Cocktails

Join The Gin & Tonic Revolution!

14 January 2019

A cocktail as basic and familiar as the Gin & Tonic might seem an inappropriate topic for a blog about drinking the unusual and the obscure. But there’s been something of a Gin & Tonic revolution in recent years. I first became aware of it only last summer, when I visited London, and I was reminded of it here, in southern Africa, where a Gin & Tonic is mandatory at sunset.

Distilleries now create all manner of delicious gins made from an array of different botanicals, far beyond simple juniper and spruce. You might encounter rose or lavender notes, green or pink peppercorn, or herbaceous flavors like rosemary or sage. I wrote some time ago about a New Mexico gin, for example, flavored with cholla cactus blossoms, cascade hops, white desert sage and osha root, all sourced from within a 30-mile radius. Creative distillers are experimenting with all sorts of wonderful aromatic combinations.

There has been a similar explosion in fancy tonic waters, ranging from relatively sweet and easy-drinking to bone-dry to floral to bitter. Tonics like Fentimans, Fever Tree, Q Tonic and Jeffrey’s, to name just a few, all have their partisans. And goodness, they can be rather expensive, costing almost as much, per liter, as cheap gin. Fortunately, Schweppes still makes a perfectly respectable mixer with gin.

Gin & Tonic menu from The Enterprise in London

Both in London and near Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, I’ve seen menus offering a variety of combinations of gins and tonics, garnished with a range of citrus peels and other aromatics.

It turns out that a simple Gin & Tonic can get rather complicated! That gave me an idea for a party.

What fun it would be, to set out a number of different gins, tonics and garnishes, and have a little contest to see which guest could come up with the best combination!

I recommend having three to five different gins — perhaps avoiding the most obvious brands — depending on the size of the group, and a similar number of tonics.

The more “artisanal” gins often list the botanicals used, making it relatively easy to assemble gins with different characters. A good liquor store should have plenty to choose from on the shelf. Binny’s in Chicago, for example, has dozens from which to choose. I also count seven tonic brands.

The author, photographing wildlife with the aid of a G&T

Also be sure to provide an array of garnishes. I suggest some fresh herbs, like rosemary, basil and sage, as well as the zests of orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime. Gin & Tonic may seem like a summer beverage, but now is citrus season. In addition to the obvious fruits, you might be able to get your hands on some Meyer lemons, blood oranges, pink lemons or even Buddha’s hands.

The garnish is important, because its aroma and oils mingle with the botanicals of the gin, changing the experience of the drink. It’s not just for show in this case.

Have fun experimenting, and if you hit on a combination that you love, I would love to hear about it!

Beyond The Basic Margarita: Craft Cocktails In Mexico

26 May 2017

Chilenito cocktails at Auberge Chileno Bay

Mexico has many problems, but the lack of a national cocktail is not one of them. Everyone, in the U.S., at least, associates one cocktail, and one cocktail alone, with Mexico: the Margarita. (Only a pedant would argue for the Paloma.)

I imagined that I would be offered a non-stop parade of Margaritas in Mexico. Some might be made with mezcal, tequila’s smoky/spicy sibling, and some might incorporate mango juice or some such. But I expected that basically the cocktail lists at most restaurants and hotels wouldn’t differ much from that at the average Cesar’s.

To be honest, this prospect did not inspire within me feelings of unmixed disappointment. I love a good Margarita. I make them myself with some regularity. A good Margarita, to be clear, uses fresh lime juice (not chemical-green sour mix), silver tequila (or reposado, if you prefer a mellower flavor), orange liqueur like Cointreau or Triple Sec, and a dash of simple syrup or agave nectar. I serve it up, in a martini glass or coupe, and garnish it with nothing, not even salt. I’m a simple kind of guy, and simply kind of lazy.

It was quite a surprise, then, when my welcome cocktail at my first resort in Los Cabos incorporated mezcal, poblano pepper liqueur, fresh pineapple, fresh ginger and B&B bitters. It was called a Chilenito, and it was a delight: sweet, smokey, a little vegetal and a little spicy.

Cocktails with sophistication and complexity, I was soon to discover, are more the rule than the exception in Cabo’s finer bars and dining establishments. Baja has as much craft cocktail cred as Brooklyn these days. Consider the evidence, in both Margarita and non-Margarita form:

A Spritz Bay by the pool at Auberge Chileno Bay, a mix of Prosecco with strawberry, lime and ginger. A very refreshing sort of Mexican/Italian sangria, if you will. I certainly did!

*****

A Humo de Comal, at Comal, the main restaurant of Auberge Chileno Bay. It combines mezcal, purple chicha (fermented corn) and lime to great effect. The rim of tortilla ash is something you smell more than taste, its smoky note heralding the smokiness of the mezcal, which mixed beautifully with the hibiscus-like sweetness of the chicha.

*****

Flora Farm may call this a Margarita, but it’s unlike any I’ve ever had. This Ginger & Beet Margarita, as you might guess, mixed tequila, fresh beet juice and fresh ginger. It had excellent balance and an invigorating freshness. Beet and ginger, it seems, add quite the frisson of health to two ounces of tequila!

*****

Tamarind strikes me as a grossly underutilized cocktail ingredient. This Mezcalita at Esperanza‘s La Palapa restaurant mixed it with mezcal and lime, and wow. It moved from sweet to smoky to sour to paprika spice, in that order. Complex and delicious.

*****

Speaking of tamarind, this Tamarind Margarita at Los Tres Gallos in Cabo San Lucas ranks among the greatest Margaritas I’ve ever tasted. The sour notes positively popped in the mouth, tempered with precision by the sweetness of the tequila, orange liqueur and agave syrup. Magnificent.

*****

A Prickly Pear Margarita by the pool at Esperanza, with silver tequila, mango, grilled prickly pear (nopal) and lime. It might have been perfectly fine, this cocktail, with just the sweetness from the fresh mango and tartness from the fresh lime. But the grilled prickly pear gave the drink subtle earthy and vegetal notes, taking it to another level entirely.

*****

Rancho Pescadero on the coast just south of Todos Santos has an immense garden, and the bartender took full advantage of its bounty in this cocktail. I watched, amazed, as he grabbed great handfuls of mint, fennel fronds, basil, chervil and cilantro and muddled them together, mixing the resulting juice with lime, simple syrup and Hendrick’s Gin, topping it all off with tonic. This Herb Tonic cocktail tasted quite refreshing, of course, with bright herbaceous and citrus notes leavening the booziness (it looks like healthy green juice, but this was a seriously strong cocktail).

As wonderful as it was to consume these drinks in beautiful Mexico, you don’t have to brave the incipient border wall to enjoy creative cocktails made with tequila and mezcal. There’s no reason you can make a delicious drink yourself at home.

A formula with which to experiment: 2 parts tequila or mezcal, 1 part liqueur, 1-2 parts fresh juice (sugar syrup and/or fresh herbs optional). For example, right now, I’m loving a concoction of mezcal, fresh lemon juice and Stirrings Ginger liqueur. Sweet, citrusy, a little smoky, and a little spicy from the ginger.

I would love to hear what you come up with — if you discover a delicious and unusual tequila- or mezcal-based cocktail, please don’t hesitate to share the recipe!

Summer Cocktails: 8 Easy And Unusual Recipes

24 June 2016

Cocktail at Vina VikThis time of year, I find it especially satisfying to relax with a well-composed and well-chilled cocktail. There are certainly plenty of summery wines out there, but when the temperatures start heading north of 90 degrees, nothing beats the feel of a frosty ice-cold glass in my hand.

When you have people over, it’s fun to make them a cocktail that’s a little unusual — it makes guests feel special. And, just as important, it makes them feel impressed by your mixology skills. Yet you don’t want to end up struggling with drinks that are time-consuming to make, forcing you to stay glued to the bar for the duration of the party, filling drink orders.

The eight recipes below all are relatively simple to make, and each drink has something of a twist. You likely won’t find any of these on the cocktail list of your local bar. I’ve tested each of these recipes myself, so I can give each of them the Odd Bacchus guarantee of quality.

 

LEMON GINGER MARGARITA

–2 parts Tequila (I used El Jimador Reposado, but any decent reposado or gold tequila should do the trick.)

–1 parts Ginger Liqueur (If you can’t find Koval‘s organic ginger liqueur, Stirrings makes a perfectly tasty substitute.)

–1 part Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice (There’s no substitute for this. Use bottled juice or sour mix at your peril.)

–A smidgeon of honey (or agave nectar or simple syrup)

I love, love, love this drink. It tastes citrusy and sweet, with some intriguing spice and floral notes. Juice a whole lemon, and use the amount of juice you get as the measure of one part. Combine the lemon juice, tequila and ginger liqueur in a shaker. Add the honey, and stir to dissolve.

You can also use a splash of simple syrup or agave nectar, but I like the additional depth from the honey. In fact, you can make this cocktail without any added sugar and it will taste fine, but honey, simple syrup or agave nectar really does wake it up.

Add ice to the shaker, shake vigorously, and strain into a large martini glass. Garnish, if you’re feeling fancy, with a slice of lemon or a strip of fresh ginger.

 

Campari & SodaMILANO

–2 parts gin (I used Death’s Door)

–1 part Campari

–1/2 part ginger liqueur (we used Koval)

–1/4 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice (do not use bottled)

Popular though Campari and orange juice may be, my favorite mixology buddy and I decided that it was time to come up with something a little more interesting to do with Campari. Inspired by the Negroni, we started with gin and Campari, and eventually settled on the additions of ginger liqueur and lemon. The result tasted very zippy, spicy and sweet, but with a grounding bitterness provided by the Campari. I loved the balance of this cocktail, as well as the pretty pink-orange color.

Combine all the ingredients above in a shaker with ice, shake vigorously, and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon or orange. Or not.

 

THE BEST EXOTIC MANGO MARTINI

–2 parts vodka (I like Sobieski — it’s an excellent value for the money — but use whatever brand you prefer)

–1 part mango juice (100% juice if possible)

–1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

–2 or 3 fresh basil leaves, depending on their size

Small splash of lychee liqueur (I used Soho Lychee Liqueur, which is available at Binny’s for $25)

Juice a lemon, and use that as the measure of one part (one lemon will make two cocktails). Add all the ingredients above to a shaker with several cubes of ice. Be sure not to add too much lychee liqueur — it can very easily overpower a cocktail. Just a tiny splash should do the trick. Shake vigorously, so that the basil leaves bruise and release their flavor. Strain into two martini glasses, and if you want to get really fancy, garnish with a basil leaf. It tastes sweet, tart and vaguely exotic, with whispers of the basil and lychee. It’s just the thing to pair with Asian food.

 

Fentimans Rose LemonadeGIN & ROSE LEMONADE

This cocktail couldn’t be simpler. Just mix 3 parts Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade soda with 1 part gin (I used Death’s Door). This combo smells amazing, with aromas of rose and juniper co-mingling beautifully. Aromatic, tart, not too sweet, complex — this is the whole package. And you can mix one up in about 20 seconds! Many Whole Foods stores carry the Fentiman’s soda line.

 

PINK PIGEON DAIQUIRI

–2 parts Pink Pigeon Rum (a vanilla- and orchid-infused rum from the island of Mauritius, available at Binny’s for $30 a bottle)

–1 part fresh-squeezed lime juice

–Very small splash of simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water, also available in bottles at liquor stores)

A classic daiquiri has summer written all over it. As always, fresh lime juice is important — do not substitute bottled, which tastes quite different. Combine all of the above ingredients in a shaker. If you don’t have simple syrup, just add a small pinch of sugar to the lime juice and rum before you add the ice, and stir to dissolve. Add some ice, shake, and strain into a lowball or martini glass.

Ordinarily you would use more simple syrup in a daiquiri, one of the simplest and best rum-based cocktails, but because Pink Pigeon already tastes sweet, only a touch of additional sugar is necessary to balance the tartness of the lime. The resulting drink is refreshing and citrusy, with a wonderful additional layer of flavor from the vanilla. It has an almost Dreamsicle-like quality.

 

White Lion ArrackLION’S TAIL

–2 parts White Lion VSOA (available at Old Town Wine and Spirits for $25 and at Binny’s for $28).

–1 part coconut water

–1 part freshly squeezed lemon juice

–Splash of simple syrup

VSOA stands for “Very Special Old Arrack,” not to be confused with anise-flavored arak from the Middle East. This Sri Lankan spirit, distilled from coconut flower nectar, tastes more like Cognac.

As before, use the amount of juice you get from your lemon as the measure of a part. Combine the ingredients in a shaker with ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into a martini glass, or — why not — into a coconut shell. This mix has a uniquely savory flavor which is not at all unpleasant. You can omit the simple syrup, but I found that it brightened the citrus notes considerably.

 

Nectarini Bellini MartiniNECTARINI BELLINI MARTINI

–Two white nectarines, cut into large chunks (you can cut up a bunch in advance to have at the ready)

–1 1/2 parts vodka

–1/2 part Triple Sec (I use Stirrings)

–Ice cubes

Making a Bellini, a classic Venetian cocktail of white peach purée and Prosecco, is a royal pain in the ass. Harry’s Bar, which made the cocktail famous, suggests hand-grating the peaches (a food processor aerates the fruit, giving you a foamy mess when you add the Prosecco), but who wants to go through all that? So forget the Prosecco.

And let’s change out the peaches as well. With peaches, you can either have little bits of furry skin floating in your drink, or you can peel them. Screw that. No peeling. Instead, secure a supply of ripe white nectarines, which have thin, non-furry skin. White nectarines are a must in this cocktail. In addition to tasting sweet and fruity, white nectarines have a wonderful perfumed quality you simply don’t get from the yellow variety. They also look gorgeously pink when you blend them up. This drink would surely taste OK with yellow nectarines, but I promise you, white nectarines make a huge difference.

Add the nectarines to the blender, followed by the vodka and Triple Sec. With my average-size fruits, I found that the cocktail tasted balanced with one ounce of booze per piece of fruit. If your nectarines are unusually small or large, adjust the proportions accordingly. The amount of ice cubes you add should approximately equal the amount of fruit.

Blend until very smooth, at least 30 seconds. Serve in champagne flutes (these are still Bellinis, after all). Two nectarines should get you about five or six full flutes of an unusually refreshing and fragrant cocktail.

 

FANCY CHERRY LEMON STUFF (suggestions for alternative names are welcome)

–One can of club soda

–One lemon

–One ounce tart cherry juice

–Orange slice

Most of us have at least one friend who chooses, for whatever reason, not to drink alcohol. I want my non-drinking friends to feel like they’re drinking something as fun as everybody else, and so I like to serve them perhaps the most unusual drink of all: The Non-Alcoholic Cocktail. This example is one of my favorites.

Juice the lemon. Pour the can of club soda over a little ice in a large tumbler. Add in the lemon juice, and a full shaker cap (about one ounce) of 100% tart cherry juice, available at Whole Foods. This tastes complex and sweet, but not too sweet. Again, the orange garnish adds another layer, its aroma mixing beautifully with the flavors of the drink.

The Spirit Of The Moment: Mezcal

2 June 2016

The author in a Guanajuato cantina, consuming mezcal in as manly a fashion as possible

Just a couple of years ago, finding more than a handful of mezcals on a bar menu in the United States was rare indeed. Even Mexicans sometimes seem a bit scared of this spirit. I’ll never forget how, when I ordered a shot at a traditional cantina in Guanajuato (the kind with a urinal next to the bar), the bartender first offered me mezcal flavored with mango or coconut! He and my guide both raised an eyebrow when I requested the real stuff, though perhaps that says more about my distinctly gringo appearance and less about mezcal.

Gringos, however, have recently begun to take quite a liking to mezcal. In fact, as of March, Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood now has an official mezcal bar, Mezcaleria Las Flores, which has some 78 mezcals on its menu (including related spirits like sotol and raicilla). Those who find that selection too restricting should head instead to Leña Brava, Rick Bayless’s newest restaurant, which stocks a remarkable 112 different mezcals!

The rather sudden rise of mezcal may leave some readers wondering what the heck it is and what all the fuss is about. Mezcal is a sort of parent to tequila. But unlike that ubiquitous spirit, which can be made only from blue agave, mezcal can be made from just about any agave cactus variety. In addition, the piña, the heart of the agave plant from which mezcal is fermented and distilled, is roasted underground for about three days, whereas the piñas used for tequila are baked, not roasted. If tequila is like bourbon, mezcal is like scotch.

I love it. The flavor typically starts with something fruity, fresh and/or herbaceous before it moves to some warm, smokey spice reminiscent of Hungarian paprika. Sometimes it feels rustic, sometimes it feels refined, but it’s always exciting to drink.

A Monteromero (foreground) and a Leña Fire at Leña Brava

Monteromero (foreground) and Leña Fire cocktails at Leña Brava

I consume mezcal most often neat, but like scotch, it can also work beautifully in certain cocktails. Leña Brava’s cocktail list contains seven mezcal-based drinks, for example, and on a visit last week, I had the chance to try two of them. I ordered a Monteromero, composed of Montelobos mezcal, crème de cassis, fresh lime juice, black pepper and a sprig of rosemary. What a delight — the complex, well-balanced cocktail combined sweet, smokey, herbaceous and citrusy flavors to great effect.

My friend Scott ordered a Leña Fire, a powerful combination of Leña Wahaka mezcal (the restaurant’s house mezcal), Ocho Sientos sotol (see my post about sotol here), Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse, Gran Torres orange liqueur and fresh lime. This veritable parade of high-proof spirits tasted bright, spicy, citrusy and very, very strong. A couple of sips was enough for me, but Scott had no trouble polishing it off. (Also see this post about a mezcal-based Negroni I had in Vienna a couple of years ago.)

Chef Bayless’s daughter, Lanie, acts as the restaurant’s mezcal sommelier, and she offered to pair glasses of mezcal with the five courses we had ordered. Fortunately, she anticipated our desire to leave the restaurant in a semi-coherent state and gave us half-size pours. Lanie knows her mezcals. Her suggestions were excellent, contrasting or emphasizing flavors in various dishes, just as well-considered wine pairings do.

Tasting the mezcals in rapid succession highlighted their distinct characters. The Vago mezcal had a lovely freshness to it, with a sweet cucumber note balancing the ample paprika spice. But the Wahaka Reposado Con Gusano (aged six months in oak barrels) tasted richer and rounder, with something of a mocha note under the spicy heat. “Con Gusano,” incidentally, means that the bottle has a worm in it. Adding an agave worm is “…a proven, age-old method for clarifying the radicals of the barrel while balancing the spirit’s overall flavor with notes of earth and salt,” according to Wahaka’s website.

Words like “spicy heat” and “worm” may make mezcal sound intimidating. But if you give it a try, I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I find it much more interesting than tequila, and its quality-to-price ratio is very much in the consumer’s favor. More and more bars carry it — if you see it on a spirits list, I highly recommend ordering a shot to pair with a cool appetizer or with a creamy or chocolatey dessert. And if you already like scotch, mezcal is an ideal summer alternative.

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