The Essentials: spirits and ingredients part 1 – Liquors

A while back I asked you, my dear readers, what segments you’d like to see next here at Experiments From The Bar.  The topic that got the most votes was a new entry in the Building Your Home Bar category, where I gave my thoughts on the essential liquors and liqueurs that every home bar needs.  Well, here we are a month later, and I’m proud to share with you the first of a series of posts on what it takes to get yourself provisioned for creating and enjoying some fine libations.

When it comes to making cocktails, there are four overall groups of ingredients, as I see it: liquors, liqueurs, mixers, and garnishes.  We’ll be looking at all four over the coming weeks but today we’ll get started with foundation of cocktails: liquors.  Without further ado, let’s dive into it! (more…)

Eastern Empire martini

Eastern Empire

After a rough day, I decided to stop into the store and pick up some more of Fever-Tree’s bitter lemon, and while there happened upon a bottle of Tomr’s Tonic, a concentrated tonic syrup of sorts.  You simply mix it with soda water (1 part tonic to 3 parts soda water), and you suddenly have a delicious, artisanal tonic water!

I used to be quite the gin or vodka tonic drinker once upon a time, though I enjoy those simple drinks on rare occasions now.  This isn’t because I don’t enjoy them (well, truth be told I can’t see the point in vodka tonics anymore, unless you have tragically run out of gin), but rather because I just can’t be bothered to keep tonic water on hand.  What inevitably happens is I buy a bottle because I’m craving a G&T, have one or two, then the bottle promptly takes up space in the fridge, not so slowly going flat until the next time I decide I’d like a G&T, and find the decidedly not effervescent tonic taunting me.  So, a concentrated tonic syrup that I can mix into the ubiquitous soda water (of which I keep a few bottles stocked at any given time, and very rarely let go flat) seemed like a great idea.  Add to that a more “rich, earthy, and exotic” flavor as their website promises, and there you go; sale made.  So, bottle of Tomr’s in hand, I already had decided to forgo the simple gin and bitter lemon I had planned for this hot summer’s evening, in favor of a G&T.  But then I started looking at the cloudy, sediment laden elixir, and thought, well, there’s nothing saying I have to mix this with soda water…

On the long drive through traffic home, I started thinking more and more about this, and tonic water in general.  Images of colonial India, transplanted Brits in stifling Victorian ceremonial uniforms, spices, and increasingly as the drive went on, hot, humid days.  From those thoughts came the idea of this cocktail, whose name came along just as easily as the proportions, which are unaltered from my first thoughts.  Ladies and gents, I present the Eastern Empire martini:

  • 2 parts Plymouth Gin
  • 0.5 parts Lillet Blanc
  • 1+ bar spoon of Tomr’s Tonic
  • 1 bar spoon of Stirrings ginger liqueur

I combined all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice and a generous lemon peel, and stirred until well chilled.  I opted to stir this rather than shake it, because I didn’t want the drink to be so cold that you lost some of the more subtle flavors of all ingredients involved.  Plymouth Gin is without a doubt my favorite all around gin.  While not as dry as the ubiquitous London Dry style gins, it’s dryer than many of the botanical heavy gins that I love and often keep on hand.  The juniper note isn’t incredibly pronounced, but I find it more present in Plymouth than New Amsterdam, which I always keep on hand as an inexpensive, inoffensive mixing gin.

Lillet, aside from being a key ingredient in James Bond’s Vesper martini, is a French apéritif wine.  While the Kina Lillet called for in the Vesper is no longer produced, Lillet Blanc is its modern, less bitter incarnation.  It’s made of a blend of wines, fortified with macerated liqueurs, largely citrus in nature, as well as Cinchona bark, which contains quinine, the key ingredient in tonic water.  It’s for this reason, as well as a general preference for its taste, that I chose it for the Eastern Empire.

The ginger is very faint in this, and largely serves to sweeten the drink.  I’m not certain the drink could do without it, though I think you’d be hard pressed to identify it as an ingredient without being told.  I used Stirrings for the spice and bite, though if I had a bottle of The King’s Ginger, I think I would have used it, as it has a similar bite, but also has a wonderful citrus note.  If I had, I probably would have foregone stirring the drink with the lemon peel in the mix, and may have even dropped the citrus as a garnish.

The Tomr’s Tonic holds up well in this, and is really what makes it more than a simple martini.  The bitter quinine taste lingers on the tongue and lips, and there is definitely a distinctly earthy taste that warms the drink.  Additionally, it gives the drink a lovely golden color, though if you don’t drink it fast enough, you’ll find a bit of the sediment from the concentrated tonic separating out.

All said and done, I’m quite a fan of this one, and can see it becoming a regular drink for me.  If you’re a fan of G&T’s, but haven’t made the leap to gulping down martinis like Dino, this might be just the drink to bridge the gap into the world of the martini.  While it is refreshing on a hot day, I think it’d be equally enjoyable any time of year.

Appleseed

Appleseed

It’s the 4th of July, and here’s a cocktail to enjoy on the holiday.  They say there’s nothing more American than apple pie, but what about a cocktail made with one of the spirits enjoyed by the founding fathers, applejack?  This spirit was used to pay road workers during the colonial period in New Jersey, and was a particular favorite of George Washington’s, but is oft neglected these days.  Applejack is nearly identical in taste of apple brandy, or Calvados, an apple brandy made in specific region of France.  Applejack is traditionally different from other brandies made from apple cider, because it is concentrated through freeze distillation rather than evaporation distillation common to most other spirits.  At its most basic, apple cider would be left out in the winter and the water would separate and freeze at the top of the pan or barrel, a process called “jacking” which gives this spirit its name.  This would be scooped out, and the remaining liquid left to go through a number of additional freezes, each one increasing the alcohol content in the remaining cider until you ended up with a distilled spirit.  Not all modern applejacks are distilled through the freezing method, but the results are the same: a sweet, smooth, brandy-like drink.

This noble spirit serves as the base for the Appleseed, whose recipe is as follows:

  • 2 parts applejack
  • 1 part amaretto
  • 1/4 part Stirrings brand ginger liqueur (quite a different ginger liqueur than the subtle Domaine de Canton featured in some other drinks here. Nothing subtle here, just a lot of biting, spicy ginger flavor)
  • 1/2 part unfiltered apple juice or cider

All ingredients are combined in a mixing glass and stirred without ice, and then poured over ice into an old-fashioned glass and lightly stirred again to chill.

The Appleseed is all about the applejack, the fruit from which it comes.  The amaretto and ginger spice it up, and add a bit of further complexity to the drink, not to mention a bit of extra sweetness.  Fair warning, for those of you that don’t like sweet drinks, this one may not be for you.  If you’d like to have a go at this one, but cut the sweetness a bit, I’d suggest dropping the amaretto portion down to 1/2 part, and potentially upping the applejack to 2.5 or even 3 parts.  Those adjustments will result in a less sweet drink, though you’ll lose some of the background flavors in return for a more pronounced taste of applejack.

La Cascade de l’Anis

la cascade de l'anis

After far too long since our last visit, my sister stopped by today for a cocktail and to head to dinner.  We did a round of drinks to sample, including The Isis, a cocktail that is pretending to be a cider (you’ll see it posted later this week; stay tuned!), and this random experiment.  While a truly random experiment, this one was a huge hit with my sister, and we decided right then and there that this needed to get added to the blog.

This started out with me sitting at the bar, picking a bottle and then just running with it.  What that resulted in is a cool, refreshing, excellent drink for this hot and humid Georgia day.  At the core of it, this is really just a dressed up gin and bitter lemon, but the additional ingredients transform this into a completely different drink, that is distinctly original.  What ended up in the glass is:

  • 2 parts gin (I used New Amsterdam here, for its clean, mild flavor.  It’s my go to gin for long drinks, as it mixes very well and is cheap as chips)
  • 2 bar spoons crème de violette
  • 2 bar spoons absinthe
  • 1.5 bar spoons of crème de menthe blanc

All of these ingredients were combined in a Collins glass heaped with ice, and then filled with bitter lemon and stirred gently.  The result is a very light, very refreshing cooler, with the anise flavor shining through, and playing with the bitterness and quinine flavor of the bitter lemon.  That right there is why my sister decided this needed to be named what it did.  This is sure to be a summer staple here, and hopefully at your home too.

The Briarpatch

Briarpatch

This drink, or at least its bones, has been knocking around in my head since before I launched Experiments From The Bar.  I’ve jotted down or typed out a couple of variations, but never put any of them together, because they just didn’t feel right.  This evening, in an attempt to be a good husband, I gave the living room a good dusting.  I was in the midst of wiping all the bottles from the bar down with a wet rag when I picked up the bottle of crème de cassis and thought tonight’s as good as any to try out the Briarpatch.

The core ingredients have remained the same in all the iterations of the potential recipe: bourbon and crème de cassis.  The other ancillary ingredients, which in the end define the drink, have shifted around.  Bitters, certainly a must, but which?  Something herbal, as well, that seems right.  That last bit ran the range from an absinthe wash, to a dash of crème de menthe, to Amaro.  What about a mixer?  Soda water?  No, that’ll just dilute things down without adding anything.  With no mixer, the crème de cassis might come on too strong.

That gives you some idea of how I end up thinking through a drink recipe, but I’m sure you’re more interested in the final recipe.  In the end, I tackled the herbal and bitters question with a single ingredient, Peychaud’s bitters, which brings some anise and dark fruit notes to the drink without being overpowering.  I did decide a mixer was needed, and my recent infatuation with Fever-Tree saw the addition of their ginger ale.  In the end, the final recipe turned out to be:

  • 2 parts Buffalo Trace bourbon
  • 0.75 parts crème de cassis
  • 4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
  • 2 dashes Fee Brothers’ old fashioned bitters
  • Topped with Fever-Tree ginger ale

All ingredients were combined over a single, large piece of ice and lightly stirred.  This prevents the drink from getting to chilly, which would alter the flavor, particularly of the crème de cassis, losing some of the faint sourness that cordial carries.

The Isis Cocktail

The Isis Cocktail

Named for the Isis River, as the stretch of the Thames that runs through Oxford is called, this drink just sort of happened, but after taking the first sip, the name came into my mind without any pause.  I made a stop into my usual package store to pick up a nice Belgian style strong ale, and a bottle of Fever-Tree ginger ale for some friends from out of state I’ll be seeing this weekend, and decided to pick up a pack of their very excellent Bitter Lemon as well.

I hadn’t been planning on making cocktails this evening, but was suddenly hit by a wave of nostalgia for the time I spent at Oxford, and the innumerable gin and bitter lemons I drank there.  I kept thinking about the Isis, and sitting by the banks with a drink in hand watching people out punting on the river, the flowers in bloom, and this is what came from those musings.

The results are a very clean, lightly floral drink, with the slight bitterness from the bitter lemon accented by the faintest hint of ginger.  The ingredients are as follows:

  • 2 parts Hendrick’s gin
  • 0.25 parts crème de viollete
  • 0.25 parts Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur
  • 2 parts Fever-Tree bitter lemon
  • 5 dashes of rose water

The spirits are combined over ice in an old-fashioned glass, then topped with bitter lemon and stirred.  The rose water is then added without additional stirring.

For those that haven’t had bitter lemon, it is a tonic that goes back to the first half of the 19th century, and is essentially tonic water with lemon juice and pith added.  It carries the distinctive quinine taste of tonic water, but with a pronounced citrus note that is equal parts tart and bitter.  We don’t see it terribly often here in the States, which is a shame.

I opted for Hendrick’s gin, because I wanted to play up the floral qualities of the drink, and the subtle rose flavor found amidst the bevy of florals and botanicals of this flavorful gin seemed like the right choice.  I think doing this drink with a dryer gin, like the inestimable Plymouth Dry gin, would make for an altogether different, though equally likeable beverage.

While the bitter lemon is a major player in this cocktail, the crème de violette is the clear costar with equal billing on the marquee, despite the small portion used.  Crème de viollete has a very intense flavor, and it is all too easy to overpower a drink with the amazing violet blossom flavor (as I learned quickly in my first experiments with it).  It provides the floral backbone of the drink, whose natural sweetness counters and compliments the bitterness of the aptly named bitter lemon, supported by the final garnish of the rose water.

The ginger doesn’t really play on the pallet, but its inclusion highlights the quinine taste from the bitter lemon, and helps bring this drink to its balanced state.

Jack Rackham

Jack Rackham

I don’t play with rum terribly often, aside from the occasional Dark and Stormy, or when my darling wife asks for a rum drink, though I suppose I should.  This number came about from wanting to do something with black pepper and orange flavors, and when I was scanning over the bar, my eyes fell on the bottle of Pyrat XO rum, and that was that.

After a bit of fiddling, the final proportions for the drink came out as:

  • 1.5 parts Pyrat XO rum
  • 0.5 parts Grand Marnier
  • 6 dashes of Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters
  • 5 grinds of fresh pepper
  • The juice of 1 small orange wedge

All ingredients were shaken hard with ice, then strained through a fine sieve (to catch the ground pepper), and served over a single large piece of ice, and garnished with a small piece of orange peel.


If you haven’t had Pyrat XO, it’s a rum offering from the good people at Patrón.  It’s a rich, deep amber color, and carries a decently palpable orange note, and some characteristics that remind of nothing so much as cognac.  It’s an aged rum, and while it is the youngest of the Pyrat family of spirits, this makes the XO a smooth, flavorful, and sweet (while not cloying) rum that is perfectly fine being sipped on straight or on the rocks.

As I said, I wanted to play with orange flavors, so the Pyrat seemed a solid choice.  To add to that, and play up the cognac-like characteristics, I went with Grand Marnier for the orange liqueur.  While I thought these flavors would work well together, I found I had a terribly sweet drink on my hands already.  Add to that even the small bit of fresh orange juice, and this drink was really at risk.  By upping the rum from 1 part to 1.5, and doubling the bitters from 3 to 6 dashes and giving a couple more grinds of pepper, I ended up with something I quite liked.  There is an undeniable taste of orange, but it focuses more on the bitter orange peel side than the sugary sweet.  The excellent Fee Brothers Old Fashioned bitters helps with this, as well as highlighting the black pepper, and make that bite a little more complex.

So, there you have it.  The Jack Rackham; a drink perhaps the old captain himself could have enjoyed sipping on while watching the rolling of the sea.

Things to come

I’ve been thinking about what the next series of planned posts will be, and wanted to run through the options get some feedback on what you’d like to see next. So, without further ado, here are some of potential post topics:

  • Building Your Home Bar: glassware basics – a run down of the few indispensable pieces of glassware needed for most major cocktails, and why glass choice matters.
  • Breakfast of Champions – a series of breakfast cocktails, from my personal recipe for the venerable and ubiquitous Bloody Mary to lesser known pre-lunch libations, including some riffs and an original recipe or two.
  • Building Your Home Bar: essential spirits – a list of the key liquors  and liqueurs to purchase to get your bar started, with specific brand suggestions for solid choices that won’t break the bank.
  • The Vault – I’ve been putting together original recipes for years now, and shared a good number in the past on my personal Facebook account, with quick recipes and snapshots taken with my phone.  There are several gems that I’d love to share here with updated, higher quality pictures, and perhaps refinements on the recipes with commentary on how it evolved and why.
  • Classic & Riff – this will be a reoccurring format, with a post of a classic cocktail followed by a riff on it, demonstrating how a simple change in an existing recipe can create a completely different drink.
  • Reader’s Choice: pick your poison – A huge fan of Drambuie?  Never had a taste for gin but want to give it a shot?  Can’t get enough of basil?  This would be a segment where I’d take a request to come up with something using a particular ingredient, and create cocktail highlighting it.
  • Character Cocktails: fan drink service – I’m a big old geek, and I bet a bunch of you are too!  I’ve designed drinks based on characters from a couple LARPs that I play for the amusement and edification of other players.  I have a dozen or so that will eventually make it onto the blog, but I’d love to put together some recipes based on some of your favorite characters from movies, TV shows, books or comics.

 

So, dear readers, what do you think?  I’ll get to all the topics eventually, but what would you like to see next?  If you have ideas you’d like to see for the last three (Classic & Riff, Reader’s Choice, or Character Cocktails), please post them here.  Is there some other idea that you’d think would make a great post or series?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Sioux City Cooler

Sioux City Cooler

If you haven’t tried Art in the Age‘s amazing liquor Root, you are missing out, and I can’t urge you strongly enough to go out and track a bottle down.  It’s such a wonderfully complex spirit, and stands apart from other similar spirits, like Blackmaker.  Firstly, it’s a legitimate spirit instead of a liqueur, weighing in at 80 proof.  Secondly, it’s not trying to taste like root beer, though it does in part.  It also tastes of birch, sassafras, and sarsaparilla, with hints of mint and anise as well.  When I first discovered Root, I kept trying to make a drink with it that tasted like root beer, and kept failing, time and time again.  It wasn’t until I stopped and thought, while sipping on one such failed experiment, that I was going about it wrong.  Why keep trying to make the spirit taste like something else, when I could just play on all of the amazing flavors it contained?

This is my latest attempt at doing just that, and I’m terribly pleased.  Its strongest resemblance to one of the members of the root tea / beer family, is sarsaparilla, though just like the base spirit, it’s got a lot more going on.  It’s refreshing, with a bit of a bite, and I think I may have found a new warm weather staple.

Without further ado, here’s the recipe:

  • 2 parts Root
  • 1 part honey simple syrup
  • 3/4 parts Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur*
  • A splash of crème de menthe blanc (roughly 1/8 of a part)
  • 6 healthy dashes of Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters

All ingredients get combined in a collins glass filled completely with ice, and then topped with club soda.  Stir gently until you start to get a good sheen of condensation on the glass.  Garnish with a sprig of mint.

*Note: Canton is a very mild, sweet ginger liqueur, and is one of two ginger liqueurs that I typically keep on hand.  Often times, I used Stirring’s ginger, which is much more biting and spicy, and about a third of the price.  This drink needs the subtly of Canton, whereas Stirrings ginger, or something like the King’s Ginger (an excellent higher proof ginger liqueur that also carries a strong citrus note) would overpower and unbalance the flavors here.

Welcome to Experiments From The Bar

Welcome and thank you for stopping by and checking out Experiments From The Bar!  For years now I’ve been playing around with drinks, riffing on classic cocktails, building original drink recipes, and exploring the world of booze, one drink at a time.  This blog is a place for me to share those experiments, essential recipes to know, as well as musings on cocktail culture, history, and to offer unsolicited advice on building a respectable home bar.

Right now, I’m not going to stick to a strictly set schedule for posts, but may move to some more regularly schedule content updates as time goes on.

For now, pour yourself a drink, take a look around, and enjoy.