our local group reached its thirtieth year of existence this year, fortuitously on the precise date of our annual Pennsic party. And despite the intense chill of the evening (heralded by a poor, if ultimately inaccurate, weather forecast) after our best estimates, somewhere in the vicinity of one thousand people passed through our camp over the course of the evening!!

I daresay our reputation for hospitality and entertainment won us this more than steady influx of guests, and in that regard we surely did not disappoint. As we were perhaps the only camp group at this years' event to procure the proper licensing (admittedly something never before needed at Pennsic) for fire-spinners (i.e. Poi), we were visited by large a number of this art's master practioners (as pictured at left & below).

Similarly, and much like last year's festivities, we provided kegs and cases of beer & hard cider (Guinness, Smithwicks & Woodchuck); all were tapped before the night's end. As my own contribution to the event, I prepared and served up a large volume (15 Gallons in-total) of batched libations for our guests' pleasure. One of these was a slight variation on a warm beverage (at ~55°F it was quite chilly after all) compunded in moderate batches all evening long to help our guests (and me) fend off the evening's chill. These libations (including an unplanned, yet thoroughly delicious addition prepared a la minute) went something like this:

Swamp Sunshine

200 oz. Peach-infused Vodka, house-made 60 oz. Saffron-infused Bianco Vermouth, house-made
20 oz. Canton Ginger Liqueur
200 oz. Peach Nectar
60 oz. Ginger syrup
20 oz. fresh Lemon juice
1½ oz. Fee’s Peach bitters
½ oz. Sunshine bitters (modified to include Quassia bark)

4x fresh Peaches, julienned
Combine ingredients in a 5-Gal cooler & stir very well to incorporate. Prior to serving, add a 7lb. block of ice and stir well to chill. Serve over ice & top with 1 oz. of Seltzer (fresh from an iSi siphon).

East's Interdiction
300 oz. Sandeman's Ruby Port & Lustau PX Sherry (house-aged blend, 3:1)
4 oz. Lemon Hart 151° Demerara Rum
80 oz. → 64 oz. distilled Water, mulled & reduced in advance with:
* 15x Allspice berries, bruised
* 15x blades Mace
* 10x Canela Cinnamon sticks, bruised
* 10x Green Cardamom pods, bruised
36 oz. superfine white Sugar
24 oz. candied Ginger
30x fresh Oranges
10x fresh Lemons
80x whole Cloves
Bitters mist, for brûlée
Nutmeg, for garnish
Quarter the Oranges & Lemons and stick each segment with 2 whole Cloves. Reserve over ice. Prepare mulled Water by bringing specified spices & 80 oz. of distilled Water to a boil. Simmer until reduced to 64 oz. then fine-strain solids from water & reserve.

To compound each batch
(prepared here in 8 batches to ensure warmth):
Combine the following in a large pan:
15x Orange segments
5x Lemon segments
8 oz. mulled Water
Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat & add:
4½ oz. superfine Sugar
3 oz. candied Ginger
Carefully brûlée the pan's contents with the Bitters Mist (for approximately ten to fifteen seconds), then add 37½ oz. Port-Sherry blend and continue to warm over medium-high heat until steaming. Add ½ oz. 151° Demerara Rum and carefully ignite. Flame for approximately thirty to forty seconds before extinguishing with the pan's lid. Remove from heat and pour the entire mixture in a heatproof 5-Gal cooler. Serve in 3-4 oz. portions with a grate of fresh Nutmeg over the top.

The next beverage had great sentimental value for many of the older members of our group, though I'll admit, I varied the ingredients towards the fresher side. Nevertheless (or perhaps because of my alterations) it vanished alarmingly quickly:

Lynchburg Lemonade
20 oz. Bulleit Bourbon
20 oz. Old Granddad Bourbon
20 oz. Old Overholt Rye
30 oz. Cointreau
40 oz. fresh Lemon juice
10 oz. fresh Orange juice
20 oz. Simple syrup
10 oz. candied Citron syrup
64 oz. Seltzer
Combine all ingredients except Seltzer in a 2½-Gal Cooler & stir well to incorporate. Prior to serving, add a 3lb. block of ice & gently stir in Seltzer (2x full iSi siphons).

As the 'Lynchburg (& its accompanying libations) was relatively short-lived, as the crowd waned (briefly) I made my way to the portable bar at the rear of camp, to quickly prepare a new batch of beverages. I struck upon the bottle of Pineapple Gomme syrup (originally intended for Pisco Punch) & immediately recalled a drink of a different variety:

Developed by the inestimable Eryn Reece of NYC's Louis 649, the recipe (which I tripled; substituting in a bottle of ordinary Beefeater and 2 oz. of green Tea) for Desmond Punch was apparently crafted to honor Beefeater's master distiller (and creator of Beefeater 24) Demond Payne. Quite a tribute, I must say!

Despite the presence of Gin (sadly, a touchy subject for many), this wonderful punch lasted for even less time than its' predecessors and recieved many compliments from our guests. Check out the step-by-step recipe in the video stream at below (with Ms. Reece herself; courtesy of Embury Cocktails) - I promise you'll be delighted with the results...


And so, after returning (dead tired) from Pennsic, the last of my travels is complete. Consequently, my long absence from authoring long-winded articles here is now over and regularly-scheduled (!?) posts will begin apearing soon.

Throughout my time away I have been far from idle, learning of and experimenting with all manner of new (or at least new to me) ingredients, tricks, ideas & recipes. Many of these & more will be appearing here over the next few weeks - as a teaser, next up is a bit of fun to have with your pet soda siphon - so be sure to tune back in soon...


An enormous thanks to everyone from both 'Tales & Pennsic (and anyone in between) who has made these last few weeks an absolute pleasure; especially to those of you who were kind enough to share your excellent photography (Ken, Anna, Dani, Susan - you guys rock)!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Warm Drink...

...sort of. Perhaps in response to the recent country-wide (by all reports) absence of summery weather, I recently found myself craving the warm flavor of a delightful (and very old) drink which I often compound in the wintertime; a concoction called a Bishop...

The first written reference to the Bishop - which is really just a variation on the concept of a flavored or spiced (i.e. mulled) wine - of which I am aware is from 1827 in the first edition of Richard 'Cicero' Cook's Oxford Night Caps. However, in its' description of the beverage, this text claims the drink was known to appear in the records of the oldest established Colleges (which would eventually become Oxford); referenced as early as 1447!

Now, the recipe as put to paper in 1827 is a truly fantastic drink for the depths of winter - involving the roasting of a Clove-studded Lemon, the mulling of Cinnamon, Mace, Nutmeg and Allspice in water and a fiery reduction of heated Port or Claret wine. Said reciept also includes an addendum, stating that, "Oranges, though not used in Bishop at Oxford, are [...] sometimes introduced into that beverage." Let it be known gentle reader, that though I am decidedly not an Oxford man, I still use their recipe (with Oranges mind you) for preparing this wintertime cup (and frankly, so should you).

But we are not, despite the unseasonably-chill & moist weather, in the grips of winter, so what use is bringing up a hot cocktail now? The answer (or part of it) lies, as it often does, in the works of Jerry Thomas, who lists two Bishops in his venerable books. The first is a simplified "English Bishop", prepared and served hot as the 'wags at Oxford would have scoffed at (using Oranges), whereas the second is compounded differently, using that glorious invention - ice. As you will note at left, in his recipe for the cold "Protestant" Bishop, Thomas also calls for a small quantity of flavorful Santa Cruz or Jamaican rum to impart some of the spice character which would otherwise be absent from the drink.

Now, while the "Protestant" Bishop makes for a great drink as written, it lacks much of the toasty, caramelized spice flavors which lend the English variety its considerable appeal; so what's a cocktailian to do? Blend the most favorable qualities & techniques of all the recipes, with a few borrowed modern twists, like so:

Bishop Brûlée
3 oz. Ruby Port
Bitters Mist (see below)
1½ wheels: fresh Orange
1 wheel: fresh Lemon
1 Tsp. superfine white Sugar
3x whole Cloves
1 slice: candied Ginger
Combine the fruit & dry ingredients in a mixing glass. Using a Misto sprayer (or another pump-atomizer), spray a little of the Bitters mist [a 1:1 mixture of Angostura bitters & Lemon Hart 151° Demerara Rum] over the ingredients. Carefully brûlée the ingredients by spraying short bursts of the mist into the glass, rotating it slowly to ensure an even distribution of the flame. Once the sugar has caramelized, add the Port with ice & shake well. Fine-strain into a chilled Sour glass & garnish with a grate of fresh Nutmeg.

The resulting libation gifts the Port with a pleasant, not-too sweet melange of the roasted citrus, toasty spice & carmelized sugar flavors of the original varieties; all in-conjunction with the chilled, easily (sort of) compounded nature of the "Protestant" version. It also has the advantage of an impressive spot of presentation. In fine-tuning the recipe over the past (all-too wet & chilly) weekend at 'Clover, many of our guests were well-pleased at the warming characteristics of this otherwise cold libation (as well as the show), and I hope you will be too...just be careful with the fire please...

Cheers & Enjoy!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Foggy Origins...

The world of classic cocktails and venerable mixed drinks is often a decidedly-murky one. As past articles here and elsewhere have shown, the specifics or provenance of a given recipe may not always be clear - a characteristic of most any historical researches; much less one so liberally soaked in 'the sauce...

For example, a drink published at one point in history might hail from a recipe that is, in fact, far older. Many old bar guides (and lots of new ones too) - including those written by individuals who are widely-considered masters - often dredge up vast collections of recipes pillaged verbatim from still-older sources. To further complicate matters, in many cases a formula presented in one source will profit (or suffer) from modifications foisted upon it by a clever fellow (who then further compounds the record by printing their personalized version elsewhere). This is often even further complicated by changes to (or the sheer unavailibility of) a beverage's component ingredients: take, for instance, Erik Ellestead's longstanding search for Hercules.

Finally, the art of mixing drinks has often been an intensely-secretive one; particularly those recipes hailing from the Tiki era of mixology, wherein rival establishments (Trader Vic & Don Beach, for example) jealously guarded their formulations. Sometimes the very bartenders mixing the drinks didn't even know precisely what the components were!

Under such circumstances, envision a further complication: a patron at one establishment might have enjoyed one such drink so much that, upon visiting a different bar, they would ask for the concoction by name. The bartender at this second spot, wanting to accomodate their customer, but lacking almost any idea as to the composition of the drink being asked after, would come up with something. This drink, perhaps a great one, but likely having nothing to do with its called-for predecessor, would then be disseminated as an X, Y, or Z cocktail, and the original would become even murkier. Hence, for example, the dozens of "Mai-Tai" recipes served accross the globe (and the "necessity" for a recent online Mai-Tai showdown)!

Frankly, in the end I suppose it all comes down to mixing up something balanced that tastes good, and historical conventions be damned (or at least given a cordial nod from behind the mixing glass). Key words there - "balanced" and "good". Such is certainly the case with the following drink:

The Fog Cutter
is widely-attributed (on record) to Trader Vic; he certainly published it as such several times from 1946 on. However, according to Ted Haigh in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails the beverage was known to an original Don the Beachcomber's bartender by the name of Tony Ramos, who claims the drink was originated prior to 'Vic & Don's rivalry at an establishment called Edna Earle's Fogcutters in Hollywood, CA. Take a look at this (somewhat) foggy progression:

Fog Cutter (Trader Vic's Book of Food & Drink, 1946)
"This is delicious, but a triple-threat. You can get pretty stinking on these, no fooling."
2 oz. [light] Puerto Rican Rum (Ron Merito, Boca Chica, or Brugal)
1 oz. Brandy
½ oz. Gin
1 oz. [fresh] Orange juice
2 oz. [fresh] Lemon juice
½ oz. Orgeat syrup
Sherry wine float
Shake with cracked ice [everything but the Sherry], pour into a tall glass [14 oz. Chimney] with ice, and add Sherry wine float [½ oz. of sweet Sherry]. Serve with straws.

Fog Cutter (Don the Beachcomber, date unknown)
½ oz. Orgeat syrup
2 oz. Gold Puerto Rican Rum (Bacardi is specified)
1 oz. Pisco brandy
½ oz. Plymouth Gin
½ oz. Gozalez Sucis Sherry
1 oz. [fresh] Orange juice
2 oz. [fresh] Lemon juice
Shake with ice [everything but the Sherry], pour into a Chimney glass and add more ice to fill. Float Sherry.

Fog Cutter (Tony Ramos via Ted Haigh)
1 oz. white Rum
½ oz. Gin
½ oz. Brandy
½ oz. Sweet & Sour mix
2 dashes Simple syrup
[Cherry Brandy float]
Combine [all but the Cherry Brandy] with ice and blend. Pour into a goblet. Add a float [~¾ oz.] of cherry-flavored Brandy [Cherry Heering] on-top, and serve.

In the first two cases, the recipes are fairly similar - slightly different in their porportion of light to dark spirits (or young & aged if you prefer), but each is a well-balanced take on the same flavor profile. And yet, the third, somehow - almost impossibly considering it's barebones list of ingredients (containing sour mix of all things!) - tastes strikingly similar to the first two. Not that the three are identical - each has its own subtle differences, but in a fit of pure conjecture, I'm willing to venture that the three could certainly be linked by a succession of bartenders working to prepare a drink (or their own variation on it) either on the fly or in imitation. In the end, all are well-made, tasty and balanced libations and that is really the point. So I won't go any further speculating about which drink came first or what variation constitutes the "real" recipe...

I'll just contribute a fourth variation, quite literally inspired as I sat at a recent symposium on Gin (sponsored by Beefeater), and makes delicious use of two ingredients with which I have only recently become acquainted. The smooth, mellow botanicals flavors of Beefeater 24 Gin and the sinfully-sweet & fruity Lustau Capataz Andres Cream Sherry both bring interesting elements to the final flavor profile. Together in-proportion to the other ingredients, I think this one achieves a lovely melange of the flavors of all three of its predecessors (even Mr. Ramos'); alongside some new & interesting floral and botanical notes, but don't take my word for it (©):

London Fog
2 oz. Beefeater 24 Gin
¾ oz. El Dorado 5yr Demerara Rum
¾ oz. Salignac Cognac
¾ oz. Lustau Capataz Andres Sherry float (sub a quality Cream Sherry)
2 oz. fresh Lemon juice
1 oz. fresh Orange juice
½ oz. Orgeat syrup
Combine ingredients, except Sherry, in a mixing glass with cracked ice. Shake well & strain into a 14 oz. Chimney glass mostly-filled with cracked ice. Float Sherry & serve with a straw.

Cheers, Enjoy & never take this cocktail stuff too seriously...

*In the interest of full disclosure, samples of Beefeater 24 were provided for my use.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Q&A: Obsello Absenta

Earlier this week I was fortunate to be able to ‘sit down’ for an interview via telephone with B. Alex, the distiller of Obsello, a delightful Spanish-style Absinthe verte (or Absenta). Mr. Alex took some time out of his busy day at the Esmeralda distillery (he was measuring Wormwood – an unenviable task to be sure - before taking the phone) to discuss twenty-hour workdays, artisanal distillation, ingredients & Absinthe…

‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡

Q: How did you get involved with distillation and/or the spirits industry?
A: My family was involved for many years in the California winemaking industry, so I was exposed to alcohol and its production from an early age, without any of the negative stigmas often attributed to it. My interest in distillation came to a head around sixteen when, after a few AltaVista searches, I decided to try my hand at producing rum in my closet – I reasoned how hard could it be? Cane sugar and molasses from the supermarket, a packet of brewer’s yeast from the internet; in hindsight, not such a great plan…

Q: And Absinthe? How did you get involved with that spirit specifically?
A: My hobbyist level of interest was put on hold when I went off to college, but around age nineteen I had been doing a great deal of reading – lots of classical writing. The presence and influence of Absinthe in and on so many examples of art and literature provided a definite appeal to me at the time, so I continued to research it.

Eventually I was able to rather clandestinely order a bottle from the UK – a brand called Hill’s. It arrived and I set about trying some – did the whole drip preparation in my kitchen with a fork and everything – and it was just awful. Having some experience with wine, I reasoned there was just no way the French could have ever preferred something like this over say, a good Bordeaux – they’d have to be crazy! My knowledge of the distillation process had increased by then and I set about attempting to recreate a drinkable product – what I wanted Absinthe to be. A great deal of research, several hundred basic distillation attempts (with all manner of formulations) later and I had something like what I had been searching for…

Q: Why Spain, and thereby Spanish Absenta? Particularly the Catalan region where the Esmeralda distillery is located?
A: By this point I had gotten good reactions to the type of Absinthe I was making (sadly, still clandestinely) and was considering starting up a ‘mom & pop’ kind of business with my partner Joanne. We had considered several European locations, Tarragona was one choice, but we settled on the Pyrenees town of Lleida in Catalonia. We were very impressed by the ingredients here – particularly the quality of the local water and the high level of agriculture that takes place in the area. We had just gotten set up here when the US ban on Absinthe was lifted, so it was a something of a lucky, if crazy, time to be producing and exporting it.

Q: On that note, Obsello utilizes eight herbs in its production – are these sourced locally or from a variety of places? Do you find a difference in this choice of ingredients?
A: All of our ingredients are sourced from local (or regionally-nearby) sources – the only real exceptions are green Anise, which we get from Alicante; and Hyssop flowers, which comes from just across the border in southern France.

As for ingredients - absolutely. The climate and terrior of every region makes for huge differences in the end product - take Anise for example. The green Anise you get in the US, especially California, comes almost exclusively from Turkey and tends to be much less sweet. In Spain it comes from Alicante and has a much more intense, Clove-like sweetness. When we got out here [Spain] I tried out a batch of my original formula using ingredients we had picked up locally and it was terrible. It took almost seven months to rework the formula, but now we’re able to give Obsello a “just-in-the nick-of-time” approach – as they come in we can make Absinthe with entirely fresh ingredients, each expressing their own particular character.

Q: As I understand it, the neutral grape spirit you use as a base for Obsello comes from the Penedès region of Spain - an area that is very similar in climate and terroir to certain parts of the French Cognac region. Any relationship there?
A: It’s true – the Penedès region is pretty famous - the Spanish equivalent to Napa in California and is known for producing both Cava and a funky, near-Champagne style of sparkling wine made from Chardonnay grapes. The grape distillate we use as a base comes from a blend of three grapes - Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo; which are generally used in making Cava. Really, the whole area has a longstanding tradition of winemaking, but yes, the dry, thin style of white wine you tend to get from areas with that sort of climate is perfect for making a spirit like Absinthe or Cognac.

In almost all high-quality Absinthe, the base is from distillates of white wine - Chardonnay grapes are used alot in other brands. The main idea being that you don’t want a base with too much character or dominant flavors of its own – you get those from the herbs you’re macerating in the base.

Q: Speaking of herbs, Obsello has a definite herbal-citrus flavor in the profile and a less-dominant Anise flavor than most Absinthe. It’s also a good bit sweeter than other varieties I’ve tried. Is this a characteristic of the Absenta style, or a more personal formulation?
A: There are a number of factors there. First, my recipe for Obsello is very personal – it’s the type of Absinthe I wanted to make. A key characteristic of say, most French Absinthe is the emphasis on Anise - and though it is present in Obsello I did not want it to be overly dominant. With Obsello, in the Spanish style, we use Melissa [Lemon Balm] and Coriander to achieve the citrus element that you’re tasting. I wanted a product that had personality, with plenty of secondary flavors rather than an “Anise-bomb”, so many aspects of this style - and my interpretation on it - is ideal for me.

As for the sweetness, that’s mostly the green Anise we use – again, from Alicante. It is much sweeter, with a less heavy “black licorice” flavor than the varieties you’ll find coming from elsewhere – so this is definitely a characteristic of the Spanish style. However, there are numerous plant sugars present in our botanicals and the process of distillation breaks down many of them into the final product. To give you some idea, in a roughly four foot-high alembic still, we’ve got almost three and-a-half feet filled up with Wormwood, roots, herbs and flowers, so some of the sweetness also derives from the latter three.

Finally, almost any good Absinthe should have some amount of sweetness, or at least an absence of extreme bitterness. Even though Wormwood contains Absenthium – one of the most bitter substances known to man - in a carefully-controlled distillation, that compound should be left behind in the still. I think that excessive bitterness in Absinthe is not a desirable quality and shows signs of mistakes being made in the distillation of the product, but on the same turn, deliberate sweeteners should never be added to an Absinthe, so it all comes down to a carefully-controlled process.

Q: I’ve worked with Lemon Balm a bit in tinctures and bitters before and now that you mention it, am wondering – is this where the paler, almost yellow, color of Obsello comes from?
A: Exactly; much of the coloration there derives from the chlorophyll in Melissa, as opposed to that in Pontica [Petite Absinthe or Roman Wormwood] used to color proper French Absinthe, or worse, the artificial colorants used in inferior styles or brands.

Q: Without delving too deeply into the specifics or recipe, what ingredients or steps in producing Obsello make it so different? For instance, I’ve found that at a certain point in the taste-profile a curious Vanilla character emerges (and is faintly-present in the aroma of the spirit). What can you tell me about that?
A: Well, first, Grand Wormwood naturally contains trace amounts of Vanillin. Having said that, it bears mentioning that nearly everyone producing Absinthe these days uses a 19th century distillation reference –
The Manufacture & Distillation Alcoholic Liquors by P. Duplais – which contains a large number of very good recipes for Absinthe. However, there is an error that arises when following this guide – it doesn’t always take into account certain delicate variables in the overall process.

Now, this resource hasn’t always been widely-available, but largely due to all the trial and error work I had done in the past (before I had come into contact with the work myself), I started to observe how small changes to a variety of factors can greatly affect the end result. Again, it all comes down to a very careful process, maintaining control is the biggest factor in determining the end product – especially one as sensitive as an herbal spirit like Absinthe.

Q: It seems that Obsello is bottled at a fairly low proof as compared to other Absinthes I’ve seen or tried – why is this?
A: It has a lot to do with international beverage and duty-free (on our warehouse) laws – we export Obsello all over so this proof keeps us good everywhere. Also, different people enjoy Absinthe in many different ways – some of them like it straight or even in shots. I don’t really agree with the latter method but if that’s how they want it... A higher-proof Absinthe can be difficult to enjoy in this way, that is, without the addition of water, so we try to produce a product everyone can enjoy.

Q: On this note, I see that you recommend Obsello in a drip at a 3:1 Water:Absinthe ratio, but in my own tastings have found a 2:1 ratio much more enjoyable. I’ve also tried it with varying amounts of sugar – everything from none to about 1½ teaspoons (which was too much). How do you take your Absinthe?
A: This is very much up to the individual and what kinds of drinks they tend to like. I like Obsello at a 2:1 ratio and have found that about ¾ of a teaspoon of sugar is a good quantity for a drip preparation.

Q: Much as I enjoy Absinthe in a drip or frappe preparation, I like cocktails. Some of my colleagues have found it good for certain drinks, like Hemmingway’s
Death in the Afternoon. I liked it alot in a Corpse Reviver #2 myself. Are there any particular libations which you’ve found Obsello works particularly well in – especially those which might highlight its’ herbal-citrus component?
A: We’re currently putting together a book of recipes from quality mixologists and bartenders. Here are a few of the drinks we’ll be including:

Night Porter
By: Jeff Hollinger @ Absinthe Brasserie, SF
1 oz. Bianco Vermouth (Dolin Blanc)
¾ oz. Obsello Absenta
¾ oz. Ruby Port
½ oz. Mescal (a light style)
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice & stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass & garnish with a twist of fresh Lemon.

Sea Fizz
By: Joseph Schwartz @ Little Branch, NYC
1½ oz. Obsello Absenta
¾ oz. fresh Lemon juice
1½-¾ oz. Simple syrup
1 Barspoon: superfine Sugar
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass & dry-shake (without ice) well. Add ice & shake, strain into a highball glass. Top with chilled Soda & garnish with a wedge of fresh Lemon.

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My sincerest thanks to B. Alex, Joanne & Olivia Loy for allowing me to speak with them (particularly at such length) about their Absinthe. Mr. Alex demonstrated a true passion for his craft & product throughout the conversation – from his insistence on getting every minute detail of production down, demand for quality ingredients, right down to his job – he works with every small-batch distillation himself rather than outsource the formula to another operation! The commitment to making a quality product really shows in the end result & all I can say is,


This article has been cross-posted at the Mixoloseum - those responsible for this have undoubtedly been sacked. For even more on Absinthe, check out fellow CSOWG member Paul Clarke's in-depth discussion with Gwydion Stone & Brian Robinson later this week...