Vodka

Door County Discovery

17 October 2012

I recently vacationed for a week in Door County, Wisconsin, which is that lovely peninsula that sticks into Lake Michigan. Autumn there is particularly fine, when the trees put on a magnificent display and orchards allow you to pick your own apples. We did just that at Lautenbach’s Orchard outside Fish Creek, and it was there I discovered the joys of tart cherry juice.

You might be able to find cherry juice at your local grocery, but tart cherry juice, made from Montmorency cherries, seems to be more of a specialty product. This year it might be especially difficult to find, because the cherry crop in Wisconsin and Michigan was damaged by the frost which followed March’s string of 80-degree temperatures. If you do see tart cherry juice (100% juice is best), for heaven’s sake, buy it. Lautenbach’s Orchard sells it in its refrigerated case, and you can also purchase it online.

UPDATE: I just discovered Whole Foods carries tart cherry juice as well.

It’s worth the trouble to find. The juice from Lautenbach’s Orchard tasted 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. Since Lautenbach’s adds no sugar to the juice, it retains its tart punch. For a simple fruit juice, it’s remarkably complex, and I love drinking it on its own.

But of course, I couldn’t just leave it at that. I had a feeling that a juice this delicious couldn’t help but make a delightful cocktail, and indeed it does. I tried it with whiskey, brandy, tequila, vodka… All these combinations, using about two parts juice and one part spirit, worked beautifully. I shared the juice with my friend Scott, a great connoisseur of cocktails, and after one sip, he exclaimed, “Oh… Yes. We are going to make a Cherry Pie Martini with this.” And who was I to say no?

I knew that vodka and tart cherry juice worked well, but it felt a little pointy. Some fresh-squeezed lemon juice rounded out the texture, but it still seemed a little bright. To enhance some of the low notes, we added a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters. Perfect. The result looked enticingly cherry-red, but it was no sugar bomb. This was a strong, serious cocktail, with a most pleasurable balance of flavors:

CHERRY PIE MARTINI

  • 2 parts vodka (I use Sobieski, the best vodka value I’ve found)
  • 1 part 100% tart cherry juice
  • 1/4 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 or 3 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Add all of the above to a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into chilled martini glasses. If you must, garnish with a fresh cherry.

And that’s it! Easy as pie, and a great cocktail to serve around Thanksgiving.

(And if you have any non-drinkers at the party, they’ll be delighted by this alternative: 4 parts club soda, 1 part 100% tart cherry juice, a healthy squeeze of lemon, and, if you have it on hand, a healthy squeeze of lime as well. Delicious!)

An Easy Cocktail For Labor Day

1 September 2012

I love Labor Day weekend, when all of us are determined to get outside and have that one last barbeque or beachside picnic. Goodness knows that’s what I want to be doing right now, so we’re going to make this quick.

If you’re having a Labor Day barbeque this weekend and would like to serve an easy, exciting and elegant cocktail that no one has ever had before, I’ve got just the thing: The one and only Nectarini Bellini Martini.

A Bellini, that wonderful classic Venetian cocktail, combines Prosecco and white peach purée. I’ve made these myself, and I think they’re a pain. Harry’s Bar 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. We’re going straight to vodka.

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. This is Labor Day. No peeling.

Instead, secure a good supply of white nectarines, which have thin, non-furry skin. They are in season right now (in the U.S., anyway), and though some groceries don’t carry them, you should be able to find them at your local produce market or at Whole Foods. Make sure the nectarines are as ripe as possible, because you’ll want that sweetness and fragrance.

White nectarines are a must in this cocktail (or heck, white peaches). In addition to tasting sweet and fruity, white nectarines have a wonderful perfumy 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.

Triple Sec is also required. I tried this cocktail with vodka alone, and it tasted too pointy and strong. Triple Sec rounds things out and adds another layer of flavor and aroma.

Beyond that, all you need is some ice and a blender, and you’ve got yourself an unusually fragrant, fresh and refreshing cocktail:

NECTARINI BELLINI MARTINI

Two white nectarines, cut into large chunks

1 1/2 parts vodka (I use Sobieski, an excellent value for the money)

1/2 part Triple Sec

Ice cubes

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.

Happy Labor Day, everyone. Cheers!

 

The Best Exotic Mango Martini

14 July 2012

With some delicious Thai delivery coming our way, and no Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Torrontés or even Moscato chilling in the fridge, I had but minutes to come up with a cocktail pairing. Something exotic and aromatic was called for, and in this heat, something very refreshing.

I took stock. Just as home chefs sometimes create something delicious out of various bits of leftovers, so I hoped to craft a cocktail from ingredients readily at hand that needed to be used up.

The coldest thing I had was a mostly empty bottle of Sobieski Vodka which had been cluttering up the freezer for months. Time for a little housecleaning. Vodka may not exactly be odd, but it works as a wonderful base on which to layer other more unusual ingredients. What else did I want to get rid of? Perhaps that half-finished bottle of mango juice… Ah — and that box of fresh basil leaves that have but a day or two left before they turn black. Fresh herbs can really kick a drink up to the next level. And how old was that bottle of lychee liqueur in the refrigerator door? A cocktail began to take shape.

I tried combining the ingredients listed above, but the resulting concoction ended up to be too sharp, too astringent. Fortunately I had a lemon in my fruit bowl, and a little fresh-squeezed lemon juice really helped round out the flavor. It tasted sweet, tart and vaguely exotic, with whispers of the basil and lychee. It was just the thing to pair with the Thai food as we huddled around our air conditioner.

While it can be great fun to experiment with leftovers, there’s something to be said for making a recipe that’s tried and true. Here’s what worked for me:

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.

 

Estate Ultra Bar

15 March 2012

I must admit I didn’t have especially high expectations when I RSVP’d to the opening party of Estate Ultra Bar. The name seemed just a touch too over the top, and I imagined an over-designed lounge that would be all flash and no substance.

It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to find an attractive riverside space offering a range of tempting and unusual cocktails. In between bites of impressively beefy sliders and decadently delicious lobster “mac ‘n’ cheese,” I sipped the mojito-like Estate Cocktail, the house drink. Raspberry and pomegranate purées were muddled together along with mint (and ginger?), and mixed with Grey Goose vodka and club soda. I really liked the rather tart fruit flavors mixed with the herbs — a most refreshing and tasty drink.

I chatted with the bartender Blake for a bit, and it turns out this self-effacing fellow not only makes a mean cocktail, he’s also one of the investors. He told me that he’s happy to make customized drinks for people, and if someone doesn’t know exactly what they want, he’ll get a sense of the things they like and whip something up.

I wanted to give this a try, so I confided my Odd Bacchus identity and asked for something unusual. He came up with a delightful, well-balanced cocktail that tasted like a light, tart and fizzy cherry pie. The combination of Effen Black Cherry Vodka, lemon juice, club soda and a splash of cherry juice (garnished with a real brandy-soaked cherry — not some fluorescent maraschino) would be an excellent quaff on a terrace in the summer.

Speaking of which, Blake alerted me that Estate Ultra Bar has the largest roof terrace in Chicago, boasting fantastic river and skyline views. The location on Elston and Diversey might be a little out of the way, but I might be making a few detours once the weather warms up (which looks to be sooner rather than later).

Next time I visit, I am going straight for the Pickle Martini.

Drinking: Good For You And The Planet

5 October 2011

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed my taste of VeeV, a clear spirit distilled from Idaho winter wheat. Alone, it tasted sweet and smooth, with a distinct berry note from the infusion of açaí. Shaken with fresh lime juice and sage leaves, the VeeV made for quite a delightful cocktail. The citrus cut through the inherent sweetness of the 60-proof liqueur, and the sage added an unexpected twist.

VeeV’s marketing campaign is a little harder to stomach. The brochure I received makes only one oblique reference to VeeV’s taste, focusing instead on the health benefits of the açaí berry, “the world’s preeminent superfruit,” according to the VeeV website. This Amazonian wonderberry is Oprah’s #1 superfood, a promotional brochure reassures us, with “57% more antioxidants than pomegranates.”

Never mind that clinical studies have failed to show that antioxidants prevent chronic diseases such as cancer or heart disease. And exactly how much of that big bottle of booze is actually açaí berry anyway?

The second half of the brochure’s cover goes on to tout the company’s green initiatives. VeeV (or rather, the consumer) donates $1 per bottle to rainforest preservation, wind power provides part of the distillery’s electricity and carbon offsets ensure that the company is carbon neutral. All of which is very admirable, if tangential to the flavor of the spirit.

So, basically, if you’re seeking a pseudo-health liqueur which goes out of its way to assuage your guilty consumer conscience, by all means, drink up. You can “Drink Better. Live Better. See how at veevlife.com.”

Personally, I prefer not to pretend that 60-proof alcohol is a health food. I think I’ll be getting advice on how to “live better” elsewhere.

VeeV: Available for $30 a bottle at Binny’s.

To make the cocktail described above, shake two parts VeeV (or berry-flavored vodka), one part fresh lime juice, a dash of simple syrup and two fresh sage leaves vigorously with ice. Strain in a martini glass, and garnish with a fresh sage leaf or a lime slice.

Drinking And Driving

9 September 2011

When taking a road trip, bringing along the appropriate beverage is crucial. And though my paternal grandfather reportedly used to declare, “You’re never really too drunk to drive,” I err on the side of caution and pack some non-alcoholic treats.

My current #1 road trip drink is Reed’s Extra Ginger Brew, an “All Natural Jamaican Style” ginger beer. Sold in packs of four bottles, this ginger beer, unlike regular ginger ales, is “carefully brewed and aged like fine wine in small batches by [Reed's'] expert brewmasters,” according to the website.

However they make it, the ginger beer tastes delicious, with small bubbles and a powerfully spicy ginger kick (sure to keep you awake while driving). It lacks caffeine, but since caffeine is a diuretic, that can perhaps be an advantage.

Once you reach your destination, you can save any leftover bottles for the trip home, or even better, make a proper cocktail. My favorites are the Dark ‘n’ Stormy and the Moscow Mule:

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Soak It In Some Vodka

16 August 2011

Many an upscale cocktail bar like to tout specialty drinks concocted with house-made vodka infusions. It’s not difficult to make vodka infusions at home, however, and it can be a hoot to experiment with different flavors.

I recently bought some produce at the neighborhood farmers market, and the vendor thoughtfully gave me a bunch of lemon basil to try. It didn’t quite work with the roasted vegetables and sausage I made that evening, but the fresh herb sounded perfect for an infusion.

I found an old jam jar and filled it up with Sobieski Vodka, my favorite home brand. Imported from Poland, this vodka is distilled from 100% Dankowski Rye. “Real vodka is not made from grapes or soybeans,” the Sobieski website declares, before asserting that “Distilling vodka one more time than the next guy does not make it better.”

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Summer Special

15 April 2011

While sitting at the bar of a neighborhood restaurant recently, I noticed the owners perusing a book of 300 cocktail recipes. I asked, indicating the book, if they were trying to expand their cocktail menu.

“Yes, we’re trying to decide on a new cocktail to offer as a summer special.”

A wonderful idea. I find it delightfully restorative to relax on a bar’s patio, languidly sipping a glass of something cool and bright. I offered a couple of my own suggestions (see below), and returned to munching on my pork cutlet.

Then I overheard something a little startling:

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