Why the best cocktail doesn’t always win

Make that cocktail work.

Last night, I fell asleep while watching Project Runway. While the contestants  buzzed about the workroom in the usual frenetic panic, the on-screen mayhem manifested itself in an unusual way:  I dreamed that I too was a contestant — in a cocktail contest. “Taste this,” I urged an imaginary co-contestant in my dream. “It’s missing something, isn’t it?” I raced around the workroom in my head, pressure building as the clock ticked down (“we’re out of ice!” I screeched), my hands shaking as I tried to pleat a lemon peel into a “make it work” garnish.

Oh, the drama.

I don’t have to be Freud to interpret this particular dream:  I’ve been judging a number of cocktail contests lately. This is a task I enjoy – tasting drinks from talented bartenders, hearing the stories behind the drinks, rendering an opinion.

But usually, I’m one of a panel of judges.  (Hey, just like the panel of judges on Project Runway!)  At the weekly Mixology Mashup held at Coppelia, I was one of three; at the Caorunn Gin “Storytellers” competition at Tales of the Cocktails, one of four; and at the Coffee/Cocktail Mash-Up held at Weather Up to benefit baristas and bartenders, one of five judges. Obviously, the greater the number of judges, the greater the number of opinions. And the drink I think is best isn’t necessarily the one that takes home the prize. Here’s why:

Different judges bring different viewpoints to the table. The Coffee/Cocktail Mashup is a prime example:  I voted based on which cocktail I preferred. But the coffee expert sitting next to me was more interested in the characteristics of the coffee varieties used.

Sometimes one judge gets the deciding vote. This is particularly so at more informal confabs. For example, at the Coppelia event I attended, Chef Julian Medina selected the winner, breaking a tie. (On Project Runway, I suspect that Nina Garcia always casts the deciding vote. But I digress…)

Showmanship often trumps the drink. On paper, it’s all about the drink — and a great recipe can get a bartender to the contest finals. But in person, it’s also about the bartender’s attire and demeanor and their ability to wow the judges. At the Coffee/Cocktail Mash-Up, the winning drink was delicious, but it didn’t hurt that it was also the only drink that came with a Polynesian soundtrack and was set on fire!

A poor story can undermine a great drink. When presenting a drink, usually a bartender will explain a little about the inspiration behind the drink. This was especially true at the Caorunn event, which was explicitly about “storytelling.” One bartender presented a drink…and then proceeded to tell a long story about tuberculosis. I don’t even remember the drink — the offputting sad-sack story completely torpedoed what was probably a perfectly fine cocktail. But my notes — full of detail about the other drinks in the line-up — had just one pleading line for this contestant. Please stop talking about tuberculosis, I’d scrawled.

The next time I fall asleep watching Project Runway, I hope I dream about Tim Gunn instead.

If whiskey is for women, is Cognac for chicks?

Is Cognac for chicks? (This seems especially relevant today, as it’s International Women’s Day.) 

That was one of the assumptions at the International Cognac Summit I attended mid-January, in France’s Cognac region. In fact, the event, hosted by the BNIC, revolved around how to persuade more women to take up Cognac.

It’s taken me a while to organize my still-scattered thoughts about this trip, and it seems best to post them in three tranches — a few general ideas, then a look at the “big 3” Cognac houses, and finally, some snaps from an independent Cognac maker.

A few takeaways:

The French don’t drink Cognac. “In France, this is a digestif for old men,” we were informed by Elise Gartio, a sociologist with LadyVin (yes, that’s the name of the research firm). When we met with reps from the Cognac houses, they underscored this point: most Cognac is exported to the United States, followed closely by the United Kingdom. Physician, heal thyself?? Considering how women around the world follow French fashion, perhaps it’s time for French women to become Cognac ambassadors.

The cocktail is regarded as the savior for Cognac, particularly to attract female drinkers. This makes sense; most spirits are consumed in this format. There was a lot of talk about how to do for Cognac what “Mad Men” did for whiskey and gin. I suggested resurrecting the Japanese Cocktail, but I don’t think I sold anyone on that idea.

We had a cocktail making “competition” – the winner was the Lady Coeur (team led by Willy Shine):  VSOP Cognac, Carpano Antica, lemon and orange juices, brut Champagne, dusting of cinnamon, orange zest). It’s a good cocktail, although I still can’t shake my misgivings about creating a cocktail “for the ladies.” This is a good cocktail. For human beings. Whatever (eye roll).

Packaging matters to Cognac drinkers. Frankly, I think this is true of all spirits categories. Lest you think this was just another cushy press trip, let me assure you that we had to sing for our supper:  for every Cognac tasted, we were expected to fill out a lengthy form evaluating the appearance and packaging, aroma and flavor profiles for each product. (Nearly 1,400 forms were collected from the group of about 30 people…you do the math!)

After the survey dust settled, the bottles that ranked highest among women (or among men who thought they were predicting for women) were generally XO Cognacs (the oldest and most delicious) housed in perfume-like bottles described as “luxury, rounded, original” and featuring soft/round aromas with “tasty” notes (the charming French translation for food-like aromas such as vanilla, spices, fruit or dried fruit, or pastry-like aromas). Sommelier Dominique LaPorte summarized that women “are looking for elegance, not power, in Cognac aromas.” I suspect that’s true of drinkers of any gender, though.

Spicy cocktail contest finalists

Did you enter the “build us a spicy cocktail” contest? In case you missed all the excitement, spice goddess Monica Bhide is hosting this contest to find the best original spicy cocktail — and I have the pleasure of judging the entries. So over the weekend, I made (and drank!) the three finalist cocktails. Here they are:

Poddy Toddy, submitted by Lamb’s Munchings & Musings

1/4 cup shots boiling water
4 whole cardamom pods, lightly crushed
2 teaspoon honey
1 thai chili, cut in half lengthwise through the stem
2 shots brandy
whipped cream
ground cardamom (optional)

Steep cardamom pods in boiling water for at least 10 minutes. Strain, and stir honey into water, add the chili halves, and reheat water until hot or boiling.

Remove chili halves and reserve. Add brandy. Divide liquid between two mugs. Top each with a dollop of whipped cream, a very light dusting of ground cardamom atop the cream, and hang half a chili from the side of each mug.

Panaka Punch, submitted by Panfusine

1 oz chilled Lemon flavored Vodka
2 oz Domain de Canton Ginger liqueur
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon powdered dry ginger
2-3 pods Cardamom (seeds lightly crushed)
1/2 a lime ( juice squeezed )
3 ounces chilled sparkling water or lime flavored seltzer

Muddle the brown sugar, cardamom seeds, ginger powder and lime juice till the sugar dissolves. add the vodka, and ginger liqueur along with the seltzer/sparkling water. Strain into glasses (rimmed with sugar if desired) & serve chilled.

Saffron Mojito, submitted by nitu didi

To make 1 cup of saffron syrup, boil 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water for about 6 minutes and add a pinch saffron to the sugar water mixture.

30 ml of white rum

60 ml of saffron sugar syrup
a few mint leaves
20 ml of lime juice
lots of crushed ice

In a fancy glass crush the mint leaves with the back of the spoon to emit their flavor. Add the rum, sugar syrup and the lime juice and taste. You can always make it sweeter, more sour or even more potent!!! add the crushed ice and give it a stir!!!!!!!!!!

and the winner is…..? 

Build us a spicy cocktail!

A photo Monica snapped of SOME of the prize booty.

Want to win a copy of Spice & Ice, plus an amazing passel of cocktail-worthy goodies?  Strut your stuff by creating your own original spicy cocktail!  All the details are posted here.

Spice goddess Monica Bhide is hosting the contest – if you’re not already familiar with her, let me tell you, the woman is a walking spice encyclopedia. Among her many accomplishments, she’s the author of the fab ” iSpice” app as well as Modern Spice, a mouthwatering book focused on Indian cooking.  Clearly we share a love of bold flavors in food and drink.

I’m thrilled to be teaming up with Monica on this giveaway. Wait until you see the incredible box of goodies she’s put together: spices from Williams-Sonoma and MySpiceSage, Bar Keep Bitters ( love those Baked Apple Bitters), a cocktail shaker from Perfect Puree of Napa Valley, and a LOT more. No wonder Monica says this is her biggest contest EVER!

One more detail: I will make (and drink) the top 3 finalist cocktails, and will be posting those finalist recipes on this site. But only one winner gets the grand prize box (…AND publication on both Monica’s site and mine…AND of course, bragging rights)!

Deadline to submit is Sept. 30.  Click here to check out all the contest details and view the giveaway prize!

Look, Ma, I’m in Penthouse magazine

Well, there’s a headline I never thought I would write!

To be more specific, my book and I are quoted extensively in the July/Aug issue of Penthouse (get yer mind out of the gutter…). Here’s a scan of the article. I have every confidence this column will boost Spice & Ice sales through the roof. Because we all know everyone buys this particular magazine just to read the articles.

Drink recipe: River Tam

Remember our cocktail buddy Dr. By Day? We connected through the serendipity of the blogosphere when he was looking for a recipe for habanero syrup, and found it here

I am so excited to share the news that Christopher Day, a UCLA chemist and talented cocktailian, recently won the TOMA Tequila Championship with his amped-up version of the habanero syrup.  (“I used a lot more habanero,” he admits. “I’m a masochist.”) His recipe will be featured on the menu at Ortega 120.

Here’s Dr. By Day’s award-winning recipe. Congratulations, Doc!

photo credit: Joshua Lurie

River Tam

By Christopher Day
 
-1 1/2 oz tequila (blanco is fine, but anjeo would probably be better)
-Juice from 1/2 lime (about 3/4 oz)
-1/2 oz habañero simple syrup*
-3 small slices fresh ginger root
-club soda
 
Pulverize 2 slices of ginger in habañero simple syrup*, followed by adding spirit and squeezing in the lime. Add ice and shake. Pour into a low ball glass filled with ice (with strainer if you don’t want to chew on bits of ginger…which I tend to like) and top it off with club soda and give it a quick stir. If you want, you can garnish with a wheel of lime, but – in all honesty – I only did it for show…the drink stands on i’s own!
 
*(1 cup water to 1 cup sugar; 4 fresh habanero peppers, stemmed and sliced in half)

Winner of The Bloody Mary Olympics

Mary on the Piste (photo courtesy of thepublican.com)

I’ve been on a Bloody Mary kick lately. Can you blame me? They used to be among my least-favorite drinks on the spicy spectrum, because too often they serve as an un-subtle tomato juice delivery system for booze. But recently they’ve been adopted as a wonderful canvas for exciting flavors and innovation. 

And so it was with great delight that I stumbled upon an account of a Bloody Mary Olympics held in London about a month ago. 

The rules:  entrants were given a dazzling and slightly nutty range of ingredients to work with, such as beetroot juice, Guinness, paprika, wasabi and roast garlic cloves. They were expected to pair the drinks with bar snacks ranging from filo pastry lollipops to popcorn crayfish marinated in vodka to corned beef hash. And each drink had to include a shot of Absolut, the spirits company sponsoring the event (grand prize was a trip to the Absolut Academy in Sweden). 

Here’s the winning drink, which I am translating into Americanized measurements.  (Speaking of translation, I had to look up “on the piste.” It’s a ski slope reference. I was concerned it might be crude menstrual cycle slang, considering the drink category and the British propensity for puns. I’m already sorry that I brought this up. Moving on…)

The cocktail was served with a frozen celery stick dipped in horseradish snow (similar to an ice cream, it melts slowly into the cocktail as you drink it).  And the accompanying snack was corned beef hash cakes and piccalilli (kind of a chopped tomato relish).

Although I don’t see any instructions for making “horseradish snow,” my best guess  is to mix together crushed ice with prepared white horseradish or grated fresh horseradish.

Mary on the piste

3 1/2 ounces tomato juice

1 1/4 ounce Absolut Peppar (or I suggest making your own jalapeno-infused vodka)

1/2 ounce dry sherry

Juice of half a lime

4 dashes of Lea and Perrins

2 dashes of Tabasco

1/2 tsp of Bovril diluted 1/10  (Yanks – try beef bouillion as a substitute)

Celery salt

Freshly ground pepper

Mix together and pour over ice in a 10oz glass. Make horseradish snow & spread on half a celery stick to garnish. (These are frozen & great for summer!) Serve with corned brisket of beef hash cakes with mustard and piccalilli.