Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fame ≠ Quality

Have you ever made a drink recipe that you got from a book or online that's simply terrible? I know I have. And when this happens, my (and perhaps your) first thoughts turn self-deprecating... what did I do wrong? Did I use the right amount of ingredients? Perhaps the type of spirit I used wasn't of the right style. Were my ingredients fresh enough?

Surely an occurrence like this is more common when using new and green recipes from the internet, but what if it happens when using an old book... when you make a recipe that's supposedly tried and true? Surely you're the one at fault, not the recipe... right?

Rowen over at the Fogged In Lounge has just finished an in-depth exploration of this problem. He spent the entire month of March getting intimate with the Bronx cocktail. You can find the recipe for the Bronx in just about any respectable cocktail book, and yet among enthusiasts, the drink is hardly lauded. I am of the same sentiment; the Bronx, to me, feels flat and one dimensional.

Rowen took the time to make a multitude of variations on the Bronx to see what worked in the drink and what did not, which you can read about here. In his wrap-up of the experiment, Rowen concluded that what the Bronx was missing was essentially some type of bitters, which he finds tends to finally unite the flavors of the rest of the drink. Despite the fact that you'll probably only ever see the Bronx call for 4 ingredients, to quote Rowen, "The Bronx is really a 5-ingredient cocktail."

Even Erik of the Underhill-Lounge, in his run-through of all the cocktails in the Savoy, admits that the drink is better with bitters, and he even uses a bitter vermouth when preparing the drink.

This all goes to show an important lesson: Don't assume that a recipe is great just because it's in a book, no matter how prestigious. And a corollary to that: You're allowed to dislike whatever you want, despite what anyone says.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Rule: Mixology as Alchemy

I know the post title is really lame and trite, but stay with me here...

The mixing of different ingredients into various combinations can invoke very distinct results.

Some spirit-forward recipes like the Old Fashioned or the (modern) Martini are meant for certain ingredients to "sing the lead" in a mixture, and they use smaller amounts of other ingredients in order to accent the lead singer.

Other recipes, I would argue, work correctly simply because they have some combination of ingredients that taste really good together. Examples I can think of are the Gimlet, the Mojito, the Margarita, or the Tom Collins.

Some recipes are based off of contrast. A good example I know of is the Oriental cocktail, where all of its ingredients battle over your taste buds' attention.

But once in a while you'll find a recipe that, without getting too poetic, borders on alchemy. I'm talking about a recipe where the product is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Recipes like these are often a big surprise because they're so unpredictable.

A prime example of this is an original recipe from Dave of the Sugar House Blog. His cocktail, the Crimson Dynamo, uses ingredients that I don't really like, but the resulting drink is something I find fairly palatable. (It's a faux pas to be a booze blogger and admit that you don't like a certain ingredient. But with me, it's usually a temporary state. You could say that these are ingredients I don't like yet.)

Campari is an herbal Italian liqueur called an amaro. Don't let its gorgeous red color and the word "liqueur" fool you... its bitterness is so overwhelming that most novices who drink it will grimace before spitting it out. It goes toe-to-toe with Fernet Branca as one of the most bitter brews on the liquor store shelf you can find. I don't dislike the stuff per se... I can even drink it alone on ice without a problem, but I'm just not in love with it. I find that most cocktails containing it aren't balanced, and they leave the Campari unchecked to bully around the other ingredients.

Maraschino(the "ch" is pronounced like a "k") is another Italian ingredient made from the cherries of the Marasca type. Completely unlike what most people in the western hemisphere may think is Maraschino, this stuff is completely clear and has a biting cherry character. The flavor is closer to cough syrup than anything a beginner might be expecting. It's a common ingredient used in vintage cocktails, and even in a few tiki drinks. I personally think that almost any drink that uses more than 1/4 ounce of the stuff is completely dominated by it, and in a way that's not pleasant.

Islay is a type of Single Malt Scotch Whisky which is produced on the isle of Islay. Islay whiskies are generally known to be heavily peated, which is a process by which the distiller dries the fermentation's source of malted barely under a fire of burning peat. While the distilled spirit is aging in barrels later on, master blenders of Islay whisky are also known to leave the warehouse doors open to encourage the nearby ocean air to mingle around the barrels, which are surprisingly permeable. The result of all this is a whisky that is earthy, pungent, smokey, medicinal, and sometimes even tastes of iodine and seaweed. The stuff is so strong that Robert Hess uses it as if it were bitters. I love Scotch, but I don't even like Islay Scotch.

Imagine my intrigue when I saw Dave post a drink that uses only these three ingredients, and what's even better, he declares it as "everything [he] want[s] out of life." I smartly assumed that Dave is a man more sage than I, and so, hands quivering, I gave the drink a whirl.

Crimson Dynamo

1.5 oz Islay Single Malt Scotch
1 oz Campari
.5 oz Maraschino liqueur

Stir ingredients together with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

The Islay base of this drink still makes it pretty challenging for me. Both the overwhelming flavor and aroma is of pungent iodine. But the sip is much less diabolical overall than I had expected. Amazingly, each of the three strong ingredients manage to keep each other in check. The whisky is by far the most wiley, but much of its flavor disappears in the drink, with only the occasional smokiness and medicinal iodine coming through to numb my tongue. The whisky and Maraschino manage to pummel the Campari's flavor mostly into submission, so that in the end it only offers bitterness and a peppery spiciness. The Maraschino comes all the way through, but is largely subdued by the other two gargantuan ingredients, and it provides the sweetness underlying the cocktail. Instead of these ingredients joining together in some awful cacophony, they join together in a harmony of temperance, and I am in awe.

Over the few years that I've been exploring spirits and cocktails, I've slowly and surely come upon an uncomfortable truth that I can't help but humbly accept. The DJ's 2nd rule of the house: You cannot always know how a recipe will taste by simply looking at the ingredients, despite how experienced you may be.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Cask: Round 5, Aged Gin

The apple brandy sitting in my small barrel has been there longer than any spirit before it. It's been almost five and a half months now, and there's a reason that it's been there for so long.

If you'll recall, I added a mixture of several products to the barrel this time around: Laird's Straight Apple Brandy, Captain Applejack, and sweet apple wine. Once the mixture rested in the barrel for a few weeks/months, what began to happen was something that I feared. The crisp fruitiness of the applejack began to take over the rest of the flavors, somehow. What had been an overwhelming flavor of apples was slowly becoming a somehow nondescript fruity tone, bordering on almost an artificial grape flavor. It's hard to describe.

Luckily for me, time was the remedy. As late as one month ago, that generic fruitiness still prevailed. But now, almost 6 months after the aging began, the mix has finally mellowed, and the result is great.

The Review
Composite Apple Brandy, at-home aged

In the Glass

I was surprised to see the brandy actually had legs that would stick to the glass as I slowly swirled it around. Clearly, the wood from the barrel has given it a bit of body and viscosity. The wood also gave it color; the apple brandy's dark hue is somewhere between bourbon and a heavily aged rum.


Just like the other results of the Cask series, the smell is all wood. But somehow, it's a different kind of wood. The rum and the brandy gave off an aroma of being in a wood shop, but the apple brandy smells almost like a bourbon, with a much more distinct and dark, earthy character. After a few moments of trying, I can finally sense the apples, and then faint vanilla, as barrels are so wont to give.


I was again surprised to learn that despite the apple brandy's modest legs in the glass, the texture and mouth feel were thin. The angel's share in this batch hadn't been as devastating as times passed, so perhaps this is something that I should have expected. The spirit is also pretty hot... my guess is over 80 proof, maybe even over 100.

The first thing that my tongue thinks is "sweet". When the sweetness finally subsides, I get a rich apple flavor, which is admittedly short lived, because the sweetness again takes over. There's no smokiness at all, which this barrel sometimes imparts. The end of the sip gives you a nice dry (even tannic) woodiness that's not surprising, considering how long the brandy aged. The aftertaste is nice and long, with only sweetness and warmth.

Ice Cube

Somehow, the only thing that ice/water does to this spirit is makes it even more sweet. The mouth feel and flavor do not change... only the sweetness.


There's not much I would mix this stuff with. As a considerably old spirit, there's much more merit in complementing it rather than having it complement. As if you couldn't see it coming, I made a composite apple brandy Old Fashioned. I used Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Bitters, and instead of citrus peel, I used a cinnamon stick for a garnish. It goes without saying that the result was very, very palatable.


The barrel showed me that it's still "got it". Its ability to age might be slowing, but it's nowhere near depleted. The maturity of the apple brandy is bordering on the barrel's original passenger, the Wasmund's Rye Spirit. I'm pleased and encouraged.

So what's next? Something a bit unusual, that's what.

About a year ago I spoke of my fondness of Seagram's gin, but I also pointed out that they have flavored gins that are hard to take seriously. Well, one of these gins is flavored with red apples. Red apples and gin is such an interesting combination that I'm inspired to take this opportunity to make my own apple gin(sort of).

I'm not going to rinse the barrel of excess apple brandy... I'm not even going to let it air out. Fresh and dripping from evacuating the brandy, a handle of Gordon's gin is going in. (Hey, if it's good enough for James Bond, it's good enough for me.) Gordon's is a good middle of the road brand, I'd recommend it if you find that you can't find the beauty in top shelf gins.

In contrast to the apple brandy's long aging time, I expect the gin's aging time to be short. Much like Seagram's gin, I only want a bit of color and flavor added to the gin from the barrel. I just want to "toast" it, if you will. My guess is two months or less.