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Drinks to Get You Through Christmas Day

Christmas Day in the Clark household follows a well-established, age-old routine, utterly unshakeable in the face of whatever joyful events or natural disasters are occurring as each December 25th rolls around. A slow crawl down to breakfast, the build-up of anticipation to present-opening time, sherry or prosecco and Christmas cake to accompany the vast heapings of wrapping paper, white wine to wash down quantities of turkey and sprouts, followed by a retreat to cups of tea, sandwiches, and thin mints as the Queen’s Speech is succeeded by films and TV specials which no one has more than half an eye on. None of this will change this year, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. IF I were to institute any changes, and if I were less torpid and more Nigella-esque in my approach to the festivities, I might arrange a slightly more inventive drinking menu for the day. Well, I have arranged it, for the purposes of this post, but I don’t have the energy to impose it on my actual family. Maybe you can impose it on yours!

Breakfast

Sparkling wine of some variety is a pretty standard way to start the day, and there’s something to be said for dry fizz as a partner for Christmas cake. In my fearless quest to complicate life, however, I choose to make a sparkling cocktail instead. There are so many things you can put in a glass of champagne/prosecco/cava that will make people think you’ve made an effort. A splash of pomegranate juice, for example, with some pomegranate seeds to jazz it up; triple sec and a bit of cranberry; I just this minute watched Nigel Slater put some calvados and apple juice in a glass of cava with some frozen raspberries. I, however, have a bottle of sloe gin that’s not doing a great deal, so I’m revisiting the sloe gin fizz as a morning aperitif. There are various recipes for this drink floating around, one involving cream soda, which sounds vile, but most use club soda. That, of course, is not sufficiently decadent, so I’ll shove in the sparkling wine. This essentially makes it a variation on a French 75, which is my second favourite cocktail of all time. Win.

Sloe Gin Fizz

1.5 oz sloe gin
1 oz fresh lemon juice
.5 oz simple syrup
Sparkling wine

Shake the sloe gin, lemon juice and simple syrup over ice. Strain into a chilled flute and top up with sparkling wine.

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Digestif

So this one is designed for about an hour after lunch, when you’re staring glassily at The Snowman on TV and picking at the box of Bendicks mints because they’re there. The Old-Fashioned is one of those rare drinks that falls into both the aperitif and digestif categories. In theory, a digestif is meant to aid the digestion: you may of course consider that your digestion is beyond help at this point in the day, but what the hey, another drink probably won’t make matters worse. For this festive occasion I’m giving it a twist by substituting the sugar cube for a little simple syrup flavoured with mulling spices, in case you hadn’t had enough of those already. You’ll have to make this in advance, but it will make your kitchen smell lovely.

Christmas Old-Fashioned

2 oz bourbon
Barely a teaspoon of spiced simple syrup (see below)
2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters
Orange slice and maraschino cherry (optional)

Add syrup and bitters to a rocks glass. If using fruit, muddle the orange and cherry along with the syrup and bitters. Otherwise simply pour in the bourbon and stir well. Add plenty of ice. Garnish with a orange peel and an additional cherry.

For the simple syrup: boil 1 cup of brown sugar and 1 cup of water, plus a selection of whatever whole spices you would use for mulling wine or cider. A selection of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, cardamom, star anise should do the trick, or one of those handy mulling teabags. Allow to simmer for five minutes or so, then remove spices and cool.

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Bedtime

Aaaand finally, if you haven’t already been lulled into a stupor by the preceding, here’s something that will definitely tip you over the edge. Whenever I think ‘hot toddy,’ I’m reminded of Frasier’s recipe in  Voyage of the Damned: “Courvoisier, chamomile tea, and a dash of framboise!” I have never tried this version, but I absolutely intend to one day. This is my standard, no-frills, ‘drink it when you’ve got the flu’ hot toddy recipe, using whisky, chamomile tea (thanks Frasier!), honey, and lemon. You could also use brandy with this, or even rum if you’re feeling adventurous. I’ve heard some people do interesting things with cinnamon and cloves in their hot toddies, but I think we’ve had quite enough of that today already. I don’t think of toddy-making as an exact science and usually I just hurl in whatever looks right, so these are approximate quantities.

Honey-Lemon Hot Toddy

1.5 oz bourbon
1 tbsp honey
Juice of half a lemon
Hot chamomile tea (I use Twinings Chamomile and Spearmint, or Sleepytime tea, but regular chamomile works fine)

Add bourbon, honey and lemon to the bottom of a mug. Pour in hot tea and stir vigorously.

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And that’s a solid day’s drinking behind you! Well done. Merry Christmas everyone!

Sloe Gin And What To Do With It

Sloe gin is one of those drinks I think of as quintessentially English – something you pick up in farm shops in the autumn or that Miss Marple might have made in her spare time. It’s not really gin, exactlsloey, but a fruit liqueur made by macerating sloes in gin. I’m not convinced I’ve ever seen a sloe in real life, but they’re the fruit of the blackthorn tree, and essentially a cousin of plums and damsons. I’m told they’re not particularly pleasant to eat (I think if you’ve ever eaten an unripe damson you get the idea), but with the addition of sugar they can be transformed into jams, pie fillings, and of course this lovely deep red, sweet-tart liqueur.

If you’ve got access to a blackthorn tree, you can harvest the sloes right around now, in October and November, and make your own sloe gin pretty easily. For a simple sloe gin recipe, (plus instructions for a similarly seasonal quince syrup and how to combine them), I found this great post on Mother’s Ruin. I sadly do not have a blackthorn tree in my general vicinity, img_3662and as I’m about to move, I don’t have much time at the moment to make my own liqueurs, so I turned to Sipsmith, whose sloe gin I had the pleasure of tasting on a distillery tour earlier this year. I already knew it was delicious, but I would have bought it anyway because the bottle is SO lovely – I know I shouldn’t buy bottles based on their looks alone but I do and I know you do too. If you get the chance to visit the Sipsmith distillery in west London, I would recommend it – you’ll get an entertaining 2 hours on the history and production of gin from a very jaunty ex-public schoolboy with a generous number of samples, and when I visited in March it was only £15 – very much worth your while.

As for what to do with your sloe gin, there are a slew of options. Quite a few gin cocktails can stand having half of the gin replaced with sloe gin: a gin and tonic can easily be livened up by making it with half dry gin and half sloe, and one suggestion that came to me over Instagram was a Sloe Reviver, in which the gin in a Corpse Reviver no.2 is replaced with sloe. Another tried and true recipe is the Sloe Gin Fizz, which takes as its base sloe gin, lemon, simple syrup, and can then be befizzed with sparkling water, cream soda, or sparkling wine, depending on how decadent you’re feeling.  As for sloe gin in classic cocktails, the most famous seems to be the Charlie Chaplin, a pre-Prohibition cocktail which also features my new favourite ingredient, apricot brandy. I’m not clear on whether Charlie Chaplin ever had one of these, but it was created at the Waldorf-Astoria sometime before 1920, and obviously named in his honour. You’d think that a drink made with two liqueurs would be tooth-jarringly sweet, but as long as you’ve got decent quality versions of both, it’s actually just perfectly jammy and still a little tart from the lime juice. The Sipsmith website, which features lots of recommendations for what to do with their spirits, has a recipe which bafflingly cuts down on the lime juice, cuts way down on the apricot brandy, but then adds simple syrup, which I cannot understand at all. In its original proportions, however, I can STRONGLY recommend this one, I think it’s the most lusciously fruity thing I’ve ever drunk.

The Charlie Chaplin

1 oz sloe gin
1 oz apricot brandy
1 oz lime juice

Shake all ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lime.

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Next up is a more modern cocktail from the PDT Cocktail Book, the Persephone, which helpfully uses the third bottle in my holy trinity of autumnal alcohol, apple brandy. This one is a bit of an odd beast, and the flavour is difficult to describe – it was still fruity, but a bit sweeter and with some depth from the vermouth, although that felt a bit out of place. Definitely not a must-make like the Charlie Chaplin, but very drinkable nonetheless, and I can’t resist a cocktail with a classical name.

Persephone

1 oz apple brandy (the recipe specifies Laird’s Applejack but I used calvados)
3/4 oz sweet vermouth (preferably Dolin)
1/2 oz sloe gin
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup

Stir all ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. No garnish given, but a little apple rose goes nicely.

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Cocktail of the week no.22: the Angel Face

I was introduced to this cocktail by a barman at the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell, and it’s one of the two drinks I’ve had in bars in recent months that I’ve desperately wanted to make for myself at home. The other was at “The Bar with No Name,” AKA 69 Colebrooke Row, and it was called “Silent Neon Flower.” Coincidentally, both of these bars owe their drinks menus to one man, Tony Conigliaro, who opened 69 Colebrooke Row and is the drinks consultant for Zetter Townhouse. I can’t recommend these two bars enough. They both feature incredibly knowledgeable and courteous bar/wait staff, who shimmer up to you like Jeeves but won’t make you feel like an idiot if you ask questions or mispronounce something. Certainly there are vast differences in decor (Zetter Townhouse describes itself as feeling like “the private residence of an eccentric (and fabulous!) Great Aunt,” which I can confirm to be true, whereas 69 Colebrooke Row is all sleek wood with the slight air of a 1930s railway station; nonetheless they share the same comfortable but elegant atmosphere and pared down cocktail menus. No bubbling teapots or ten-strong ingredient lists here.

Anyway, I digress, as usual, from the week’s cocktail. While it seemed a bit unrealistic to recreate the Silent Neon Flower at home (it features dry essence and ambrette seeds, both of which were ably explained to me by one of the Jeeveses, but I’m none the wiser about how to get hold of them), the Angel Face is a classic cocktail with only three ingredients, all of which I have – gin, Calvados, and apricot brandy. I’ve been pretty liberal with the Calvados lately, as you’ll know if you’ve been following, but I think this drink was the first I’d had with apricot brandy, and it was a revelation. It really is an unsung hero of the back bar, and I’m now actively trying to find as many drinks as possible to use it in. This article from Serious Eats has a few to recommend, which I’ll definitely be trying. It has a really rich, jammy flavour, which adds so much fruitiness to a cocktail, without making it overly sweet. The name is slightly misleading, as ‘apricot brandy’ generally refers not to an actual brandy (although a few of these do exist, distilled from fermented apricots), but to a sweet liqueur which is made by macerating apricots in another spirit, generally grape brandy. I managed to find a good, balanced version made by Tesco (much kudos to Tesco for having their own-brand apricot brandy), which avoids being sticky-sweet.

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The composition of the cocktail is very simple – equal parts of all three ingredients. The original recipe comes from Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book and recommends shaking the drink, which seems odd since there are no non-liquor components. Difford’s says it tastes better when shaken, as you need quite a bit of dilution, but I think you can just stir it pretty well over small ice cubes and you’ll get a decent amount of water in there. Part of the elegant appeal of this drink is its crystal clear, amber hue, and it wouldn’t be the same if you frothed it up by shaking. This is the perfect autumn evening cocktail – full of lush apricot and apple flavours but not particularly sweet.

The Angel Face

1 oz gin
1 oz apricot brandy
1 oz Calvados

Stir all ingredients well over ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an apple slice.

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Meet the Gin Expert: Carl Hawkins, the Gintleman

Since I’m back in my hometown of Birmingham for about six weeks before I move back to the US, I thought I’d better make the most of being here by exploring the local drinks scene, and finding out what it has to offer. Despite being the UK’s second city, Birmingham has an unfortunate reputation for being a bit underwhelming in the cultural department, and has trailed behind other cities like Manchester, Edinburgh, and Bristol in the variety of entertainment and nightlife it can offer. Whenever I mention to another English person that I come from Birmingham, I’m inevitably met with a raised eyebrow and a slight, but unmistakeable air of discomfort. But the city has been hauling itself up over the last decade or so, and for a cocktail enthusiast like me, there’s a lot going on around here – local distilleries, a profusion of new cocktail bars, and some excellent specialist shops. In an effort to better acquaint myself with the local scene and the drinks industry in general, I lined up a few drinks professionals to talk to about their jobs – all of which I’m very envious of.

gintlemanFirst up, I met with Carl Hawkins, a gin expert, bar consultant, and brand ambassador for the locally made Martin Miller’s gin, who runs popular gin masterclasses and workshops in Birmingham under the moniker ‘The Gintleman.’ Hawkins has been in the business, running cocktail bars since 1998, well before the current trend for craft cocktails got underway. He worked firstly at the Terence Conran-run Zinc Bar and Grill, moving on to Red, one of Birmingham’s first speakeasy bars, and was instrumental in the formation of the Birmingham Association of Bartenders, an industry networking group which is still going strong with over 1000 members. In 2009 he set up Jekyll & Hyde, an award-winning pub and gin parlour in central Birmingham which capitalised on the fledgling demand for a more theatrical and spirit-focused type of cocktail. “Looking at gin, it appealed to all age ranges, both sexes, and from a demographic point of view, rich and poor alike,” Hawkins says of the gap in the market which allowed Jekyll & Hyde to become such a success – one of the first dedicated gin bars in the coutnry. The name was doubly fitting – both for the ability of alcohol to change a person’s personality, but also because Sir Joseph Jekyll, whose family name was used in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, was the sponsor of one of several eighteenth century Gin Acts in 1736, which aimed to crack down on gin consumption by taxing it out of existence. The act was eventually repealed by a later, less harsh law, but overall the Gin Acts did have the fortunate side effect of raising the quality of gin. The setting and surroundings of the pub, in a part of the city centre dominated by the law courts, police station, and children’s hospital, lent itself nicely to the idea of a “Victorian gin palace,” or gin parlour, as he rechristened it. Hawkins’ interest in gin coincided with a rise in awareness of the traditionally British spirit in the early 2000s, when new brands were starting to come into being which placed an emphasis on associations with England’s history. The emergence of companies like Plymouth Gin, which was at the vanguard of gin’s surge in popularity, sparked his “small collection of around 30 gins” at Jekyll & Hyde, which of course only grew from there. Undoubtedly the bar has been influential in Birmingham, which now boasts three dedicated “gin spaces,” (soon to be four with the opening of the Langley’s bar in January) as well as numerous other cocktail bars.

The changes in the drinks industry since his start in the late 90s have been tremendous. “Obviously there’s been the craft cocktail movement, a lot of which is down to deregulation, allowing manufacturers to be a lot more independent,” says Hawkins. Meanwhile the last couple of decades have also seen the explosion of the internet: “people are doing a lot more research online. In theory, you don’t need to leave your own city – the world can come to you. Bartenders are being inspired by cities like London to create more outlandish drinks.” Since Facebook and Instagram have become the means to document exciting food and drinks, there is much more of a demand, Hawkins notes, for drinks with a theatrical serve. With the explosion of the market for gin, social and educational events are also becoming incredibly popular. “Gin festivals are selling out on a regular basis, and we’re seeing more and more pop-up gin festivals,” joining the ranks of food festivals and those held for spirits with a more long-established fanbase like whiskey.

Hawkins’ own gin classes and talks offer gin flights and tastings of various permutations of the gin and tonic, which also pick up on the longer tradition of wine and whiskey education. People are now taking the kind of attitude to gin which they did to wine in the 1980s – everyone wants to have a base level of knowledge so that they can approach the vast gin market with some confidence. Hawkins’ genial raconteur persona allows him to regale his audiences with the historical anecdotes and fun tidbits that the story of gin has in abundance. “I try to cover the historical timeline, from genevers to Old Toms to London drys, to the renaissance of the gin industry with Plymouth gin in 1999. It’s about weaving that story tapestry – how gin has woven itself into the fabric of British history over the last 300 years – in an adult version of school, and giving them alcohol along the way!… A lot of people have grown up with Gordon’s and Schweppes and those slices of lemons you get in a jar, so that’s the reference point for a lot of people. It’s all about teaching people – why do you put ice in your gin and tonic? Why do you serve it in a balloon glass? There are all sorts of stories about gin, and the beauty of the gin category is that you can throw loads of interesting facts at them, and they can then tell those stories to whoever comes over for a G&T.” Indeed, Hawkins explains to me why gin and tonics are now commonly served in balloon glasses, an anecdote which has emerged from his researches for a Spanish gin tasting – apparently the chefs at El Bulli used to drink G&T’s in the hot kitchen as way to cool down, served in burgundy glasses with tons of ice. Spain, he goes on to tell me, is one of the largest gin consumers in the world, with teenagers drinking gin and coke on nights out, and the history of gin in Spain goes back to their production of it for British sailors stationed in Menorca in the 1800s. I can certainly see why his talks have such appeal – he weaves a fascinating narrative out of these stories.

As an expert on a spirit which has seen such a meteoric rise in popularity over the last decade or so, Hawkins inevitably wonders about the future of the trade. Although he admits that the explosion of gin shows no signs of stopping. “I do think we have reached saturation, and you wonder where the next big thing is. Of the gins which have come out in the last couple of years, there will probably be one or two which attain a level of buzz and will make it through. A lot of gins simply won’t be there, especially since it’s now being done as a sort of craft project in small batches, and they just don’t have the marketing. So they’ll become farmers’ market gins. If you take a look at the Ginventory app, there are over 2000 gins on there – you’d have to be Rain Man to be in control of all of that. What I think about when I do gin tastings is the flavour profile – are they spicy, or are they citrus? Is the packaging high quality? Can it stand up in a G&T?”

So what’s the next big thing in the world of gin? “The rise of tonic waters! The market is no longer just Schweppes and Britvic as it was prior to about 2005 – we’re moving into flavoured tonic waters. There are distinct camps in terms of flavour profiles – the next generation is now starting to drink premium gins and they want the tonic to go with it.” Hawkins is evangelical about the importance of mixers, especially since the gin and tonic, which he sees as the test of a good gin, is 75% tonic water. He’s currently got a collection of around 80 tonic waters, testament to its importance in his work. 1724 Tonic Water is a personal favourite, and he’s also a fan of ginger beer as a substitute with certain gins. It’s also possible, he explains, that people will start to think of gin as being more like whiskey, and get into aged genevers, which might be substituted for whiskey in many classic cocktails. On a related note, Hawkins is also hot on the trail of the ascendant Japanese gin industry; Japan’s first gin distillery has been granted a license only this year. The brand new release from Kyoto Distillery, Ki No Bi (“The Beauty of the Seasons”), uses a rice spirit base, with botanicals including yuzu, Japanese cypress wood, bamboo, and gyokuro tea. Will this herald the beginning of a Japanese influence akin to that of Nikka and Yamazaki in the world of whiskey?

Beyond the G&T, Hawkins is of course experienced with more elaborate cocktails from his own work with Jekyll & Hyde and other Birmingham bars, so we eventually moved on to the subject of cocktail menus and what goes into creating them. “I think there are two main camps, really, the ones that are relatively easy to make, where you’ve got three or four ingredients and they are classics for a reason. But then you’ve got the other more theatrical side of cocktails, where it becomes a Michelin star serve – this is made famous by places like Nightjar, and the Edgbaston hotel in Birmingham, where it really becomes an immersive experience. When you’re spending that much on a cocktail, it becomes a real investment for people. I like to see creativity, I like to see theatre, and one of the keys with a cocktail bar is the interaction – you can’t get too pretentious or stuffy. I’d like to see it come full circle – bars should be like a second home for people, you should feel comfortable in them.” I mention the tendency to use increasingly obscure ingredients in cocktails, and to make drinks which are to many people’s tastes quite unapproachable – extremely bitter, for example: “I call it the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome, where you pick these obscure ingredients – angel’s tears and unicorn saliva and so on. I think they’re trying to copy the high end restaurants, but from a consumer point of view, there’s that risk of disparity, where you feel like you’re getting mugged off. Lots of fancy ingredients but it doesn’t necessarily translate to the overall experience.”

So with all these various strings to his bow, what’s the best part of being a gin expert? “It’s so rewarding to get a room of 20 people, and two and a half hours later, they’re a bit tipsy, and they leave able to create a really good G&T at home, with confidence.” What better teaching experience could there be?

Thanks so much to Carl for sitting down and talking to me about his (amazing) job, and if you’re in the Birmingham area and fancy a gin tasting, you can find all his details at his website, http://www.thegintleman.com/, or on Instagram as @thegintlemanuk.

Cocktail of the week no.21: the Pink Lady

Ah, look at this cocktail – how pink, how frothy, how girly! You might think that if this were a person it would be Cinderella, radiating sweetness and light and charm, coming down the staircase in a flowing dress, about to step into her carriage with a bright optimism about the delights of the evening to come. Like so:

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You would of course be wrong. This drink does not pull any punches; it’s not sweet, it’s not  that creamy, it’s definitely not delicate. It’s incredibly dry and tart, and in fact it feels a bit like you’re being slapped in the face by Cinderella, not that she would ever do such a thing. A bit more like this on the pink lady spectrum:

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Ah, that’s better. So the Pink Lady is another old and venerable cocktail, with gin and grenadine (hence the pinkness) at its heart. It was a common drink during prohibition, when the grenadine would have come in handy to mask the unpleasant harshness of bootleg gin. Ultimately its pink frothiness would come to have it associated with a feminine sensibility. This association was thoroughly consolidated by the announcement of Jayne Mansfield, Hollywood bombshell, that she liked to drink a Pink Lady before dinner – this from the woman who lived in an entirely pink house, with a bathtub that poured pink champagne.

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Jayne Mansfield’s “Pink Palace”

Right, anyone need an ibuprofen after all those pictures? Personally I prefer the stories about ‘alternative’ Pink Ladies that Eric Felten gives in his delightful WSJ article about the drink. As he reports, a number of concoctions have been called ‘Pink Lady’ over the years, and the best story is that submariners in WWII used to drain off the straight alcohol which was used to power the torpedoes and drink it. When a bright red chemical was added to the ‘torpedo juice’ to discourage this practice, the submariners would filter the alcohol through a loaf of bread, giving a slightly pink tinge to the resulting liquid. I honestly think that ‘Torpedo Juice’ is an excellent name for this cocktail, as you do have the sensation, when drinking it, that you might just have been fired at speed from a submarine.

It’s unfortunate that this drink became so unpopular owing to its ‘girly’ name and reputation, a fate also suffered by the Cosmopolitan (thanks, Sex and the City!), which, when made correctly, also has a powerful kick to it. It’s true that, as Ted Haigh notes in his book “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails,” it’s difficult for the typical (male) cocktail enthusiast to order a drink with such a name, so in order to get round this problem and aid the drink’s resurgence, he proposed renaming it “The Secret Cocktail.” For myself, I think men should reclaim the pink! Order a Pink Lady, guys, you won’t be disappointed.

As ever, there are variations on the recipe. In its most basic form, it calls for gin, grenadine, and egg white to create the froth. Most recipes add lemon juice, but this just makes it a Clover Club, so the distinguishing ingredient then becomes the very seasonally appropriate apple brandy, which I am making the most of at the moment. This combination of apple brandy and gin, together with the lemon and the grenadine (which should itself be pretty tart), makes for an intensely lip-puckering experience.

The Pink Lady

1 1/2 oz gin
1/2 oz apple brandy
Juice of half a lemon
4 dashes grenadine
Half an egg white

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and shake without ice for at least ten seconds to emulsify the egg white. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry. Thanks, as ever, to Serious Eats for the recipe.

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More Seasonal Cocktails: Fig Smashes

I think the first time I encountered a wild fig, I was about 22 and in Greece having a mooch around some ruins. As I come from a family that’s not particularly adventurous with its food, and has strong leanings towards the boiled meat and potatoes side of English cuisine, I’m pretty sure I’d never eaten a fig in any form before then. I certainly wasn’t familiar with this bulging little purple fruit, and had to be shown how to tackle it by an Italian acquaintance. I found this all rather embarrassing, but on the bright side, the fig was delicious, and I now know how to eat them. You live and learn. Most of my subsequent fig encounters, though, have been in the context of cheese. This is, of course, a brilliant pairing, but then I’m always favourably inclined towards anything that comes with cheese – if I wasn’t writing a blog about cocktails I’d probably write one about cheese. But as with any other seasonal fruit, my first instinct now is to shove it into a cocktail and see what happens.

Figs are very much an early autumn fruit, and in the UK they appear between August and October. They don’t keep for long once you’ve bought them, as they should already be ripe when they’re picked, so they’re an excellent fruit for impulse-buying and eating. There’s something kind of indulgent and voluptuous about eating figs – sure you can use them in recipes, but it’s so fun just to grab them and squish them apart in your hands and eat them right there. Nonetheless, this squishable quality makes them perfect candidates for muddling, just like blackberries, and as we head into the season of non-squishable, not obviously cocktail-friendly produce (a nice October turnip cocktail, anyone?), I’m making the most of the muddler.

For today’s cocktails, I made use of the incredibly helpful ingredient search tool on Kindred Cocktails, which provides endless recipes and inspiration. I decided to try two concoctions by other contributors on the site, namely the “Aged to Perfection” and the “NJ Sour.” Before I get to them, let me interject one small note of warning about making cocktails with muddled figs – you should be aware that 5-10 minutes of your life will be spent trying to fine strain them into a glass. The tiny little seeds in figs are just the right size to block up a strainer and make it virtually impossible to sieve the liquid through them. I was poking at a voluminous mush of squashed fig in a strainer for what felt like hours while I made these. Enjoy that!

First up, the Aged to Perfection, which was featured in Imbibe in 2012. This one features cognac, fresh orange, honey syrup, balsamic vinegar, and of course fresh figs. I tried this one in the name of pushing my cocktail boundaries a bit, as I must admit to having never liked honey, and also to struggling with vinegary cocktails. Vinegar is increasingly popular as a cocktail element, both in fruity shrubs and in more savoury offerings, but it is, along with fat-washing, something that makes me feel faintly nauseous. Nonetheless, intrepid cocktail explorer that I am, I girded the loins and plunged in. And then I leapt back out again. The combination of sweet and vinegary in this one just didn’t agree with me. And I think it’s good to admit when you run into a cocktail you don’t like – they’re not all for everyone. Still, in case you think it might be for you, here is the recipe:

Aged to Perfection

1 1/2 oz Cognac
1 oz fresh orange juice
1/2 oz honey syrup
1/2 oz aged balsamic vinegar
2 fresh figs

Muddle the figs in the bottom of a shaker, then add ice and the rest of the ingredients and shake well. Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass (set aside some time for this), and garnish with a slice of fig.

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Next up, the NJ Sour, which I was of course biased towards as a former resident of the Garden State, although interestingly enough this seems to have been created for the Connaught Hotel in London (of the much ballyhooed Martini Trolley). This is one of those drinks which, like last week’s Blackberry Gimlet, falls into the “adult fruit juice” category – it’s definitely on the sweet and fruity side if you like that kind of thing. Really I chose it because it allowed me to use three of my new cocktail ingredients: my homemade grenadine, which is still looking like a gruesome jar of blood in my fridge, the bottle of Calvados which is coming in handy for all sorts of autumn-related cocktails (e.g. the Jack Rose), and Amaro Averna. I must say the Averna makes very little contribution in this drink though – any bitterness or indeed chocolateyness is lost in the general pomegranate-fig-lemon-apple melée. The jammy flavour and texture of the figs does come through really nicely here, so if you fancy a kind of seasonal fruit punch experience, I can recommend this one.

NJ Sour

1 fresh fig
1 oz apple brandy
1/2 oz orange curaçao (I used Grand Marnier)
1/2 oz Amaro Averna
2⁄3 oz fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 oz Grenadine

Muddle the figs as before in a cocktail shaker, then add ice with the rest of the ingredients and shake. Fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a slice of lemon.

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Cocktail of the week no.20: the Jack Rose

One of the things I always loved most (and hopefully will be able to appreciate again soon) about living in America is the enthusiastic celebration of all things autumn-related (sorry, fall-related). England does not do this with quite the same level of abandon, as we live in a state of near-perpetual autumn, and I miss not being able to move without tripping over some golden-hued display of leaves, pumpkins, chrysanthemums, and above all, apples. As a side note, if there was some way to get fresh apple cider donuts shipped over to the  UK, I would do it in a heartbeat (please tell me if there is), for they are the pinnacle of human culinary achievement.

 

This week’s classic cocktail, then – the Jack Rose – is a celebration of apples, not using fresh apples (I’m getting to that), but apple brandy instead. Its origins are, like those of many classic cocktails, buried in history, with various stories competing for legitimacy. Perhaps the most exotic stories concern the involvement of Bald Jack Rose, a notorious gambler and criminal in 1910s’ New York, whose slightly undignified moniker was down to a case of ty220px-rose_5248624237_db0e7debb8_ophoid-induced alopecia. This Jack Rose had a corrupt NYPD detective, Charles Becker, in his pocket, and acquired widespread notoriety when his testimony convicted that detective when he was on trial for the murder of a rival gambling mogul, Herman Rosenthal. Rose’s unpopularity over ratting out Becker led to him escaping New York City with a wig for a disguise, and turning to a life of farming and preaching against gambling. An eminently suitable character to have a cocktail named after him, and you can read the full story in this excellent article by Eric Felten in the WSJ.

The Jack Rose should really use applejack, an American apple brandy which can be quite hard to get hold of, especially in the UK, so as a substitute here I’ve used Calvados, the French version of apple brandy. While Calvados is generally considered to be a fine substitute for American applejack in terms of taste, I do think applejack fits in better with the origins of the cocktail in prohibition-era East Coast America. Applejack became popular in the US when it was used to pay road construction crews in the early 1800s, and its main producer, Laird’s, is based in New Jersey. All these associations seem totally in keeping with the, er, spirit of the cocktail.

The distinctions between applejack and Calvados run deeper than origin stories, however, since their methods of production also vary widely. Applejack should be made from 100% apples (although the most commonly used variety, Laird’s Blended, introduces grain spirits as well and therefore is not a true applejack), while Calvados often contains both apples and pears. Traditionally applejack was made using the process of ‘freeze distilling’ or ‘jacking’, in which apple cider was left to freeze over the winter, and the frozen blocks were periodically removed, so that the pure alcohol, which wouldn’t freeze, would become more concentrated in the liquid left behind. Nowadays it tends to be made using normal evaporative distillation, like Calvados itself. Calvados, however, being French, is subject to a whole host of regulations on its production: it only comes from designated regions in Normandy, it must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years, and the apples and pears must be approved varieties. The longer it is aged, the smoother it becomes, and so there are also age designations similar to those for cognac.

As I’m trying not to splurge too much on bottles before I move away and have to start my collection over again, I found a lovely VSOP Pays D’Auge Calvados (VSOP has been aged for at least four years, and calvados from the Pays D’Auge is subject to additional production requirements) from Tesco, of all places. Tesco seems to be a bit of a goldmine for spirits and liqueurs, with its own label apricot brandy which I also plan on using to its fullest extent in the next few weeks, as well as cherry brandy and crème de cassis.

Anyway, my researches in to Calvados aside, here is a slightly Frenchified Jack Rose (or as Eric Felten puts it, a Jacque Rose), for your fall-sipping delectation. Ratios vary, as ever, as does opinion on whether to use lemon or lime juice as the sour component. I’ve as usual stuck to the sage advice of Serious Eats.

The Jack Rose

2 oz apple brandy
3/4 oz grenadine (for recipe see here)
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters

Shake all ingredients with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express a lemon twist over the glass, then either discard or use for garnish.

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Seasonal Cocktails: Blackberry Smashes

I’ve had several episodes over the past month of being reasonably sure the English summer is over, and, in the grand tradition of English weather, it keeps subverting my expectations. A miniature mid-September heatwave has hit us (which will doubtless be over by the time I publish this, or even by the time I finish typing this), and it’s making me want to go back to Lillet and elderflower and sparkling wine. It seems appropriate then to make some seasonal cocktails with another fruit which sits on the border of summer and autumn, the blackberry. Around here, blackberry season stretches from June until November, and I remember always being able to pick the berries growing wild in the hedgerows around this time of year.

As they’re a particularly soft and squishy fruit, it’s easy to muddle them and extract tons of flavour from them in cocktails. I’ve stuck to muddling here to make the best use of the fresh fruit, but there are plenty of cocktails out there which use crème de mure, or blackberry liqueur. The most famous of these is the Bramble, created in 1982 by Dick Bradsell at Fred’s Club in Soho, which is a variation on a gin sour with crème de mure in place of some of the simple syrup. I fully plan on making my own blackberry liqueur one of these days – Serious Eats has a fine recipe here – particularly since I hear the Pacific Northwest, where I’ll be living soon, is practically overrun by blackberries every summer, to the point where it’s classed as a ‘noxious weed.’

First up, then, a fresh, summer, super easy to make drink, the Blackberry Gimlet, which takes the classic gimlet recipe and simply adds blackberries for a twist. This drink is like adult Ribena, which, for those who didn’t grow up in England, is a blackcurrant cordial commonly given to kids, and it’s the best drink ever. It’s sweet, tart, and is one of those glorious drinks which goes down incredibly easily and then punches you in the face about an hour later – a perfect late summer sip. This recipe is courtesy of Aviation Gin, although I will admit to not making it with Aviation. This time. Fine straining this drink through a sieve is slightly time-consuming but essential – the gimlet is an elegant drink and does not lend itself to a heap of squashed blackberries at the bottom.

Blackberry Gimlet:

2 oz gin
3/4 oz lime juice
7 blackberries
3/4 oz simple syrup

Muddle blackberries with simple syrup in a mixing glass. Add gin and lime juice and shake with ice. Fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

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In another illustration of the gleeful unpredictability of the English weather, it started to tip it down, monsoon-style, about fifteen minutes after I took this.

Next up, something a bit more autumnal, with rye and my beloved Averna, which I’m trying to use to its fullest extent at the moment. The base of blackberry and lime is still there, but this is a much more complex drink, with the whiskey and amaro adding spicy, bitter, chocolatey overtones. Unlike with the gimlet, this is a true smash, and in its rough and ready style, it can handle some blackberry mush floating around, so no need to deploy the sieve.  Thanks to Imbibe for the recipe.

Philly Smash:

6 blackberries
1 1/2 oz rye whiskey
1/2 oz Amaro Averna
1/4 oz simple syrup
1/4 oz fresh lime juice

Muddle blackberries with the simple syrup in the bottom of an old-fashioned glass. Add in the rye, Averna, and lime juice. Fill the glass with ice and stir. Garnish with fresh berries.

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Cocktail of the week no.19: the Tuxedo

In 1885, in a rural patch of New York state called Tuxedo, just north of the border with New Jersey, a man named Pierre Lorillard decided to found a country club. He named it after the region, which had retained its Indian name; Etymonline and the Tuxedo Club’s own excellent history page agree that ‘Tuxedo’ probably derives from the Algonquian ‘p’tuck-sepo,’ or ‘crooked river.’ The club was a success, attracting the New York glitterati for its country pursuits and society dances, and in the year of its opening, 1886, the name went down in history for its association with a new, informal style of evening wear – the tail-less dinner jacket. Supposedly this rather avant-garde garment was brought back to New York by one James Brown Potter, who saw the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) wearing one on a visit to Sandringham; the ‘notoriously unchaste’ prince recommended his tailor to Potter while simultaneously trying to seduce his wife. The Wall Street Journal has the full story here, as well as one or two other versions. This casual outfit, which was easier to wear than the traditional tails, caused quite a scandal when it appeared. Etymonline (a gift of a website where you can look up the etymology of any word you like – I am eternally grateful to one of my sixth-form Latin students for recommending it to me) also presents us with the following delightful quotation from a contemporary clothing magazine:

There was a hue and cry raised against the Tuxedo coat upon its first appearance because it was erroneously considered and widely written of as intended to displace the swallow tail. When the true import of the tailless dress coat came to be realized it was accepted promptly by swelldom, and now is widely recognized as one of the staple adjuncts of the jeunesse dorée. [“Clothier and Furnisher,” August, 1889]

Yes, I’m sure we’re all grateful that swelldom realised the true import of the tailless dress coat. Also, please can we resurrect the word ‘swelldom?’

Anyway, I digress severely from the topic at hand, this delightful cocktail, the Tuxedo, which is essentially a jazzed up Martini. The relation of the cocktail to the club is unclear – Difford’s mentions that this recipe, featuring gin, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and absinthe, was adapted from Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual, which came out in 1882, before the club was founded. To complicate matters, you will also find another version of the Tuxedo floating around, which makes a more straightforward Martini variation by susbstituting the vermouth for fino sherry, with no maraschino and absinthe. Punch claims (citing cocktail historian David Wondrich) that this was the first Tuxedo to appear. In support of this, I have often seen the vermouth-maraschino-absinthe version referred to as the Tuxedo no.2, distinguishing it from the original. I’m left with no clear idea about what’s going on, so I’m making an executive decision in favour of the Tuxedo no.2 (mostly because I am very fond of maraschino).

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Tuxedo [no.2]

1 oz Old Tom gin
1 oz dry vermouth
1/2 barspoon of maraschino liqueur
1/4 barspoon of absinthe
3 dashes orange bitters

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass over ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Alternatively, since the absinthe tends to dominate, you can do an absinthe rinse in the cocktail glass and then discard before pouring in the rest of the ingredients. Garnish with a twist of lemon and/or a maraschino cherry.

As you’d expect from the use of the Old Tom and the maraschino, this tastes like a somewhat sweeter, more complex Martini, with the maraschino lending an intriguing almondy depth to the drink. The absinthe does rise above the other ingredients to a certain extent, so I think next time I would go for the rinse rather than adding it into the mix. For reference, I’ll also give the recipe for the original Tuxedo with sherry:

Tuxedo

2 oz dry gin
1 oz fino sherry
1 dash orange bitters

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass over ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

This is a much closer Martini cousin, just somewhat nuttier and ever so slightly sweeter. I prefer the Tuxedo no.2, but let me know which one you like!

Getting To Know Amari: Amaro Averna & the Black Manhattan

If you’ve looked at the menu in a cocktail bar in the last decade or so, or indeed looked at any cocktail posts on Instagram – something I spend far too much time doing – you will have noticed a profusion of impenetrable names on the ingredients list like ‘Cynar’, ‘Averna’, ‘Fernet Branca’, ‘Ramazzotti’, which have certainly caused me, in the past, to reach unobtrusively for my phone and Google what the hell they are. All these, along with many others, belong to the group of liqueurs known as ‘amari.’ Amaro in Italian just means ‘bitter’, and many, if not most of these liqueurs are indeed Italian, commonly drunk after dinner as a digestif. They are made by macerating herbs, spices, and roots in a neutral spirit or wine, and adding caramel or sugar syrup to sweeten it. Common flavourings include gentian, cinchona (the same tree used to make quinine), anise, cinnamon, along with many others.

The most famous (and currently the most widely used), are the luridly coloured Campari, and its sweeter cousin Aperol. On an amari scale of 1-10, where 1 is ‘drinkable by anyone’ and 10 is ‘consumed only by hipsters and bartenders,’ Aperol is probably 1. Something like Fernet Branca, which has a highly bitter and minty taste reminiscent of a mouthwash, would be 10. Averna here would be hovering around 3.

These amari that I’ve mentioned are all Italian, and indeed amari as a class of liqueurs is most prominently associated with Italy, but there are plenty of other bitter cousins out there, including the Czech Becherovka, the French Suze, and the notorious German Jägermeister, which I have grimaced over many a time in sticky-floored bars, but which is undergoing a fascinating renaissance at the moment. (At least here in the UK, I can’t move for adverts featuring be-flannel-shirted Kinfolk escapees building (sorry, crafting) a giant stag out of wood in a field and then burning it down. Is this a metaphor for the act of drinking? Who knows.) I’m eager to get to making cocktails at home from all of these, but for now, let’s start with Averna.

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Averna is generally considered to be a ‘beginner’s’ amaro, as it initially presents as quite sweet, with flavours of chocolate and caramel that turn into a more bitter, licorice-y aftertaste. It’s actually less bitter on the intake than Campari, for example. Supposedly the recipe, a well-guarded secret, was handed to Salvatore Averna in the 1850s by the Capuchin monks of an abbey near his home, Caltanissetta, in Sicily, who drank it as an elixir. What better origin story could there be for a drink? Of course it’s well known that monks make the best liqueurs (cf. Benedictine, Chartreuse).

Averna is lovely as a digestif, sipped neat or on the rocks. I found some tiny tiny sherry glasses in my parents’ Aladdin’s Cave of a glass cupboard, which just about fit an ice cube and make me feel impossibly civilised as I sip from one after dinner. My mother has indulged in a drop from time to time as well (only a drop, as she seems to be under the impression that she will be immediately drunk if she has more, and finds this concept horrifying), and highly recommends it. She did spend a year abroad in Italy as a student, and I suspect she may have had another life in Florence sipping amari with charming Italians every evening, but she refuses to tell me about it.

Averna is also used widely as ingredient in cocktails, increasingly so now that the popularity of amari is on the rise. One easy way to use amari is as a substitute for vermouth, particularly sweet vermouth, as the categories of vermouth (fortified wines to which spices and bitter flavours are added) and amari overlap frequently in flavours and methods used to make them. I’ll be using it in a few more upcoming posts about autumnal cocktails, as it marries well with fruity flavours – I’m particularly excited to try it with figs. But let’s start with a simple cocktail, invented only in 2008 in San Francisco (by bartender Todd Smith – thank you Imbibe), which replaces the sweet vermouth in a Manhattan with Averna. This is called a Black Manhattan (who could resist such a name?), and it’s rich, strong, and bittersweet – perfect for an early autumn evening.

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Black Manhattan:

2 oz rye whiskey
1 oz Amaro Averna
1 dash orange bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with ice, and stir to combine. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry.