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Tales of Grain and Suggestion

Grain and suggestion are not words you usually see in the same sentence. They were the subjects of an interesting seminar Ms. Cocktail Den and I attended during our fabulous time at the recent Tales on Tour in Edinburgh. The presenters at the seminar, titled "Against The Grain," were Davin de Kergommeaux, an acclaimed Canadian whiskey expert and author, and Kevin Vollebregt, the senior brand ambassador for Libbey, a glassware company. Our conversations with them after the seminar exemplified some of the nice features of Tales of the Cocktail and the global cocktail community in general -- they were very approachable and more than happy to share their knowledge.

It's all the same whiskey ... or is it?
This whiskey all tastes the same ... or does it?

Some of the seminar focused on the science of grains and how they become whiskey. Even someone as science-challenged as me was able to follow along and retain some facts. For example, each of the four grains used in whiskies (corn, barley, rye, wheat) have different primary flavors (creamy, nutty, salty, bread), and pulling whiskey off a still at high proof causes it to lose a lot of its flavors. If you want to read more about the whiskey making process, you can go to past posts such as What's In Your Bourbon?, as well as numerous other resources.

Courtesy of Davin de Kergommeaux and Kevin Vollebregt.
Image courtesy of Davin de Kergommeaux and Kevin Vollebregt.

The fascinating part of the seminar pertained to the power of suggestion. Illustrating their point, Davin and Kevin had everyone taste the same whiskies in different glasses. Did they taste the same? No. Your brain activity will be a huge influence on your drinking experiences. You're not just tasting a drink with your mouth and nose.  You're combining all of your senses, your past memories and experiences, and other variables.

I know this stuff sounds basic, but did you ever really stop and think about it?  For example, if you recoil at the mere mention of a classic cocktail such as a Whiskey Sour or a Margarita, ask yourself why.  Was it too strong, too sweet, too sour? Maybe it was.  Or was it the context surrounding the drink, e.g. the glass in which it was served, your mood, etc.?

For me the important takeaway from Davin and Kevin's seminar is simple -- open your mind. Be receptive to new flavors, new experiences, and new influences. Consider reframing and reclaiming your past bad cocktail experiences. Whether it's the proportions of the drink, the glass in which you drink it, or the music that's playing in the background, the resulting experience could be profoundly different and positive. Cheers!


Drinking Like Jersey Boys and Girls -- The Newark

I've never been to Newark (only through it), but I've repeatedly heard it is not one of New Jersey's highlights.  That didn't stop Jim Meehan and John Deragon at PDT in New York City from creating a cocktail in its honor. The Newark is not far removed from a Manhattan or a Brooklyn.  Tony Soprano would like the Newark because most or all of its ingredients come from New Jersey and Italy.  Am I good with that?  Fuggedaboudit.

Newark2 ounces Laird's apple brandy or applejack
1 ounce sweet vermouth
.25 ounces Fernet Branca
.25 ounces Luxardo maraschino liqueur

Combine in a shaker with ice, stir with the resoluteness of being Jersey tough, and strain into a chilled glass (preferably a coupe).

Laird's, which originated in New Jersey, makes apple brandy and applejack.  The two spirits aren't very different.  When you compare apples to apples, it's about exploiting different boiling and freezing points. In modern times Laird's applejack is a mix of apple brandy and other spirits. Add the sweet vermouth (most of which comes from Italy) and the Fernet Branca and Luxardo maraschino liqueur (both of which come from Italy), and you have one great cocktail. Want some accompanying music from some real Jersey boys?  I suggest Frank Sinatra (you might associate him with New York, but he was born and raised in New Jersey) or Bon Jovi.

As anyone who's seen the musical or movie Jersey Boys would tell you, big girls (and boys) don't cry.  They drink Newarks.


Offbeat Cocktail Rhythm -- The Syncopation

Syncopation is a musical term that refers to stressing an offbeat note.  In 1919 the iconic American songwriter Irving Berlin (his canon includes such classics as "God Bless America," "Puttin on the Ritz," and "White Christmas") wrote "A Syncopated Cocktail." There was no such cocktail at the time, but presumably the song inspired the drink. Harry McElhone, who introduced the Boulevardier to the world, included the Syncopation in his 1927 book.

IMG_20171220_1924481 ounce brandy
.5 ounces Cointreau
.5 ounces apple brandy
Juice from 1/4 lemon
1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine in a shaker with ice, shake with the "jazzy melody" Berlin mentioned in the song, and strain into a chilled glass.

If you like a Sidecar or Corpse Reviver #1, you'll like the Syncopation. It appears the Syncopation traditionally called for Cognac as the brandy and Calvados as the apple brandy (Cognac is a torched Dutch grape from a particular place, and the same goes for Calvados, which is part of the Flower of Normandy). McElhone was in Paris when he came up with the Syncopation, so I figure he would have had easy access to French spirits.  Speaking of French spirits, you don't have to use Cointreau (my favorite triple sec), but you should use an orange liqueur. If you want an American spirit in the mix, use brandy from Copper & Kings or Laird's.

To take a line from the song, the Syncopation is fascinating and intoxicating. Now go make some cocktail music of your own.


The KISS Principle in Cocktails

This KISS principle is not the one declaring you should rock and roll all night and party every day (although that's a good one). KISS is an acronym for "keep it simple, stupid." The KISS principle applies in a wide array of disciplines such as communication and design. This excellent article from Carrie Allan, a spirits columnist at the Washington Post who the Den has featured in other posts such as The Magnificent Seven of Cocktails, is a reminder that the KISS principle also applies to cocktails.

Ward 8You can get a lot of great cocktails at bars. However, sometimes their ingredients and complexity make it very difficult and insanely expensive to try to recreate them at home. The frustration can lead to the point where tears are falling (do you get the musical reference without Googling it?). Sometimes simple is best.  Whether it's a drink with three or fewer ingredients such as the Margarita or Stiletto, or a drink with equal proportions such as the Last Word, it's easy to make great cocktails at home.

And what do you do after that? To use a line from Gene, Ace, and Paul ... lick it up.


Et Tu, Cocktail? -- The Ides Of March

The Ides of March refers to March 15.  That's the day Roman senators stabbed and assassinated Julius Caesar.  In the eponymous play by William Shakespeare, Caesar does not heed the soothsayer who warns him to "beware the Ides of March." Shakespeare did not create the Ides of March.  That honor goes to my fellow cocktail enthusiast Michael Bounds.

Veni, vidi, bibi (I came, I saw, I drank).
Veni, vidi, bibi (I came, I saw, I drank).

1.5 ounces bourbon
1 ounce Aperol
.75 ounces blood orange syrup (see below)
Juice from 1/8 lemon

Combine in a shaker with ice, shake with the ferocity of stabbing your mortal enemy, and strain into a chilled glass. Lemon twist garnish optional.

The Ides of March is a nice mix of American (bourbon) and Italian (Aperol). Aperol is a lighter, orange flavored, and easily accessible amaro used in other drinks such as the Part-Time Lover.  The blood orange syrup can be trickier.  There are a number of ways to make it.  I must confess that when I was in the middle of making the syrup, I forgot how Bounds made it, so I improvised.  I used the same method as I use to make glorious grenadine. If you have to use processed blood orange juice for the syrup, see how sweet it is and adjust the proportions as needed.

Unlike Brutus, who betrays Caesar (his recognition of Brutus is what sparks the line "et tu, Brute" ("and you, Brutus?")), the Ides of March will not betray your taste buds or your liver. As Brits like James Bond might say (especially amusing because he has a license to kill -- get it?), cheers!


Orange Is The New Cocktail -- The Orange Satchmo

A photo with a cat and booze?  It's a perfect Internet combination.
A photo with a cat and a colorful cocktail? It's a combination that could break the Internet.

Satchmo is the nickname of the late great musical legend Louis Armstrong.  It's also the name of our tuxedo cat. Neither of them has anything to do with the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black.  In case you're wondering, Satchmo is short for "satchel mouth," Armstrong's childhood nickname.  I learned about the Orange Satchmo in Benny Roff's book Speakeasy. Ms. Cocktail Den got it as a gift from a co-worker.

2 ounces rye
.5 ounces Cointreau or other triple sec
1 dash Peychaud's bitters
Teaspoon of absinthe

Put the absinthe in a chilled glass and swirl it around so you coat the inside of the glass. Discard the remaining absinthe. Place the other ingredients in a shaker with ice, stir with the silky growl of Armstrong's voice, and strain into the glass.  Orange twist garnish optional.

Try to take this drink from Satchmo and you will feel his wrath.
Try to take this drink from Satchmo and you will feel his wrath. Trust me on this.

The Orange Satchmo is a variation of the Sazerac.  The Sazerac is the official cocktail of New Orleans, the city in which Louis Armstrong was born. The Orange Satchmo has a smoother delivery because of the Cointreau (my favorite triple sec, which describes liqueurs derived from bitter oranges) and fewer Peychaud's bitters. If you want to increase the power, use my homemade arancello (orange liqueur) or sanguecello (blood orange liqueur) instead of Cointreau.

I must confess I have a soft spot for Louis Armstrong's music.  For example, Ms. Cocktail Den and I danced to his duet with Ella Fitzgerald (who also had a wonderfully unique voice) of "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" at our wedding. It's a memory I will cherish forever.  Will the Orange Satchmo give you that sort of a fond memory? There's one way to find out.


Cocktail Rock You Like A ... -- The Hurricane

HurricaneThe Hurricane is associated with New Orleans, not the 1980s rock anthem from Scorpions. It's not the official cocktail of the city. That honor belongs to the Sazerac.  Like many people, I had my first Hurricane at Pat O'Brien's. I didn't like it at all, so I avoided it for a long time. A couple of years ago my friends Chuck and Tom encouraged me to have one at the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans.  It was awesome.  There are many variations of this famous (infamous?) cocktail.  Here's my simple, colorful, and potent version.

1 ounce light rum
1 ounce dark rum
.5 ounces pineapple juice
.5 ounces passionfruit juice
Juice from 1/4 lime

Combine in a shaker with ice, shake with the force of a Category 5 hurricane, and strain into a chilled glass.

You'll see in the picture I used a traditional hurricane glass (our cat's name is Satchmo, so his presence fits right in with other New Orleans staples like the fleur de lis and Mardi Gras beads). Increase the amounts of the respective ingredients if you use that type of glass. If you're able to use all fresh fruit juices (something I definitely recommend), you could add a small amount of super simple syrup to give the Hurricane a hint of sweetness.

Want to buy me a good Hurricane (and are you familiar with the song)?  Here I am.


New Year's Eve Drinking -- The Champagne Cocktail

New Year's Eve  --  a time for reflecting, a time for hoping, and a time for drinking cocktails.  Champagne is a staple of New Year's Eve celebrations, and the Champagne Cocktail is a great way to use it.  The cocktail originated in the United States in the 1850s.  It was, and is, a simple year round cocktail.

Champagne Cocktail1 sugar cube or 1/2 teaspoon sugar
1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
Sparkling wine (see below)

Place the sugar cube in a champagne flute, add the bitters, then add the sparkling wine.  Stir briefly if at all.

Why do I list sparkling wine as an ingredient of the Champagne Cocktail?  Because you don't have to use true Champagne. All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.  Sort of like how all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.  And how all Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac.  It's all about geography. 

The Champagne Cocktail lends itself to variations.  For example, the sparkling wine can make a difference (use what you like and can afford).  Also, you can add a half ounce of brandy and/or use Peychaud's bitters (a key part of the Sazerac) instead of Angostura bitters.  If you want to use sparkling wine in a different way, try a Kir Royale.  Or if you want a cocktail with a tenuous link to New Year's Eve but without sparkling wine, try a Bobby Burns (he wrote "Auld Lang Syne").

Courtesy of pop culture, the Champagne Cocktail exudes class.  For example, Resistance leader Victor Laszlo drinks one in the movie Casablanca.  So to paraphrase Ron Burgundy in Anchorman (a totally different character in a totally different movie), have a Champagne Cocktail and stay classy Den drinkers.


Fun, Classy, y Cubano -- BlackTail

The Chairman of the Board has a seat at the bar at BlackTail.
The Chairman of the Board has a seat at the bar at BlackTail.

BlackTail is a vibrant New York City bar that evokes the glamour of 20th century aviation (when passengers frequently dressed up to fly) and Cuba (during Prohibition and before the Castro regime).  Voted as the Best New American Bar during the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail, the bar's name comes from the distinctive tail fins of the planes of Aeromarine Airways, a luxury airliner that flew Americans to and from Cuba.

And so does the real Scarface.
And so does the real Scarface.

But enough about the back story.  How are the drinks?  In a word -- spectacular.  Take your time going through the extensive selection.  Ms. Cocktail Den and I spent a good part of a weekend evening savoring a number of cocktails. Personal favorites included the Baccarat (bears no resemblance to the card game played by James Bond), the Whizz Kid (a fascinating mix of bourbon, cognac, cachaça, amaro, vanilla, and cherry), and the El Presidente (I admit their version with a base of two rums and mezcal is superior to mine). While you can stick with traditional Cuban libations such as the Daiquiri, I encourage you to explore what else BlackTail has to offer.  Many of the drink combinations look strange on paper, but blend together nicely when you taste them.

The atmosphere at BlackTail is dynamic, and the attention to detail is phenomenal.  For example, calling the menu a "menu" does not do it justice.  It's really a wonderfully illustrated history book that describes how the legendary gangsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano (two true Scofflaws) turned Cuba into a moneymaking empire of sun and sin. Fortunately Ms. Cocktail Den talked me out of "liberating" one of them.

To paraphrase the title of one of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs, come fly away -- to BlackTail.


Dare To Be Different -- The Renegade

Sometimes the word renegade has a bad connotation, e.g. the wanted man in the classic Styx song.  Sometimes history ultimately vindicates renegades because they dared to be different.  The word comes from the Latin renegare, which means to deny or renounce.  The Renegade cocktail isn't nearly as old as the word.  Thanks to Sara Rosales for creating it in 2013 and posting it on the Kindred Cocktails site.

Renegade 21 ounce bourbon
1 ounce mezcal
.75 ounces yellow Chartreuse
1 dash orange bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine in a shaker with ice, stir with the confidence that it takes to be a you know what, and strain into a chilled glass.  Orange twist garnish optional.

Like a true renegade, the Renegade stands out because of its high powered mix of bourbon and mezcal (similar to tequila because it comes from the agave plant, but smokier because of how you make it).  The yellow Chartreuse (sweeter and less potent than the green version) keeps you from ending up like the man in the Styx tune (he's about to hang on the gallows). If you want to be a renegade with a Renegade, change up the bitters.  For example, you can use the orange and juniper bitters from Bittered Sling and the aromatic bitters from Embitterment.

Does this combination of ingredients look a little weird?  Yes it does.  Just remember the motto of the elite British Special Air Service -- who dares, wins. 

Renounce weak cocktails, dare to have a Renegade, and win.