Cocktails

Postcard From Fiji: The Hibiscus Bleach

8 August 2015

Bartender Tila at Nanuku in FijiI asked the Nanuku resort’s bartender, Tila (affectionately known as “Tila Tequila”) to repeat the name of the cocktail she was making for me. “Hibiscus Bleach,” she said again.

Still unwilling to believe I was about to drink a cocktail with the word “bleach” in the name, I ventured, “Hibiscus Beach?”

“Bleach,” she responded, with impeccable diction and infinite patience (she’s Fijian, after all). Hibiscus Bleach it was, and there was no getting around it. I watched intently as she prepared the drink, partially in hopes that it would make for a good blog post and mostly to reassure myself that none of the ingredients could be used as cleaning products.

“Start with four or five hibiscus flowers,” she explained, “and remove the insides.” She plucked out the pistils and stamens, stuffed the remaining petals in a large beaker and poured hot water over them. As the flowers steeped, she squeezed a lime and measured out some honey. It didn’t take long for the water to turn a deep pink.

Hibiscus BleachHere’s where things got interesting. When Tila removed the flowers, they had lost nearly all their color — the petals had turned white with only veins of pink remaining. I relaxed as I finally understood the name of the cocktail. She added the lime juice to the fresh hibiscus tea, and in rather spectacular fashion, it changed from purplish pink to almost fuchsia. I usually resort to flames if I want to dazzle guests with a cocktail, but this presentation felt just as impressive as a flambée.

Mixed with honey, the alcohol-free concoction tasted delightful. It was tart and sweet, with a note of strawberry to it. It’s a delightful mocktail to serve guests who don’t drink. Mixed with two shots of dark Fijian rum, it became a powerful Hurricane-like cocktail with an undeniable sense of place.

I sipped my Hibiscus Bleach in the resort’s open-air bar beneath a cascade of mother-of-pearl shells hanging from the ceiling, accompanied by a guitar-and-ukulele men’s quartet singing in harmony, and in that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything more delicious.

HIBISCUS BLEACH

–Five fresh hibiscus flowers (or dried hibiscus tea)

–Hot water

–Juice of one lime (do not use bottled juice)

–1 tablespoon honey

–High-proof dark rum (Fijian Bounty Overproof Rum is 116 proof)

The author with his new favorite bartender, Tila

The author with his new favorite bartender, Tila

Five fresh flowers yield enough for about two cocktails. If you’re not someplace where hibiscus bushes grow like weeds, substitute hibiscus tea instead. Make it strong, using one tea bag per cocktail. Remove the stamens and pistils of the flowers, and pour three cups of hot water over the petals (or tea bags).

Meanwhile, juice one lime. After you’ve let the hibiscus steep for a minute or two, remove the flowers or tea bags and add the lime juice and honey. Mix well. Pour over two lowball glasses filled with ice (use larger cubes for a stronger cocktail), and top with a shot (or two, if you’re on vacation) of high-proof dark rum. Give the drink a brief stir, and garnish if you like with a lime wedge and a hibiscus petal.

It’s Fiji in a glass.

Top Spirits & Cocktails Of 2014

26 December 2014
A fresh and herbaceous Savant Sour at Chicago's CH Distillery

A fresh and herbaceous Savant Sour at Chicago’s CH Distillery

At this time of the year, it seems to be the thing to make “Top ____ of 2014″ lists. I love a good list, and making one myself has given me the chance to reflect a bit on the past year. I did not go thirsty.

Posts about spirits and cocktails are some of my most popular, and with good reason. The world of spirits has never been more exciting in this country, with fine craft distilleries popping up all over the place. Cocktails, too, have experienced a major renaissance, as bartenders resurrect beautiful classic drinks and mix new concoctions with a creative energy not seen in half a century.

What luck, to experience this spirits and cocktail revolution first hand! I had quite a few memorable drinks in 2014, and here are my very favorites, in alphabetical order:

 

Clover ClubCLOVER CLUB

Set in a brick arch beneath some railway tracks north of Vienna’s Altstadt stands one of the finest cocktail bars in the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Halbestadt. Proprietors Erich and Konny focus on classic cocktails, including many almost-forgotten gems popular in the 30s, 40s and 50s. But they also stock the largest selection of mezcal in Vienna, and they’re not afraid to use it to create some truly unusual and cutting-edge cocktails.

Erich made me a stupendous Mezcal Negroni, as well as a delightful Clover Club (above). This little-known cocktail pre-dates Prohibition, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and it’s high time this delicious drink of raspberry, lemon, sugar, egg white and gin had a revival. Erich and Konny use only fresh fruit in their cocktails, ensuring that there was nothing cloying or artificial-tasting about this Clover Club. It was tart and fruity, with a bit of juniper from the gin. What a beautifully balanced cocktail.

 

Corozo 75 at Carmen in Cartagena

COROZO 75

One of my favorite Colombian fruits is the corozo, a red berry which on its own tastes somewhere between a blackberry and a cranberry. I tried it in a couple of cocktails during my trip there, and the most successful by far was the Corozo 75 at the estimable Carmen Restaurant in the Hotel Anandá in Cartagena. What a revelation.

This cocktail, composed of corozo-infused gin, corozo syrup and Chandon Rosé sparkling wine, tasted remarkably round and rich. The berry fruit felt deep, and yet the cocktail maintained an excellent balance, with lightness of texture from the Chandon and a floral note on top.

 

Lulo MartiniLULO MARTINI

I sat down at the stylish El Coro bar in Cartagena’s Sofitel Santa Clara and asked the energetic bartender, Jhon, if he
could make me something with local ingredients. He had just the thing: a Lulo Martini.

He mixed fresh lulo juice, which tastes rather like lemon and orange juice mixed together, with aguardiente and a touch of simple syrup. He shook up the concoction, used a straw to taste for balance (the conscientious bartenders checked just about every cocktail for balance), and presented the cocktail to me in a chilled martini glass.

It did indeed exhibit excellent balance, with a smooth, juicy texture. The anise overtones from the aguardiente were kept in check by the creamy citrus of the lulo and sugar.

 

Pink Pigeon RumPINK PIGEON RUM

Pink Pigeon Rum comes from the molasses of sugarcane grown in the volcanic soil of the Medine Estate on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The distillery uses its rum as a “canvas” for infusions, adding vanilla from Madagascar and Réunion, citrus and the “floral petals of vanilla orchids.”

Though it tasted a bit unbalanced neat, Pink Pigeon soared like an eagle when mixed into cocktails. I made a classic Daiquiri and a traditional Mojito, and they were absolutely splendid. Both drinks include fresh lime, which, when combined with the powerful vanilla notes of the rum, gave the cocktails an enticing Dreamsicle-like quality. The Pink Pigeon Daiquiri and Mojito were simply two of the best versions of those cocktails I’ve ever had.

 

Hacienda de Chihuahua Anejo SotolHACIENDA DE CHIHUAHUA AÑEJO SOTOL

Before traveling to Guadalajara, Mexico, I had never even heard of sotol, a sister spirit to mezcal and tequila. It comes primarily from the desert spoon agave (Dasylirion wheeleri), though according to the menu of La Tequila bar in Guadalajara, other varieties can be included as well. Each desert spoon agave takes about 15 years to mature, and each plant yields only one bottle of sotol. So it’s no surprise that shelves in liquor stores aren’t overflowing with the stuff (blue agave plants can yield up to 10 bottles of tequila or even more).

I tried a Hacienda de Chihuahua Añejo sotol (like tequila, añejo sotol must be aged at least one year in oak), and it was a delight. A light green-gold color, it looked like it could have been a Sauvignon Blanc. The lovely vanilla aroma along with notes of smoked paprika indicated otherwise, however! When I took a sip, I thought it was going to hit me with a bang, but it proved to be quite smooth. The sotol started lush and rich, with some sweet flavors that slowly developed into gentle smoke and red-pepper spice flavors.  Very elegant, and surprisingly easy to drink neat.

 

They Call it Duck a lOrangeTHEY CALL IT DUCK A L’ORANGE

Served at The Drawing Room in Chicago, this cocktail tastes, oddly enough, almost exactly like it sounds. It combines Cointreau Noir, Peychaud’s Bitters, and “scotch washed in duck fat,” according to head bartender Azrhiel Frost. I have absolutely no idea how she and fellow head bartender Will Patton came up with the idea for this recipe, but it worked astonishingly well. It had a pleasantly dusky orange aroma, and complex sweet, bitter and citrusy flavors. I could taste the duck, but it was a well-integrated savory undertone, rather than an aggressively meaty flavor.

If you want to try this cocktail, head to The Drawing Room before the end of the year. This excellent basement bar recently lost its lease. The Urban Outfitters store above it wants to run an elevator through the beautiful space and use the rest of it for storage. What a scandal. I think this calls for an Urban Outfitters boycott.

Flying High With Pink Pigeon

27 September 2014

Pink Pigeon RumRum ranks among my very favorite spirits. The best rums, such as Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa Sistema Solera 23 and Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña 12-Year Centenario, sip as elegantly as fine cognac or whiskey. And what a wonderful base for cocktails! Rum’s sweetness balances beautifully with the acidity of citrus or the sharp spice of ginger.

Most rums I encounter come from countries in Central America and the Caribbean, which have plenty of local molasses and sugarcane juice ready to be distilled. How could I resist, then, a rum from exotic Mauritius? This tropical speck lies well to the east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and until recently, I associated the island mostly with extravagantly sybaritic resorts. It never occurred to me that it might have a talented distiller or two, until I received a free sample bottle of Pink Pigeon Rum from Wine Chateau.

Pink Pigeon Rum comes from the molasses of sugarcane grown in the “fertile volcanic soil” of the Medine Estate on Mauritius, and according to Pink Pigeon’s website, the Medine Distillery is the oldest on the island, dating back to 1926. Because the surgarcane is grown on the estate, and the molasses is distilled on the estate, and the resulting rum is bottled on the estate, Pink Pigeon Rum certainly qualifies as a “single-estate rum,” as the website attests.

Even so, those looking for a taste of Mauritian terroir might have to look elsewhere. Pink Pigeon uses its rum as a “canvas” for infusions, adding vanilla from Madagascar and Réunion, citrus and the “floral petals of vanilla orchids.” The rum may be single-estate, but the infusions come from two other islands entirely. I would be curious just to taste the rum on its own, without the infusions.

The infusions, however, certainly make Pink Pigeon Rum unique. I tried it first at room temperature, at which it has enticing aromas of vanilla cake, candied orange and tropical fruits. It felt syrupy on the palate, but the alcohol (80 proof) cut through the vanilla- and molasses-tinged sweetness. I sampled the rum after it spent a day in the freezer as well, and when tasted ice-cold, both the syrupy texture and the sharpness of the alcohol felt surprisingly heightened.

Though it tasted a bit unbalanced neat, the Pink Pigeon soared like an eagle when mixed into cocktails. I made a classic Daiquiri and a traditional Mojito, and they were absolutely splendid. Both drinks include fresh lime, which, when combined with the powerful vanilla notes of the rum, gave the cocktails a delightful Dreamsicle-like quality. The Pink Pigeon Daiquiri and Mojito were simply two of the best versions of those cocktails I’ve ever had.

PINK PIGEON DAIQUIRI

–2 parts Pink Pigeon Rum

–1 part fresh-squeezed lime juice

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

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 tastes refreshing and citrusy, with a wonderful additional layer of flavor from the vanilla.

Pink Pigeon MojitoPINK PIGEON MOJITO

–2 parts Pink Pigeon Rum

–1 1/2 parts fresh-squeezed lime juice

–6 or 7 fresh mint leaves

–1 small pinch of sugar

–4 parts club soda

Wash the mint, but don’t pat it dry. Add the mint and the sugar to a highball glass, and muddle with a spoon. You’ll bruise the mint, ensuring that its flavorful oils will be released into the cocktail, and the sugar will dissolve into the bit of water clinging to the mint. Add a few cubes of ice, the rum and the lime juice, and stir. Top off with club soda, give the cocktail one final stir, and if you like, garnish with the top of a mint sprig.

What a lovely, refreshing and well-balanced cocktail! Again, the lime and Pink Pigeon combine to create a Dreamsicle-like flavor, leavened this time with the bubbles of the soda and the coolness of the mint. A delicious twist on a classic.

I received my bottle of Pink Pigeon as a free sample, but it’s not all that expensive to buy. You can find it at Wine Chateau or Binny’s, for example, for about $30 a bottle. If you’re a fan of Daiquiris or Mojitos, Pink Pigeon definitely deserves a place in your liquor cabinet.

Postcard From Vienna

31 May 2014

North of Vienna’s Altstadt stands one of the finest cocktail bars in the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Halbestadt, set in a brick arch beneath some railway tracks. Proprietors Erich and Konny focus on classic cocktails, including many almost-forgotten gems popular in the 30s, 40s and 50s. But they also stock the largest selection of mezcal in Vienna, and they’re not afraid to use it to create some truly unusual and cutting-edge cocktails.

Mezcal Negroni

Erich blew my mind with this Negroni in which he replaced the gin with mezcal. It tasted remarkably balanced, with pronounced smoky, sweet and bitter flavors harmonizing perfectly. A wonderfully complex flavor journey — one I never would have taken on my own.

 

Clover Club

The little-known Clover Club cocktail pre-dates Prohibition, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and it’s high time this delicious drink of raspberry, lemon, sugar, egg white and gin had a revival. Erich and Konny use only fresh fruit in their cocktails, ensuring that there was nothing cloying or artificial-tasting about this Clover Club. It tasted tart and fruity, with a bit of juniper from the gin. What a beautifully balanced cocktail.

More Reasons To Drink In Colombia

1 March 2014

In case you weren’t convinced by my Colombian postcards #1, #2 or #3, here are a few more memorable drinks I had during my two-week journey. Especially after waking up to yet more snow in Chicago today, it didn’t take looking at many of these to make me want to hop on a plane and head right back.

Tcherassi Martini

The Tcherassi hotel’s Aquabar made this deliciously balanced martini from gin, aguardiente (a local anise-flavored spirit) and “lemon foam.”

Macul Gris

This refreshingly dry Cabernet Sauvignon rosé with creamy strawberry fruit and a chalky finish comes from Chilean winery Cousiño Macul, owned by the same family since its founding in 1856. It was heaven with lunch on the breezy patio of Cuzco restaurant in Cartagena.

Mojito

Aside from its unforgettable Islas de Rosarios setting, this mojito may not look especially unusual. But it tasted lusciously balanced and just a little naughty, since it was made with Havana Club rum from Cuba.

Chakana Malbec Rose

Rosé is just irresistable in Cartagena’s courtyard restaurants, like Bohemia pictured above. This ripely fruit rosé of Malbec was made by Chakana, a 12-year-old winery in Mendoza, Argentina. It had a bracingly chalky quality and sharp, orangey acids. Delicious.

Mojito on Providencia

There are two unusual things about this mojito, sipped at Deep Blue on the gloriously unspoiled Caribbean island of Providencia. First, what appears to be an orange wheel garnishing the glass is actually a lime, and second, no lime juice actually made it into the cocktail. Whoops!

Sauvignon Blanc in Cartagena

There was nothing unusual about this well-crafted New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, enjoyed on the rooftop of the Movich Hotel in Cartagena. But with that view, it was hard to care.

Postcard From Colombia #3

21 February 2014

Lulo MartiniColombia is not best known for its corozo-based cocktails, but its aguardiente. This clear spirit distilled from sugarcane has a delightful anise flavor, and it resembles a less cloying and less alcoholic ouzo, with a smooth spiciness. I quite like it neat. Look for aguardiente without added sugar.

Aguardiente makes a fine cocktail base, especially in the sure hands of the bartenders at El Coro in the Sofitel Santa Clara. Although the cocktail menu there is extensive, I wanted to try something specifically Colombian. The energetic bartender Jhon had just the thing: a Lulo Martini.

He mixed fresh lulo juice, which tastes rather like lemon and orange juice mixed together, with aguardiente and a touch of simple syrup. He shook up the concoction, used a straw to taste for balance (the bartenders checked just about every cocktail for balance), and presented the cocktail to me in a chilled martini glass.

It did indeed exhibit excellent balance, with a smooth, juicy texture. The anise overtones from the aguardiente were kept well in check by the creamy citrus of the lulo and sugar.

Hmm… I wonder how much trouble I would get in if I tried to smuggle a suitcase full of fresh lulos home with me?

Postcard From Colombia #2

18 February 2014

Corozo 75 at Carmen in CartagenaAh ha! I knew it could be done — a truly delectable drink made from the Colombian corozo fruit. As I described in this post, corozo has a tart flavor somewhere in between a blackberry and a cranberry, which would seem to make it ideal for cocktails.

I tried a Corozo 75 in Cartagena at the estimable Carmen Restaurant in the Hotel Anandá, and what a revelation. This cocktail, composed of corozo-infused gin, corozo syrup and Chandon Rosé sparkling wine, tasted remarkably round and rich, in marked contrast to my previous experience with a corozo-based cocktail. The berry fruit felt deep, and yet the cocktail maintained an excellent balance, with lightness of texture from the Chandon and a floral note on top.

If you can get your hands on some corozo, this is the cocktail to make.

Or better yet (and perhaps easier), come to Cartagena’s Carmen Restaurant. The cocktail and the meal alone are almost worth the trip.

Postcard From Colombia #1

15 February 2014

Corozo cocktail at Leo Cocina y CavaSo far I have yet to encounter any Colombian wine, but I haven’t felt especially deprived. The Colombian cocktail scene, at least in Bogotá and Cartagena, turns out to be quite sophisticated. Mixologists have a bit of an advantage here, with an array of delicious Colombian fruits at their disposal that we in the U.S. can only dream about.

One of my favorites so far is corozo, a red berry which on its own tastes somewhere between a blackberry and a cranberry. It’s delicious, and I was excited to see it appear in a drink on the cocktail menu of Leo Cocina y Cava, a world-class Bogotá restaurant. Its Corozo cocktail contains Absolut Kurant, Cointreau, lemon juice and corozo juice, making it akin to a Cosmopolitan (also on Leo Cocina y Cava’s menu, made with Absolut Citron).

I felt a little skeptical about the Kurant, which I suspected would either overpower or be overpowered by the corozo, since both have pronounced berry flavors. My concerns weren’t assuaged when the drink arrived with the consistency of a loose slushie. The texture of the drink felt unbalanced, with not enough citrus to round out the vodka. The Kurant really did take over, it seemed. But once the ice melted, the sharp edges of the cocktail wore away and it became something I actually enjoyed consuming. The tart corozo came more to the fore, and the Absolut Kurant lost some of its punch.

Although this cocktail proved to be something of a mixed bag, I felt sure corozo could make a drink sing. Now, off to find a bartender who can perform a better balancing act.

Top Spirits & Cocktails Of 2013

21 December 2013

Slyrs WhiskeyAt this time of the year, it seems to be the thing to make “Top ____ of 2013” lists. I don’t know if these lists are really all that useful, arbitrary as they are, but compiling them gives me a good excuse to reflect on the past year.

Posts about spirits and cocktails are some of my most popular, and with good reason. The world of spirits has never been more exciting in this country, with fine craft distilleries popping up all over the place. Cocktails too have experienced a major renaissance, as bartenders resurrect beautiful classic drinks and mix new concoctions with a creative energy not seen in half a century.

Here are my favorites from 2013, in alphabetical order. And if this list doesn’t convince you that the world of spirits and cocktails has never been better, check out my list from 2012 here.

 

AMBER DREAM AT NOBLE EXPERIMENT:

This speakeasy in downtown San Diego was my favorite bar of the trip. It’s a little complicated to get in — you need to make a reservation in advance (ideally, a week in advance), and you can only make that reservation by sending a text message to 619-888-4713. Once your reservation is confirmed, go to a restaurant called The Neighborhood at 777 G Street. Go to the back by the bathrooms, and you’ll see some beer kegs stacked up against the wall. Push on those, and you’re in!

Bartender Anthony hand-cracked the ice for my Amber Dream, a classic cocktail that I must admit I’d never tried before. It contained Beefeater 24 (in which Beefeater steeps the botanicals for 24 hours, amping up the flavor), Carpano Antica (the sweet vermouth craft bars are going crazy for these days), Yellow Chartreuse (a French herbal liqueur), orange bitters and a strip of lemon zest.

This cocktail took a few minutes to make, and it was worth the wait. It started on a sweet note, but the flavor became more and more bitter. I love the smooth, round texture (achieved with lots of stirring) and the citrusy aroma from the zest. Delicious, complex, and positively delightful.

 

BLOOD & SAND AT TAVERNA 750:

Taverna 750

Taverna 750

At this bar and restaurant in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, they’ve devised a simple and elegant solution for keeping that last half of your martini ice-cold: storing it on ice in a little glass pitcher until you’re ready to drink it. Each cocktail comes with this sidecar, whether you order off the menu or not. I started with a Blood & Sand, a concoction which dates at least as far back as Bill Boothby’s 1934 cocktail guide, World Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, which calls for scotch, Cherry Heering and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Taverna 750 gooses up that simple recipe by mixing together Glenmorangie Single-Malt Scotch, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering, housemade orangecello, lemon juice and simple syrup.

My dining companion had a taste of it, rolled his eyes with pleasure and ordered one of his own. It had a creamy bitter-orange aroma, a profile carried through on the palate: rich, sweet and bitter, undergirded by orangey acids. The sidecar kept the second half of my drink ice-cold, with no loss of integrity as I finished the first.

 

BYRRH:

ByrrhAt first glance Byrrh appears to resemble many other sweet vermouths, or even port, it differs in one important respect: It’s spiked with quinine, the anti-malarial compound found in cinchona bark that gives traditional tonic its unique flavor.

I tried it first at room temperature, though it’s traditionally consumed chilled. It had a porty, richly fruity aroma with something herbal in there as well — a bit of parsley perhaps. I loved the round, luscious mouthfeel which slowly developed into orangey acids and the barest hint of menthol on the finish.

After that taste, there was no question — I needed to see what it would do for a Manhattan. I shook two parts Rowan’s Creek Bourbon, one part Byrrh and a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters with ice, and strained it into a martini glass. It proved to be a balanced but very bright and lively Manhattan. It seemed to end with a deep note from the bitters, but it jumped up again at the last second with a little cedar and mint.

 

CHÂTEAU DE BEAULON 7-YEAR COGNAC:

Chateau Beaulon 7-Year CognacThis cognac doesn’t look especially unusual at first glance, nor is it even especially old. But two words on the label make it immediately clear that this is not your everyday cognac: Folle Blanche. Cognac, like all brandies, is distilled from grapes. In cognac’s earliest incarnation, these grapes tended to be Folle Blanche as much as anything. More recently, particularly after phylloxera ravaged the Cognac’s vineyards in the late 19th century, Folle Blanche was replaced with Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano). Finding a cognac distilled from Folle Blanche these days is rare indeed.

The light caramel-colored Château Beaulon had a bright aroma with strong vanilla cake notes and a hint of ripe banana. When I took a sip, I felt a top plane with dark vanilla and wood flavors overlaying a lower plane bright with green peppercorn spice. It seemed a little lighter and fruitier than many cognacs I’ve tried, and very well-balanced, cheerful and smooth.

Cognac may have long since moved on from its Folle Blanche roots, but Château de Beaulon resolutely clings to tradition with exceedingly pleasurable results. If the cognacs of centuries past tasted like Château de Beaulon’s, it’s not hard to see why it has remained such a highly regarded spirit today.

 

CYNAR

CynarI would never have guessed this artichoke-based liqueur from Italy would make the list. About 10 years ago, a friend and I were in some small-town café in Umbria, and I spotted the bottle behind the bar. Even then I was interested in trying unusual spirits, and the idea of an artichoke liqueur proved irresistible. With no clue what this thing could possibly taste like, I ordered a glass. It was not to my liking. Aghast at Cynar’s bitterness, I discreetly carried the small snifter to the men’s room and poured the remainder down the drain. 

What a difference a decade makes. There was no sneaking off to the bathroom this time. Tasted neat and well-chilled in the refrigerator, the Cynar had a pleasantly bittersweet aroma and a very bitter, intense flavor profile leavened with a strong dose of caramelly sweetness. It doesn’t taste at all like artichokes — it’s made with 12 other herbs and plants, according to its website — and I certainly didn’t want to pour it down the drain this time. Despite Cynar’s relatively low 16.5% alcohol content, it tasted powerful, bracing and surprisingly balanced.

Check out some Cynar-based cocktails I mixed up here.

 

DARK PASSENGER AT THE BAR AT HUSK:

Dark PassengerHusk restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, is no secret, but it’s easy to pass by the bar right next door. I went in on a whim, and discovered one of my very favorite bars of the year. I ordered a barrel-aged Manhattan from bartender Roderick Hale Weaver, who apologetically explained that this was the first time they had run out of the cocktail. He offered to make me an alternative Manhattan-like drink “with depth,” and presented me with a gorgeous Dark Passenger.

Made with Carpano Antica, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, sorghum molasses and a rinse of Branca Menta, this cocktail tasted supremely satisfying: rich, bitter and complex, with a note of mint on the finish. It was absolutely delicious. If you go, have Weaver or one of his colleagues customize a cocktail for you, and whatever you do, don’t miss the glorious cheeseburger.

 

SANTA FE SPIRITS:

Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

Santa Fe Spirits owner Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

This distillery in the capital of New Mexico makes a number of delightful spirits, two of which I found especially memorable.

Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey: With this whiskey, Santa Fe Spirits emulates the production process used by makers of scotch, employing smoked barley and used bourbon barrels for aging. But this whiskey has an undeniably local character imparted by the use of mesquite to smoke the malt, rather than peat. I could sense it in the aroma, which had notes of smoke and vanilla, as well as a bit of something red, like good Hungarian paprika. Its flavor definitely reminded me of a smooth and dusky scotch, but again, there was a unique red note underneath, no doubt due to that smart decision to use mesquite.

Wheeler’s Gin: With the profusion of juniper growing around Santa Fe, Santa Fe Spirits would be crazy not to make a gin. This elegant spirit uses four additional local botanicals: cholla cactus blossoms, cascade hops, white desert sage and osha root, all sourced from within a 30-mile radius. This is a gin with serious terroir, and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t bring home a bottle. After a smooth start, the botanicals kick in, most notably the juniper and the desert sage. There was a savory note underneath as well, perhaps from the cascade hops. Smooth, complex and lively, this gin would make one mean martini.

 

WHITE LION VSOA:

White Lion ArrackVSOA stands for “Very Special Old Arrack,” a wonderful spirit from Sri Lanka which is distilled from the nectar of unopened coconut flowers. At room temperature, the VSOA had appealingly fragrant aromas of bright vanilla cake and caramel. If I hadn’t known what I was smelling, I might have guessed it was some kind of sweet cognac. It starts sweet and smooth on the palate, before blossoming into white-peppercorn spice and an aromatic finish of something savory and herbaceous. Fascinating and delicious.

This spirit proved to be quite a versatile base for cocktails — check out some recipes here.

Cocktails For Your Christmas Party

11 December 2013
Eggnog topped with cinnamon

Santa’s Helper

Festive Christmas parties provide a delightful excuse to serve a special cocktail or two, and goodness knows I love a special cocktail or two (or three or four). Over the years of writing this blog, I’ve come up with a number of cocktails ideal for holiday parties, but I’ve never assembled them in one place.

Here are the recipes of some of my very favorite drinks for the holidays, an array of concoctions using everything from gin and bourbon to mirto and arrack. I developed each of these recipes myself, working hands-on with the ingredients in my mixology laboratory, laboriously testing and tasting. I hope you find the results of my efforts as delicious as I did.

 

SANTA’S HELPER

–4 parts Bourbon, pre-chilled

–1 part Triple Sec, pre-chilled (Stirrings makes an “all natural” version of this orange-flavored liqueur)

–1 part Ginger Liqueur, pre-chilled (a number are on the market, but Stirrings’ is less expensive than most others)

–9 parts Eggnog (1.5 times as much eggnog as alcohol. Use organic eggnog if possible, made from real eggs and cream.)

Pour all the ingredients, ending with the eggnog, in your glass or a pitcher. Stir to combine, and serve in a lowball or rocks glass. Do not use ice at any point in the process (if you’re making a pitcher and wish to keep it chilled, invest in non-melting ice cubes). The eggnog, orange, ginger and bourbon all have their moment on your palate, making for a delicious and surprisingly complex journey.

It’s traditional to top your eggnog with some freshly grated nutmeg, but that’s a pain, and there’s already plenty of nutmeg in most store-bought eggnogs. I prefer a little cinnamon powder on top of my nog. If you want to get fancy, top your eggnog with a touch of cinnamon and a sprinkle of ginger powder. Even fancier, top with a bit of ginger powder and garnish with a whole cinnamon stick.

 

Beton

Beton

BETON

Like a gin and tonic, the Czech Beton (Becherovka and tonic) features aromatic herbal and floral notes as well as a touch of bracing bitterness. But the Beton goes further, with strong flavors of clove, pine and even some cinnamon. A gin and tonic is unquestionably a summer cocktail, but a Beton is Christmas in a glass.

1 part Becherovka (a wonderful herbaceous and bitter spirit produced in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary)

1-1.5 parts Tonic

Gently mix the above in a highball glass with a large cube of ice or two. If you’re feeling fancy, garnish with a lime slice or a sprig of rosemary. If the ratio above proves too boozy for you, you can adjust it to your taste, of course.

I usually purchase my tonic at Whole Foods, which sells a corn syrup-free version in inexpensive six packs. But for this cocktail, I stopped at In Fine Spirits to pick up some “craft” tonics. After all, a cocktail this simple calls for quality ingredients.

Both Fever Tree and Fentimans are wildly expensive, but you can eke two cocktails out of the Fever Tree and three out of  the Fentimans. Mixed with the Becherovka, the Fever Tree version hit me with a lusty blast of clove,  juniper and cinnamon. It was a Christmas party in my mouth. The Fentimans Beton still felt very Christmasy, but it tasted somehow rounder and deeper — more like an intimate gift exchange by the fireplace.

Either tonic makes a beautiful Beton, but if you prefer Canada Dry or Schweppes, go for it. You’ll have a uniquely delicious cocktail in any case.

 

WHITE LION SIDECAR

–2 parts White Lion VSOA (A Sri Lankan arrack distilled from coconut flower nectar, White Lion has appealingly fragrant aromas of bright vanilla cake and caramel, like a sweet cognac. It starts sweet and smooth on the palate, before blossoming into white-peppercorn spice and an aromatic finish of something savory and herbaceous.)

–1 part Orange Liqueur (I used Stirrings Triple Sec, but Cointreau or Gran Marnier would also be lovely)

–1 part Freshly-Squeezed Lemon Juice (do not use bottled juice or, heaven forbid, sour mix)

Juice your lemon, and use the amount of juice you get as the measure of one part. A standard lemon will make one large Sidecar or two small ones. Combine all the ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake vigorously, and strain into a martini glass. It’s traditional to rim the glass with sugar, but I can’t be bothered with that sort of thing. The cocktail had a luscious aroma of orange and caramel, and its darkly sweet flavors were balanced perfectly by the bright citrus. It’s a smashing drink.

 

Mirto

Mirto

MIRTINI

2 parts Gin (I used Death’s Door)

1 part Mirto (A Sardinian myrtle-berry liqueur. It tastes of ripe cherries and something herbal, like eucalyptus perhaps, with cinnamon on the finish. You can order it online here, or check with a well-stocked liquor store.)

1/2 part Fresh-Squeezed Lemon Juice

Combine the above in a shaker filled with ice, agitate, and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon, if you’re feeling extra fancy. The drink starts with bright notes from the botanicals in the gin and moves into the more grounded, darker notes of the mirto before finishing with a flash of brandied cherries and cinnamon. The lemon holds it together, providing necessary texture and enhancing the flavors.

 

And because some people are wise enough not to booze it up every chance they get, I also recommend having at least one quality non-alcoholic cocktail on hand. Here are two of my favorites for this time of year:

 

APFELSCHORLE

(I didn’t make this one up — this is a classic German refreshment.)

–1 part Unfiltered Apple Cider

–2 parts Club Soda (or mineral water, if you want to be really authentic)

I prefer club soda in this cocktail because the larger bubbles stand up better to the apple cider, but Germans traditionally use mineral water, because they seem to be addicted to the stuff. Whichever way you go, fill up a tumbler about 2/3 full with club soda or mineral water, and top off with the apple cider. If you want to get really fancy, you can garnish with a long cinnamon stick.

 

Fancy Cherry Lemon Stuff

Fancy Cherry Lemon Stuff

FANCY CHERRY LEMON STUFF

(Suggestions for alternative names are welcome.)

–1 can of Club Soda

–Juice of one Lemon

–1 ounce Tart Cherry Juice (100% tart cherry juice tastes like rich cherry pie in a glass, which makes some sense, since the juice comes from the same cherries used for pies. But though the juice is sweet, it is by no means cloying or syrupy. If no sugar is added to the juice, it retains its tart punch and complexity.)

–1 Orange Slice

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 cocktail tastes complex and sweet, but not too sweet. The orange garnish is important in this case. It adds another layer, the aroma mixing beautifully with the flavors of the drink.

 

And if you’re feeling courageous, and you have a fire extinguisher within easy reach, you might consider embarking on the adventure that is Feuerzangenbowle. This flaming German punch is too complex to explain in this post — you can see my full recipe and all my safety recommendations here — but it is thoroughly delicious, wonderfully festive, and I try to serve it at least once a year. It never fails to be a hit.

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