Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Two Punch Drinks

Punch was the first truly popular alcoholic mix, so popular that its appeal lasted hundreds of years. You would take your time and drink it slow with a group of friends or total strangers. It took the sting out of booze and softened the edges of a hard life. A lot of artistry is at play in the early punches (something that our modern punches all but lack) and a perfect example, as well as a fitting start is the venerable Brandy Punch -- a very tasty and refreshing mix of Cognac, Sugar, Water, Lemon Juice, Raspberry Syrup, and fresh fruit.

On the page the drink looked delicious, however one thing did give me pause. Would the addition of water make for an overly diluted drink? Most every great drink is positively enhanced by the presence of ice, when the ice melts the resulting water tames the alcohol and brings the various elements together. The Brandy Punch is mixed with a large amount of cracked ice, would the extra 2 oz of water destroy an otherwise beautiful looking beverage?

Well, all I can say is never overestimate the impact of 3 oz of booze. Even with today's cognacs (back in the day all brandy was significantly stronger) the Brandy Punch turned out to be quite potent, but it sure didn't taste it. My fear of over-dilution was unfounded, the drink was well balanced with clear, bright flavors, obviously the influence of all the fruit and syrup. I drank it slow even though I didn't want to. It was so tasty I had to pace myself. I didn't let it linger long enough for it to lose its luster, but I did take a good twenty minutes to finish it off. I could have easily downed it in three....

Brandy Punch adapted from "Imbibe!"
1 Tbsp Raspberry Syrup
2 Tsp Rich Simple Syrup
2 oz Water
3 oz Courvoisier VSOP Cognac
Juice of 1/2 a Lemon
2 slices of Orange
1 slice of Pineapple
3 fresh Raspberries
Squeeze Lemon Juice into mixing glass;
Add RSS, Raspberry Syrup, and Water, Stir;
Add Cognac, Orange, Pineapple, and Raspberries;
Fill mixing glass with cracked ice;
Shake gently for at least 10 seconds;
Pour everything into a large glass (12-14 oz).

The Brandy Punch is a complicated drink. It demands 4 types of fruit, 2 types of syrup, a healthy amount of freshly cracked ice (I just took large cubes from my tovolo ice tray put them in a zip lock bag and pounded them with my muddler) and a delicate touch with the shaker; by contrast the Vanilla Punch couldn't have been simpler. A little Rich Simple Syrup, a touch of Lemon Juice, and a good dose of Cognac mixed up with some cracked ice and topped with a few drops of vanilla extract, is a crash course in what a punch drink is all about. Namely sugar, citrus, booze, fresh fruit, and ice.

A word of warning take those "few drops" of vanilla extract seriously. I overdid it quite a bit and really messed up the drink's balance. If you add too much vanilla your drink will smell terrific but it'll otherwise be runied.

Vanilla Punch adapted from "Imbibe!"
2 Tsp Rich Simple Syrup
2 oz Courvoisier VSOP Cognac
Juice of 1/4 of a Lemon
Squeeze Lemon Juice into mixing glass;
Add remaining ingredients;
Fill mixing glass with cracked ice, Shake;
Pour everything into an old-fashioned (10 oz) glass;

Garnish with two slices of Lemon;
Add a few drops of good quality Vanilla Extract, Stir.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Doing things right

Time is a funny thing. You'd like to think as time passes the world improves; we learn lessons; crafts are refined. While we may argue where the new Wes or P.T. Anderson film fits in the grand scheme of American cinema, what "The Wire" means for serial-drama, or how original David Chang is, we know we're dealing with masters of their craft who know where they came from, advancing the cause.

Until recently this hasn’t been the case when it comes to cocktails (and drinking culture in general). There may be a slight awakening in small sectors of metropolitan areas, and even some out of the way places, but all of this is terribly recent and when you talk about the last best time for drinks in America or the origins of serious American drinking culture you are without a doubt talking about that time before prohibition.

Pre-prohibition is the gold standard, a time when cocktails were cocktails and drinking was a part of day to day existence. In "Imbibe!" Wondrich breaks down the idyllic time into three phases The Archaic Age (1783-1830), The Baroque Age (1830-1885), and The Classic Age (1885-1920). While he's dealing with the life and times of Jerry Thomas Wondrich is without a doubt just as convincingly breathing life into the most significant era of cocktail culture. Today we're still slogging our way through something like The Lobotomized Age (1920-???). Like any good lobotomy we're left with barely functioning mental faculties and within these limitations we must learn to carry on. Unlike someone who has had their frontal lobe diced we can at least try our best to figure out the right way to do things and get with it as best we can.

Much excitement followed my new idea for the blog, but as I stood before my liquor "cabinet" poised to make my first ever Brandy Punch I realized I had some work to do. See the thing about trying to recreate pre-prohibition beverages is that back then juices (and fruit) were always fresh, syrups always handmade, and spirits quite a bit stronger. While most things can be found (especially in a place like NYC) others have been lost to time, or have to be recreated from scratch.

Some of the spirits used in Jerry Thomas' milieu can be approximated with what we can get our hands on, but even with my somewhat formidable liquor "cabinet" I still have quite a list of things to pick up. Indispensables such as Hollands-type gin (I'm hoping to score a bottle of Genevieve asap), strong peaty single malt scotch (Talisker), pot-stilled Irish whiskey (Redbreast), Jamaican-type dark rum (Inner Circle 151 or a mix of Pusser's Navy Strength and Goslings), Santa Cruz type rum (Cruzen Estate Diamond, Mount Gay Eclipse, Angostura 1919), and some really old-timey type good ole' American rye (Old Potrero 18th or 19th Century). Most other things I have or can make from scratch. Which leads me to syrups.

More often than not most of the cocktails I'll be making use fine easily dissolvable raw-type sugar, or a gum (read, gum arabic) based sugar syrup. While I like the idea of doing things as authentically as possible I have yet to detect a difference in a cocktail made with Rich Simple Syrup (raw demerara sugar 2:1 with water) and one made with fine sugar dissolved in the mixing glass with a bit of water (there are always exceptions, notable ones include the Old Fashioned and the Sazerac, cocktails that are august enough to demand traditional preparation, in such cases I'm as zealous as anyone when it comes to muddling in the cube, while admittedly still not perceiving any difference in taste). I'll be subbing my RSS whenever straight sugar is called for, and when I finally get my hands on some gum arabic (check is in the mail) I'll whip up a batch of good old-fashioned gum syrup and use that whenever possible.

I'll also be making my fruit syrups from scratch. Two of the first three cocktails I'm slated to whip up include Raspberry and Pineapple syrup, respectively. So last night after work I took the train to Whole Foods, picked up 6lbs of raw Demerara Sugar, a large freshly cut pineapple, and 4 containers of organic California raspberries. For all fruit syrups you merely have to place the washed fruits, cubed or slightly crushed, in a large bowl and cover with some freshly made rich simple syrup. Secure with plastic wrap and refrigerate for close to 24 hours. Tonight I'll strain and bottle those suckers and we'll be good to go!

Brandy Punch here I come.

In Drinks,
Scott D.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

New Start

Cocktail blogging is a tricky business. There are so many wonderful cocktail bloggers out there you really need to watch your step lest you become irrelevant. When you have Paul Clark and Jamie Boudreau and Robert Hess doing what they do you need to stop and think and figure out what's what. I can by no means compete with their experience but perhaps I can offer something a little unique, or at least off-beat. That's what I thought at least, until I sat down and actually tried to say something.

Here I am working my way through this cocktail thing, figuring things out, mixing up my drinks, and this here blog is supposed to chronicle that voyage. So what happened? Well, I didn't stop mixing that's for sure, but I've had trouble writing about it. What I need is a theme, a unifying thread to give this thing structure. Well, I've been trying to find that structure, and found it I have.

Over at Egullet Erik is doing great things with his "Stomping through the Savoy" thread, basically just making every drink in "The Savoy Cocktail Book" and documenting the results. So I'm gonna steal that idea and run with it. Instead of using the Savoy Cocktail Book I'm going to use David Wondrich's tremendous new work "Imbibe!"

It is without a doubt the single greatest work about cocktails that I've read, and I've read a lot of 'em. It also provides a meaningful timeline which is about as good of a backbone as I can find. We'll start at the beginning and work our way through the eras up to the present day.

I'll be making all the punches, fixes, sours, daisies, fizzes, cobblers, todies, slings, smashes, juleps, crustas, and of course, cocktails. I'll also have a go at all the bitters, syrups, and other odds and ends that made up the pre-prohibition bars of record. The book is a work of art and I'll be making these drinks anyway, so why not mix 'em up, take some pictures, and put it all down here and see where it goes?

Here's to a new start.

In drinks,
Scott D.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Three Ingredient Drinks

''The three-ingredient drinks are the classics,'' Audrey Saunders.

Martini; Manhattan; Daiquiri; Sidecar; Old-Fashioned -- three ingredient drinks all. In one way or another these drinks are ubiquitous. They share the benefit of timelessness and are still being slung together (with varying degrees of success) in most well-worn establishments all over the world. Whether you're sipping on an impeccably made Rye Manhattan in a fine cocktail bar or are scaling the mountain that is a 64oz frozen strawberry Daiquiri in the booth of a chain restaurant, you are lending your hand in the continuation of their legacy.

Of course to do them justice you have to treat them with respect, and to respect them you have to try your best to understand what the fuss is all about. Classics are classics for a reason, you have to give them the benefit of their longevity even if they are somewhat challenging. A well made cocktail does not show it's working parts, it is a seamless blend, it is something new. The taste is not a byproduct, a happenstance. It is an intention.

With this in mind it's actually quite hard to approach some of the classics. Time distorts ratios, brands, and in some sad cases crucial ingredients vanish from the face of the earth. To truly do these drinks justice you owe it to them (and yourself) to experiment. Not a big fan of the Gin you have in the cupboard? Go buy a few different pints and mix 'em up. That lemon juice you just squeezed look a little funky? Try out different produce stands and look for the best. Does your Rye clash dramatically with your sweet vermouth? Buy all the bottles of sweet vermouth you can find (they're cheap enough) and have at it.

Most importantly try different recipes. There is no one way to make any of the classics (despite what the zealots may say). You can open a dozen highly regarded cocktail books and find that each one uses different ratios, garnishes, and methods even for the most venerable cocktails. If you want to be high-minded you may certainly trace back the roots of a cocktail to its genealogical heir (the first recorded mention of drink "x") and whip it up like they used to back in the 1880s…but really, even back then spirits, juices, and tastes were so different that you'll probably still be left scratching your head after taking that first sip.

Mix up a drink a dozen times using various ratios, brands, and techniques until you find what your own taste buds distinguish as something new, something balanced, something intentional. Where to start? Three ingredient drinks: the classics.

In drinks,
Scott D.