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The Bitter Truth

Bitter Truth

I was thinking of having a Sazerac tonight, but sadly am lacking a bottle of rye currently.  While a little saddened by this fact, it did make me think of Dale de Groff’s wonderful personal take on the Sazerac from his book The Essential Cocktail (a fantastic book that you should probably have in your library, or nestled between bottles on your bar).  In his twist on this classic cocktail, he mixes equal parts rye and cognac, which is actually a half step between the original recipe that called for cognac only, and the modern rye based drink.  That got me to thinking about fixing an original brandy-based Sazerac, as I had a bottle of cognac at hand.  Certainly, it’ll be a sweeter drink than the rye based version, and while I’m not opposed to that, I started thinking about how I could balance that sweetness out, as well as how it work if I decided to forgo the absinthe.

My first thought on the latter was not very well, honestly.  So, what to do?  Well, if we take the absinthe out of the equation, do we still have something solid to go with?  So we’re now looking at brandy, a combination of bitters and sugar, with some citrus as a garnish.  Okay, that’s certainly workable, but we still have a drink that’s going to trend towards the sweet, without a balancing flavor, and I wasn’t in the mood for something too sweet.

And then I saw the bottle of Cynar, sitting behind the brandy.  Cynar is an Italian bitter liqueur made from various herbs and plants, chief amongst them being the artichoke.  I know what you’re thinking; an artichoke liqueur, that sounds ghastly.  Believe me, I was of the same opinion when I first heard of it.  But Cynar is a wonderfully bitter, and boy do I mean bitter, apéritif, and is an excellent way of imparting bitterness to a drink without adding a lot of complicated flavors that will overpower things.  That said, it would certainly do well to counteract the sweetness of cognac, and serve to give a focal point to this cocktail: bitterness.  With the extra bitterness from the Cynar, replacing the lemon twist called for in the Sazerac with a bit of orange peel seemed a decent thought, as I know from one of my favorite cocktails coined by a good friend makes good use of pairing orange and Cynar.

So, in the end I wound up with the following in my glass, and I have to say I’m well pleased with the delightfully bitter drink.

  • 2 parts cognac
  • 0.5 parts Cynar
  • 3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
  • 3 dashes of Fee Brother’s Old Fashioned bitters
  • 1 bar spoon sugar
  • a large orange peel

To start off, I combined the bitters and sugar in an old-fashioned glass and started to mix them into a thin paste.  I then added the Cynar and continued to stir until I had a nice homogenous solution of bitters, liqueur and sugar.  I then added the cognac and a single large piece of orange peel and stirred for a few seconds more before adding a single large piece of ice.

For those that haven’t played with Peychaud’s bitters, this wonderful gentian based bitters created by the estimable New Orleans by way of Haiti apothecary, Antoine Amédée Peychaud carries with it hints of cherry and anise, and is sweeter than many typical bitters.  Combining this with the rich, spicy, cinnamon tinged Old Fashioned bitters from the good people of Fee Brothers, brings some nice, complex flavors to this drink.  The predominant note is bitter, a result of the aforementioned bitters, but primarily from the Cynar.  The sugar and cognac give a sweet finish  in the mouth that outlasts the bitterness that hits the front of your tongue.  The orange gives a brightness to the drink, and plays very well with the warm spicy notes from the Fee Brothers Old Fashioned bitters.

A note on the ice: I have four different types of ice trays / molds that I use, from tiny cubes all the way up to large spheres that nearly fill an old-fashioned glass.  For this drink I chose to use the largest option, the massive sphere, for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, the larger piece of ice and its increased surface area means it’s slower to melt, which is critical for this drink.  This is a sipping cocktail, and if I used smaller pieces of ice, before I was halfway through it, my drink would be tragically watered down.  Secondly, using a larger hunk of ice also means a more moderately cooled drink.  Again, smaller ice would have chilled the drink more over time, and the bitterness and subtle flavors of the bitters would have been lost in the cold.

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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.

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.

The Brandy Orchard: (and why aren’t there more brandy drinks these days?)

The Brandy Orchard: a brandy drink (and why aren't there more of these?)

A while back, we had our good friend Grammar Monkey over for dinner and drinks. I came up with this little ditty, and it seemed to go over well.

  • 1.5 parts brandy
  • 0.75 parts pear liqueur
  • 0.5 parts amaretto
  • 5 dashes Fee Brothers Old Fashioned bitters
  • the juice of 1 lemon wedge

All ingredients were shaken lightly, and then served up in a coupé glass and finished with a nice big lemon twist.

I really enjoyed the color and surprisingly delicate flavors of this one. I’m a huge fan of brandy cocktails, and I’m always a little sad that I almost never see it used, aside from in the noble Sidecar. Perhaps you will see a series of brandy drinks here soon, and some musings on the spirit itself…

The Sidecar

The Sidecar

One of my very favorite cocktails, the Sidecar is an undeniable classic. Attributed to being created at Harry’s Bar in Paris sometime around 1930. Supposedly, it was named for a regular customer who loved the drink and drove a motorcycle with sidecar, though some are dubious of this claim.  Whatever the origin story, the Sidecar is a well balanced, incredibly drinkable number, and is a great example of the rule of 3; one spirit, one sweet, one sour.  You end up with a drink that is refreshing on hot summer days, warming in the cold of winter, and always hits the spot, balanced nicely between sweet and sour.  It is, at its heart, a very simple drink, but the flavors play together so well, it’s as if this drink is what these three ingredients were made for.

The recipe is simplicity itself:

  • 1 part cognac
  • 0.5 parts Cointreau
  • 0.5 parts fresh lemon juice

Combine the ingredients with ice and shake vigorously.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon peel.

Traditionally, as is pictured here, the glass should be given a sugared rim.  This is actually a rather important step in balancing this drink, as the sugar rim lends extra sweetness to the drink to help balance the tartness from the significant amount of lemon juice.  To make a sugar rim, simply cover a small plate in a thin layer of sugar, wet the rim of your cocktail glass (either with water or lemon juice in this case), and then set the glass, rim down on the plate.  You can move the glass around to help collect sugar.  Let the sugar dry into a crust, and chill the glass.

I will occasionally forgo the sugar rim, either because I’m feeling particularly lazy, or because I don’t have Cointreau on hand, and must make do with triple sec.  In the former situation, I’ll typically back off the lemon content a hair, or add a couple of dashes of simple syrup.  In the latter, I’ll leave the proportions alone, as triple sec is sweeter than Cointreau (though less flavorful), and makes up for the absent sugar rim.

Brandy can be substituted for cognac, which I frequently do, because in the past I hadn’t found an affordable cognac that I cared for, and brandy will do the trick nicely in this cocktail and often at a much more reasonable price for similar quality.  Lately, I’ve discovered Decourtet cognac, and their VS is extremely affordable at around $20.00 for a 750 mL bottle, and is excellent for mixing, and is my go to for Sidecars these days.

 

The Preacher

The Preacher

New provisions for the bar acquired, one of which I needed to play a role in a couple planned character themed cocktails I’ve been ruminating on. Without further ado, I give you the Preacher.

  • 1 part Jefferson Reserve Very Old Straight Bourbon Whiskey (an excellently smoky and yet still nicely sweet bourbon given to me by my father in law as a wedding gift)
  • 1 part Root, by Art in the Age (a wonderful spirit that captures the flavors of a good root or birch beer)
  • 0.25 parts Domaine de Canton (a very light ginger liqueur)
  • 2 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
  • 2 dashes of Fee Brothers’ Old Fashioned bitters

As my darling wife said, “it’s smoky and rough, and a bit abrasive, but sweet on the back end.” Sounds like Preacher to me.