Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Magyar Old-Fashioned

I just finished rereading David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. It's one of the more highly regarded tomes in cocktail geek land. It's also out of print and sells for outrageous sums at eBay. I somehow managed to get my copy--a paperback edition--from an Australian eBay seller a couple years ago for a far more reasonable cost . Maybe the overseas location scared off the other bidders, the poor schmucks. I think I paid about thirteen bucks or so including shipping from Oz. At the time I'd seen copies sell for over $50 on a regular basis so to say that I was geeked when that auction ended is true according to a couple definitions of the word.

Anyway, at one point in the book Embury mentions that brandy and Unicum* go well together. He doesn't offer any drink recipes that include Unicum but as I have a dusty bottle of the stuff from a friend who spent a few years in Hungary I thought I'd rescue it from the Cupboard of Misfit Booze and put Mr. Embury to the test. Forgive my immodesty but I think I hit a home run in my first at bat:

The Magyar Old-Fashioned

2.5 oz brandy (or cognac or armagnac)
.25 oz Unicum bitters
.25 oz simple syrup

Build in rocks glass. Stir. Add large ice cubes to fill. Lemon twist.

Unicum is no shrinking violet flavor-wise so you may want to use it exactly like Angostura or other non-potable bitters and add just a dash or two or you could increase the simple syrup to around a half-ounce. That might help to take the edge off it a bit. For me, though, I'm pretty damn happy with my recipe as it stands. It's hardly mixological genius on par with the work of, say, the brilliant Alberta Straub** but I think it's a nice solid example of how new drinks can be created based on the frameworks of old ones.

I made three of these over the course of the pre-holiday weekend and used three different brandies. The first was made with E&J VSOP brandy. Very nice. The modest quarter-ounce of Unicum grabs the brandy by the lapels and gives it a good shake but the sweetness of the brandy and the simple syrup (2:1 turbinado) balance the pungent herbal bitterness of the Unicum quite well.

For round two I used Chateau de Laubade Bas Armagnac VSOP. I don't know much about armagnac (or cognac for that matter) but I can say that I think Wine Enthusiast is right in calling this a best buy at $25. I like it a lot on it's own and it made for a better drink. That it's a little drier than the E&J, I think, allowed for the Unicum to come through a little more forcefully. While this was noticeably better than the E&J version I wouldn't say it was significantly better.

On Sunday I made another. This time I used Chalfonte VSOP cognac and I was surprised to find that this is the version I liked the best. It could be that it's a more perfect match with the Unicum or that a couple days time had dulled the memory of the previous two drinks or it could be that I was just that much more accustomed to the peculiar flavor of the Unicum. Regardless, the Chalfonte Magyar O-F was quite delicious and, as the Chalfonte is a very modestly-priced cognac I couldn't be more pleased.

*Unicum is a Hungarian bitter herbal liqueur kinda like Jägermeister. Both are almost exclusively drunk straight in their home country where they're considered aids to digestion after dinner (digestifs, if you'll pardon my French) and both are commonly recommended as hangover cures the morning after. Unlike Jägermeister, though, the only college students doing shots of Unicum are in Hungary. It's not exactly something you sip and savor. If I remember correctly it's pretty much a down-the-hatch deal even in Hungary and that's where they actually like the stuff. I imagine the number of people who like it the first time they try it is pretty small.

What does it taste like? Unfortunately, I'll have to cop out. It's said to be made with over forty herbs and I simply don't have the palate to describe it. Also, frankly, I've only managed to drink it straight a couple of times. Stephan Berg at The Bitters Blog has said that Unicum's predominant flavor is cardamom. I'll have to take his word for it.

** Check out the current issue of Imbibe magazine (Nov/Dec 2006) for an article on Alberta. Following the link actually gets you a preview of it. In a future post I'll have to tell the story of the evening the galfriend and I spent sampling a sizable number of Alberta's very original and very delicious cocktails at the Orbit Room (1900 Market St., San Francisco). She's an amazing bartender and an exceedingly charming and funny woman. In the Imbibe piece she mentions that she's thinking of moving to Chicago and opening a bar. That would be amazingly kick-ass.

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MixMo follow-up

Okay, so much for my plan to post something on a more or less weekly basis. Where was I? . . .

. . . I suppose now that I've made my case for the Fancy Gin Cocktail with Peychaud's I'll mention a few drinks that also place an even greater emphasis on cocktail bitters. These were new to me though a two of the three have been around for ages. I used Plymouth gin and I served them "up" in a chilled rocks glass.

The Angler Cocktail
Vintage Cocktails by Susan Waggoner/Robert Markel
2 oz gin
3 dashes Angostura bitters
3 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes grenadine

Stir and strain.

Pink Gin
2 oz gin
6 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir & strain. [I've also seen recipes for this served neat, served up and also on the rocks. Stirring seemed to me to make the most sense but you're welcome to follow your heart (or fave cocktail guru) on this one.]

2 oz gin
2 dash peach bitters
2 sprigs mint
Stir & strain. [Or shake & strain into chilled cocktail glass].

I liked all three but I think the Derby is the only one I'm likely to make again. The combination of peach and mint seemed promising and it did make for a pleasant drink. Fee's Peach Bitters are very mild and I was concerned that they would be overwhelmed by the mint and the gin so I used three dashes instead of two. To my surprise, however, while I've found that peach bitters are sometimes lost in a whiskey cocktail they held up just fine in this very simple gin cocktail. I think two dashes would have been better. The peach flavor may have been just a touch heavy.

I felt that all three drinks could have benefited from the addition of another ingredient. Dry vermouth or Lillet would certainly have improved the Angler and the Pink Gin. I did like the Pink Gin more at the end of the drink than at the beginning though. I suppose I might make another some time. The Angler was okay but I never got past the feeling that it was missing something. I can't say as I'll ever make it again--certainly not as is. It's a nice start to a cocktail though. Adding, say, maraschino liqueur and/or vermouth might lead to something more memorable.

And, finally, one more recipe from Dave Wondrich, this time one of his own inventions. I haven't tried it yet but I thought I'd include for any gin-haters who may be reading. It's essentially an Old Fashioned Vodka Cocktail so it should look familiar. It might make a nice change of pace when you vodka fans are out of tonic or in the mood for something a little different.
The Delancey
2 oz vodka
½ teaspoon Demerara simple syrup (2:1)
1 dash orange bitters
1 dash Peychaud's or Angostura bitters

Combine in a rocks glass, stir well. Add 2-3 large ice cubes, stir some more and twist a swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top. Let sit for a couple of minutes before drinking.
So, if you don't have any bitters at home, grab a bottle of Angostura the next time you're at the grocery store. Even if you're not a big cocktail drinker you can use them in cooking or to flavor your favorite carbonated beverage. Try a couple dashes in a nice cold glass of seltzer or club soda or in your next gin & tonic or Greyhound. You may even want to try a stronger dose if you have an upset stomach. Most if not all bitters were initially developed as stomach tonics or general health tonics.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Mixology Monday does bitters.

Welcome to my tiny corner of the web Mixology Monday fans. I've followed M2 since its inception but this will be my first as a participant. I've been keeping a low profile since I started this blog a mere week or so ago. I wasn't quite sure how I felt about joining the cocktail blognoscenti but it turns out that outing myself as a cocktail geek was fairly painless. Sure, nobody's been watching so far but, really, if M2 is what brought you here I don't imagine you're here to cast aspersions. And if you are, well, let he who is not a cocktail geek cast the first stone.

Now, on to the topic at hand: bitters. Bitters are a largely forgotten part of the cocktail world despite their immense importance. I've seen the role of bitters in cocktails compared to the role of salt in cooking and I think that's particularly apt*. In cooking, for example, salt is often called for in recipes in which a salty flavor isn't required or desired. Most cookie recipes call for a small amount of salt, right? Nobody wants a salty cookie and, thankfully, that's not salt’s role in a cookie recipe. What the salt does is to somehow make the other ingredients taste better, in fact, to taste more like themselves. Cocktail bitters play essentially the same role in cocktail recipes.

It depends on the type and amount of bitters used in cocktail recipe, of course, but as a rule bitters serve to bring the other ingredients together and/or to somehow emphasize a certain aspect of the drink. In a Manhattan, for example, I can't say that I pay conscious attention to the flavor of the Angostura bitters in the drink but it's a fact I've never been wrong when I've taken a Manhattan back to the bartender and asked if he had added bitters. There's just something about the addition of a couple dashes of bitters that makes it easy for me to notice when they're absent. Whiskey and vermouth go well together but they simply go together better when with a couple dashes of bitters added.

The good news is that bitters are making a comeback. Angostura bitters remain the best known and easiest to find (even if too many bartenders never heard of 'em) but its no longer impossible to find Peychaud's bitters and, can you believe it, we're living in a time when two--TWO!--companies are making orange bitters in the United States. This is down from the dozens available in the early 20th century but it's two more than existed just a few years ago. That's progress, friends.

So, assuming you have more than Angostura on hand, what can you do with the other types of bitters? One suggestion I'll make is the Fancy Gin Cocktail and it can be made with either Angostura or Peychaud's. This is a matter of personal preference, of course, but I've tried both and for me it's an easy choice. Using Angostura makes for a fine drink but using Peychaud's makes this one of my very favorites. Here's the recipe for the Old Fashioned Gin Cocktail. The Fancy Gin Cocktail is a slight variation.

Old Fashioned Gin Cocktail (Esquire Drinks Database)
½ tsp sugar (or one lump)
2 dashes bitters (Peychaud’s or Angostura)
1 tsp H2O
2 oz gin (Jonge, or “young” genever if available)

Dissolve sugar in a rocks glass with the water and bitters. Muddle until sugar dissolves. Add gin, stir well, and add 2 large ice cubes. Let it sit for a couple minutes before drinking.

First, skip the "dissolve sugar..." part. Use about a teaspoon of simple syrup and save yourself the hassle. I've been using a syrup made with two parts Demerara sugar to one part water. Next, note that this one calls for genever or genever gin, the Dutch style of gin sometimes also called Dutch or Holland gin. I’m aware of only two brands currently available in the U.S., Zuidam and Boomsma. I have a bottle of the Zuidam. I can’t tell you how it compares to other genevers but it’s really terrific.

Here’s some info from a Zuidam press release:
"For the Zuidam Genever Gin, we start with a whiskey-like base, and add the botanicals in one distillation,” explains Patrick van Zuidam. “For our Genever we use juniper, licorice root, vanilla, aniseed and marjoram. Zuidam Genever is more refined than most Genevers. It is elegant and provides a very different gin taste that is decidedly sweeter, yet still refreshing, with a malty undertone. Unlike some Genevers, Zuidam Genever Gin is crystal clear.”
Sound interesting? Here are a couple variations on the Old Fashioned Gin Cocktail (also from Esquire):

Fancy Gin Cocktail
Same as above but with one additional step. Take a big lemon twist, squeeze it over the glass and rub it around the rim. The twist adds a little tartness that makes a very good drink a great drink. If you have a lemon in the house use it.

Improved Gin Cocktail
2 oz gin (pref. Jonge, or "young", genever, eg. Zuidam)
½ to 1 tsp simple syrup (made 2:1 w/demerara sugar)
½ to 1 tsp liqueur (G.Marnier, Maraschino or Cointreau)
2 dashes bitters
1 dash absinthe (or substitute a pastis such as Pernod or Herbsaint)

Add all to lot of cracked ice in a shaker. Stir vigorously & strain into chilled glass. Squeeze a big lemon twist over the glass and rub it around the rim.

David Wondrich, the excellent writer on booze for Esquire and the author of all the material at the Esquire Drinks Database, put out a fine book in 2005. In it he included a revised version of the above recipe which he called the Improved Holland Gin Cocktail. The stuff in bold is what he changed or preferences he specified in the book (and/or on-line in the eGullet and DrinkBoy cocktail forums) and that's how I made this. I prefer the Fancy but this one is also very good. I haven't tried it yet with Grand Marnier or Cointreau but I'm curious if using either would change my mind.

*It turns out that Robert "Drinkboy" Hess reprises some of his thoughts on this in his newest piece at The Spirit World. Check it out.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Monarchist

Over the weekend Nishla responded to my post at eGullet regarding her accidental discovery. The name for her new cocktail is The Monarchist . She wrote:
I looked into what the term "royalist" means, and generally it's someone who supports a monarchy. In particular, it can refer to supporters of the House of Bourbon, which originally ruled in France (thus, the dry vermouth). Since gin is often associated with Britain, maybe we can call the gin version a Monarchist, which refers to supporters of the British monarchy.
I think that's pretty clever. I checked a few recipe sites and turned up no other cocktails with this name, so The Monarchist it is.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Royalist Cocktail--the update.

Okay. Turns out that Nishla misread the recipe for The Royalist at CocktailDB. It's not 1.5 oz of gin it's 1.5 oz of dry vermouth that the recipe calls for. So, the Royalist is sort of a "reverse" Dry Manhattan Special instead of the unique concoction Nishla posted at I managed to misread the recipe myself when I looked it up but I'm not embarassed or upset because Nishla's version appears to be a brand new cocktail.

I used the kick-ass search function at CocktailDB and checked a few other drink recipe sites and found nothing that resembles what Nishla and I thought was The Royalist. My search was hardly exhaustive so please be sure to pass along any gin + bourbon + Benedictine recipes you come across. I did find a few recipes with gin, whiskey and pastis. Pastis ain't Benedictine but it is an herbal liqueur so I think it's close enough for jazz. We can certainly consider these to be related to the (Not a) Royalist*:

Eau de Nil 1.5 oz gin, .5 oz rye or bourbon, .25 oz pastis, .25 oz grenadine
Bunny Hug 1:1:1 gin, rye or bourbon, pastis (1 oz of each)
Earthquake 1:1:1 gin, rye or bourbon, pastis (.75 oz of each)

Note that the Bunny Hug** and the Earthquake are the exact same drink. Each has a 1:1:1 ratio of the three ingredients. Only the size of the drink differs. My guess is that the Earthquake came about after a revolt by Bunny Hug lovers who got tired of taking crap from their friends and bartenders. Seriously, who coined the name Bunny Hug for this manly and potent potable? And why? Any way you slice it, knocking back a mixture of three full-strength boozes diluted with only a little water by stirring or shaking, well, it doesn't exactly conjure up thoughts of fuzzy little bunnies. Maybe if it had been created by a bartender at one of the old Playboy clubs I could understand calling it the Bunny Slap In Face.... Ba dump bump.

Absente, Herbsaint, Pernod, and Ricard are the most common pastises (sp?) but I'm not really up to speed on the pastis family. I know they're intended to be an absinthe substitute, that their primary flavor is anise and that a little pastis goes a long, long way. I have a bottle of Herbsaint but, if memory serves, I've only used it in Sazeracs and Corpse Reviver #2s. Both are Hall of Fame-level cocktails but neither requires more than a dash or so of pastis. In Europe pastis, pastis & water, and various pastis cocktails are fairly common aperitifs. I'm not sure that I want a nice cold glass of liquid licorice before dinner but you knock yer bad self out, Pierre.

* I've left a post at eGullet asking Nishla what she wants to call her accidental creation. I'll post another update when she responds.

** Aha. It turns out that the Bunny Hug was named after a suggestive dance from the early part of the last century. Thanks to Andy and Erik at eGullet for the info and the link.