Equal parts cocktails: American Royal Zephyr

This cocktail hails from one of my favorite Brooklyn bars, and appropriately enough appears in a new cocktail collection called Brooklyn Bartender. I love that this drink not only contains equal parts whiskey & Lillet, but also equal parts of 3 types of bitters. Score!

American Royal Zephyr

Damon Boelte, Grand Army; as printed in Brooklyn Bartender, by Carey Jones

1 oz bonded bourbon

1 oz Lillet rosé

2 dashes Angostura bitters

2 dashes orange bitters

2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Champagne

Combine all ingredients except Champagne in a mixing glass with ice. Stir until well chilled and strain into a coupe. Top with Champagne and garnish with a cherry.

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Super-aged whiskey and a practical joke

pssst.....wanna drink?

Dave Pickerell, whiskey prankster

When it comes to hyper-aged spirits, is it possible to have too much of a good thing?

That’s the issue I explored for Slate:  Past Their Prime:  when is a superaged spirit too old to drink?

One of the people I turned to for perspective was Dave Pickerell, master distiller for Hillrock Estate Distillery, and former distilling guru at Whistlepig Rye and Maker’s Mark. He’s an industry legend who knows a tremendous amount about the science and business behind aging whiskey, so he was a natural (and quite insightful) choice.

But apparently, he also has quite a mischievous streak. This is a story he told during our interview, which didn’t make it into the Slate article, but illustrates neatly what happens when whiskey gets too old:

“At Maker’s Mark, they let me play a lot,” Pickerell reminisced. “And we had what we called ‘the oldest barrel.’ We had no intent to sell it, it was a ‘what-if.’  It aged to 18 years and 2 days. [Note:  standard-issue Maker’s Mark is about 6 years old, though it doesn’t carry an age statement.] The nose was unbelievable – OMG cough syrup, honey, it was so sweet….And so bitter on the palate!

“I used it to play a practical joke on Gaz Regan, who is a proponent of ‘older is better,’ with no exception.”  Pickerell  lured Regan in by “confiding” that he had a super-aged bourbon, but “shhh- I don’t have enough for everyone!” Later, they snuck away and he gave Regan a pour.

“I practically presented it on a pillow,” Pickerell recalled, to make it appear precious.  So unbelievably precious, that Pickerell pretended that he couldn’t even spare a pour for himself — he had no intention of drinking the bitter stuff.

Regan’s reaction? He spat it out.  “That’s bloody awful!”

NYC friends: an All-American Whiskey and Cheese pairing event

Though I haven’t yet seen the new film about Abraham Lincoln, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what Lincoln might drink.

That’s because I have the joyful task of procuring whiskeys for an upcoming event in honor of President’s Day:  A President’s Day Toast to American Whiskey and American Cheese! This event, to be held on Monday, February 11, is produced by the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, an organization of which I’m proud to be a member, and will be hosted at The Flatiron Room,  a new “whiskey and spirits parlor.”

Heather Greene, an outspoken advocate of women and whiskey, will be talking about the hooch; cheese expert Diana Pittet will be explaining the cheeses.

A few seats are still available — but this is a limited-seating event, and truly, they won’t last long. So if you’re interested in attending, I suggest booking sooner rather than later. (And yes, boys are allowed!)

I don’t want to spoil the surprise by telling you exactly what will be poured — but I can tell you this:  we’re doing four whiskey pours, paired with four cheeses, all of American provenance. There might be a fifth “bonus” pour (shhhh). But here’s a little hint as to what’s going in the glasses:

A delectable single barrel bourbon that retails for $400 to $500 per bottle. (if that’s not worth the price of admission, I don’t know what is!)

One of the few American-made single malts around. And this is a special one:  smoky like an Islay Scotch, and just snagged a prestigious award for best artisan whiskey! I was pleasantly surprised that the distillers were willing to part with a bottle for our event – this will soon be a tough whiskey to get.

My new favorite bottled-in-bond rye whiskey for my new favorite cocktail, the Final Ward.

A locally-made bourbon finished in sherry casks. Think caramel mixed with dried peaches and plums. It’s delicious, trust me, and there’s a great story behind the bottle too.

That’s all I’m going to say about this event. Snag a ticket while you can.

A story three years in the making

The “Cooperage in Spirits” story that became the cover story for the August 2012 issue of Sommelier Journal magazine was nearly three years in the making.

Three years! Some whiskey spends less time in barrels than that.

For me, it all started at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail, when Mark Brown of Buffalo Trace gave a small group of journalists an early peek at what was about to become the Single Oak Project:  an experiment that painstakingly isolated variables including mash bill, aging time and environment, distillation techniques and barrel types in pursuit of creating “The Holy Grail” of Bourbon.

A total of 1400 experimental barrels were created — many with only seemingly minute differences. The experimental bottlings were slated for release starting in 2011, and many since have been widely lauded.

“We’re considering American, Canadian, Mongolian, and Japanese oak,” in addition to the standard French oak, Brown told us, explaining that some added sweet notes (Canadian), while others added spice (Mongolian).  “We’re looking at different oak grains, and different barrel sizes.”

To drive the point home, we did a comparative tasting of whiskeys aged in fine- and wider-grained barrels. The former showed a more-developed caramel character, while the latter had a hotter feel because more liquid had evaporated through the grain, leaving a more concentrated, higher-proof spirit in the barrel.

It was an eye-opener.

This article afforded me the luxury of diving deep into this admittedly geeky topic — learning why cooperage expert Brad Boswell says “60 to 70 percent of a spirit’s aroma, flavor, and color comes from the barrels.”

Cocktail Recipe: The Amazing Teflon Rhubarb Cooler

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Some people are downright breezy when it comes to messing with recipes. Not me:  I fret when I start tweaking ingredients, convinced that I’ll ruin the drink.

But not this one. You can’t hurt this recipe — it’s like cocktail teflon.

This drink started life as “The Rhubarb Cooler.” But I’ve since realized that I might was well rename this versatile cocktail “The Whatever Seasonal Produce You Can Get Your Hands On Cooler,” since it’s easily adaptable… and the window for rhubarb is very, very short.

Sure, I’ve made it with rhubarb. The last of it is probably at the greenmarket right now. When rhubarb is in season, I’ll sometimes cut the rosy-red stalks into half-inch pieces and puree them in the food processor. After the stalks are pulverized into smithereens, the fibrous mess can be spooned into a piece of cheesecloth, and the juices squeezed out into a measuring cup. Only an ounce of the vibrant ruby juice is needed for one cocktail.

But the rhubarb season is short — mid-to-late spring– and I foolishly agreed to make this drink for Martha Stewart’s “Cooking Today” show on Sirius at the tail end of March. I went to the greenmarket, the supermarket, and what did I find? NO RHUBARB. I was too early!

So I substituted strawberry lemonade, to approximate the rosy hue and tart punch of fresh rhubarb. And it was delicious!

So I’ve been experimenting with the juices in this drink:  as long as there’s a tart element (lemonade or fresh lemon juice) to balance out the sweetness of the fruit juice and liqueur, it works great. Fresh strawberries, raspberries, fresh-pressed apple juice. It all works. No mint for the garnish? Try basil (probably would be amazing with a strawberry variation). Try coriander, or rosemary.

Another change that seems to make for a more forgiving cocktail:  I’ve switched the format from straight up to on the rocks. The gradual dilution seems to smooth any remaining rough edges.

Teflon, I tell you.

Rhubarb Cooler  Teflon Rhubarb Cooler

adapted from “Spice & Ice: 60 tongue-tingling cocktails,” by Kara Newman

1 ½ ounces Maker’s Mark bourbon

1 ounce Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur

1 ounce rhubarb puree * (or other amount of seasonal fruit juice, plus a squeeze of lemon)

1 mint sprig, for garnish

Vigorously shake together the bourbon, ginger liqueur and rhubarb puree with ice, until frothy. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with mint sprig, and offer a straw.

*For rhubarb puree:

1 ½ cups 1-inch pieces rhubarb

Puree the rhubarb in a blender and strain out the sediment through cheesecloth. Makes enough for several drinks.

Two Cordiall recipes from MFK Fisher

M.F.K. Fisher was not a drinks writer. She wrote wonderfully and extensively about food, but to the extent that she considered beverages at all, especially during her writing days in France and later, California, generally she preferred wine.

So when my husband found this 1963 copy of “A Cordiall Water” by Fisher, he sweetly thought he was buying for me a treasure — one of my favorite writers, writing about one of my favorite topics. It’s not hard to see why — doesn’t that drawing suggest a botanical gin, guzzled from a coupe glass?

Sadly, the book is almost entirely about health remedies, ranging from “useless quackery” to alarming and clearly dangerous. And frankly, I really could have done without the pontification on ways human excrement has been used through history to enhance one’s health and beauty.

That said, it’s fascinating to see how many times booze is invoked in health cures, including a couple of promising-sounding recipes for spirituous elixirs. For example, this unnamed one:

Take the flowers of at least 15 kinds of meadow plants, and the roots of at least five more, such as Peony, Licorice, and Hepatica. Clean and slice them finely, and cover them with white wine, to steep three days. Stir well, night and morning. Bring to the boil, and strain.

Mix with equal parts fine honey and with five parts of good fruit brandy. Store in a wooden cask for one year, and bottle. Drink cold or lukewarm on an empty stomach, to restore appetite, or a full one, to encourage it.

And here’s another tonic, which previously began “Take 12 quart bottles of the best bourbon whiskey…” but Fisher decoded “into a puny pint-size formula”:

Mrs. Lackner’s Mountain Bitters

Take Western sage blossoms, which must be gathered thoroughly dried and cured in the sun, and pack them into an empty pint bottle to the depth of two inches or more. Add to this the peel of one lemon which has been detached from its fruit and thoroughly dried in the sun. Fill the bottle to the top with good bourbon, and let stand for at least two weeks before using…the longer the better.”

Though I’d never make either of these for medicinal purposes, I’d still love to run these past people who are making bitters and infusions at home — are these viable recipes worth experimenting with today?

Hot stuff: Pepper Jelly Cocktails

I’ve been mulling this idea ever since I ran across the Rose City Pepperheads stand at the fabulous greenmarket in Portland OR last year.  The vivid colors and amazing flavors of their pepper jellies  (Thai Mandarin!  Hawaiian Jalapeno!) practically scream “mix me into a cocktail.”

Of course, jam cocktails are nothing new. In fact, they’re rather old: In 1862, mixiologist Jerry Thomas included a guava jelly-spiked Barbados Punch in his Bartender’s Guide, and in 1930, The Savoy Cocktail Book included a gin-based Marmalade Cocktail. More recently, UK bartender Salvatore Calabrese created and popularized the Breakfast Martini, which incorporates marmalade along with gin and Cointreau.

But that’s not going to stop me from playing with the pepper-jelly palette. I found a medium-heat, bright red pepper jelly, which I thought might lend itself to a darker, whiskey-sour style cocktail.

A couple of thoughts for those also thinking of tinkering with pepper jelly cocktails:

Know thy jam. Read the ingredients list carefully — garlic? onion powder? Think twice before adding these to a cocktail. Vinegar? Ok, maybe, but you might need to dial down the citrus a bit, since vinegar is an acid too. Be sure to taste the jam first to gauge for sweetness — you might need to add agave nectar or simple syrup.

Don’t lump it. I posed this question to drinks experts who frequent the Mixoloseum, and they had some great advice.

#1: To avoid a drink with unappetizing lumps, before adding ice to the cocktail shaker, stir together the liquid ingredients with the jam, and use a spoon to smush out any remaining lumps. Then add ice and shake and strain as usual.

#2:  To avoid lumps, dissolve the jam in other liquid ingredients before adding the booze, then double-strain for bits of peel, unless you like ’em.

Hot Pepper Jelly Cocktail

1 heaping tablespoon pepper jelly (I used Four Monks medium Jalapeno Jelly)

2 ounces Buffalo Trace Bourbon

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

Spoon the pepper jelly into a cocktail shaker, and use the spoon to mash it against the sides of the shaker to break up any lumps. Add the Bourbon, and stir to dissolve the jelly. Add the lemon juice and ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into a cocktail glass.

If you have a favorite jam-based cocktail, I’d love to hear about it!

P.S. What do you think of the photo? I’m actively trying to up my photography game.