Monday, January 28, 2008

Robert Burns Night

On Saturday night, we had the pleasure of attending the annual Burns Night celebration hosted by our good friends, Rob and Shelley (that's Rob with the bagpipes). There was haggis (and of course the Address to a Haggis), neeps and tatties, and many other delicious treats. Searching for something to bring, I put myself in charge of Scotch-based cocktails. As many have found, Scotch is not the easiest thing to mix with, but I knew some of the folks at the party would not be sipping it neat, so I went on a search.

I found two fun mixed drinks from fellow bloggers, and they worked out very well. I made the Blood and Sand, which is a very nice and balanced drink using Paul Clarke's recipe (which borrows from Ted Haigh's recipe), and the Robert Burns Cocktail (which seemed only natural given the occasion). For that cocktail, I used Marleigh at Sloshed's recipe. Those recipes are:

Blood and Sand

1 ounce blended Scotch (I followed Paul's recommendation of Famous Grouse)
1 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice (After we ran out of oranges, I had to use Minute Maid)
¾ ounce sweet vermouth (Noilly Prat)
¾ ounce Cherry Heering

Fill shaker with ice, and shake well, strain into a chilled cocktail glass (or a rocks glass if you've run out of cocktail glasses). I garnished with fresh orange peel. I liked this version far more than previous attempts at this drink - partly due to the proportions in this version and partly due to the blended Scotch.

Robert Burns Cocktail
1½ oz Scotch (Famous Grouse again)
½ oz Sweet Vermouth (Noilly Prat)
Dash orange bitters (Fee Brothers)
Dash Pernod

I shook this one with ice, and strained into an ice-filled glass. I garnished with either regular orange peel or flamed orange peel, depending on my mood (and whether I still trusted myself with the lighter).

Both drinks were popular, although the Blood & Sand was a bit easier drinking for those who are not accustomed to glasses of pure alcohol. All in all, a very fun night with just a few cups o' kindness taken for auld lang syne.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Taste Tests: Ginger Beers, Part II

I know you've been waiting with bated breath for the results of our ginger beer taste comparisons, and I don't want to make you wait any longer. Here are our rankings, along with our tasting notes for all the products we tried (both alone and in Moscow Mules, it was interesting to see how our opinions changed!):

Our Overall Ratings:

Best: Bundaberg - all around, the best performer both on its own and in mixed drinks. Consistently ranked in the top two. Plus, we like that its actually fermented.
Second: Cock 'n Bull - the "original" for Moscow Mules was one that we preferred for mixing, even though we didn't like it as much on its own (but who drinks it that way anyway)
Third: Fentimans - the most unusual (in a good way) of the bunch, with less sweetness and more rich spice, with a genuine-tasting flavor

We did not care at all for the Reed's Original or the D&G's Old Jamaican. The Barritt's was certainly acceptable, but not our preferred choice if we have one, and the Ginger People version seemed somewhat limited in its application. Although we used it at our event, we probably wouldn't choose the Sioux City again, unless someone asked for it.

Tasting Notes on their Own:
  • Cock 'n Bull - clear in color, sweet, relatively light, with a bit of ginger tang/spice. Very bubbly, like a soft drink ought to be.
  • Ginger People - very gingery, not really spicy though, sweet and lightly carbonated, with caramel notes. It was a very light yellow/tan color.
  • D&G Old Jamaican - Very bubbly, sweet, with ginger tang and heat. Dominant lemon/citrus notes, but with a less genuine flavor than the other two above.
  • Reed's - Dominant honey smell and taste. Had ginger and spice notes, but the honey dominated the flavor. It was sweet, with medium carbonation.
  • Bundaberg - Nice ginger flavor, with a bit of tang - more ginger than Cock 'n Bull. Sweet with medium carbonation.
  • Fentimans - Spicy, a blend of ginger and other spices (we could smell the juniper). Left a bit of heat in the back of my throat. Less sweet, well carbonated.
  • Barritt's - Gingery, with a tiny bit of tang. Sweet, with a bit more flavor overall than Cock 'n Bull, although very similar to the Cock 'n Bull.
  • Sioux City - darkest in color (colorings are added). Spicy, in a nondescript kind of way, with a nice ginger nose. A hint of heat, but very soda-like.
Tasting Notes in a Moscow Mule:
  • Cock 'n Bull - a light, refreshing version of the drink, with moderate sweetness and light ginger. Well balanced.
  • Ginger People - I liked it better with the lime, and would use a lot of lime with this ginger beer. My other half did not like it and thought it conflicted with the lime. The ginger is a true ginger flavor, and it lingers on the finish.
  • D&G Old Jamaican - Overbearing, overwhelmed the drink, with an artificial taste. The citrus notes dominated, with nondescript spice in the finish.
  • Reed's - Neither of us liked this one for this drink. The honey flavors dominated, and it didn't really work in the drink at all.
  • Bundaberg - Nice balance of ginger flavor, with a bit of tang - more character than Cock 'n Bull, but seemed a tad sweeter.
  • Fentimans - Had the most character & spice, and was less sweet than the others. One of us loved that peppery spice, while the other of us merely liked it.
  • Barritt's - Light ginger, very bubbly. It was well balanced and had ginger and spice flavors, but seemed rather average.
  • Sioux City - One of us thought it was boring, and that the alcohol came through over the beer (despite my rigor in pouring it exactly the same way 8 times). One of us thought it was spicy in a nondescript way, but too much like cola.
So there you have it. I'm glad I got that 4-pack of Bundaberg, I might have go back for more!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Taste Tests: Ginger Beers, Part I

As I've mentioned periodically, I have accumulated quite a stash of ginger beers over the last few months. I've picked them up all over the place, and sweet talked a few bar managers out of bottles from their secret stashes.

I got the total up to 10, although 2 of them were technically ginger "ales" rather than ginger beers. Going into the taste tests, I thought those two had enough punch to hold up to the other ginger beers (as it turns out, one of them did, but one of them didn't).

Brief Background on Ginger Beer
As you probably know, ginger beer nowadays is typically just a soft drink with more ginger punch and spice than ginger ale. It was originally a fermented drink (using something called the ginger beer plant that isn't really what I think of as a plant). A few of the ones you can find on the market now are actually fermented, but most of them are a blend of water, sugar, real or artificial flavors and colors, carbonation and maybe some preservatives.

I don't really hear much about ginger beer, except when people are discussing the Dark 'N Stormy or the Moscow Mule. So you might wonder how I got started in collecting them. We had a party awhile back where we served classic cocktails from the 1930's and 40's, with live entertainment from that era, and we served the Moscow Mule. It has a fun story, and is a fairly accessible (and easy) drink if made with a decent ginger beer, so I was off on a search for one. The first one I bought, Stewarts, was simply too much. Way over the top on the spiciness, so much so that I couldn't bring myself to finish a drink, no matter what I made with it. So I ruled that one out.

I tried two others that were relatively easy to find in the Chicago area: Sioux City
and Ginger People (check out their cute logo at right - the label explains it). At the time, we ruled out the Ginger People - it has a really nice, true ginger flavor, but it didn't mesh well in the cocktails. So we went with the Sioux City, which had some spicy bite, but not as much as the Stewarts, and worked pretty well in our Moscow Mule.

Here's the rundown on the ones we tried, in no particular order:
  • Cock 'n Bull - the ginger beer that made the Moscow Mule famous. I'm not sure it's the same formula as the original, since it now includes "sugar and/or corn sweeteners," "caramel colors" and "natural flavors." Interestingly, the website on the bottle doesn't seem to work (, and I found two different pictures of this brand on the web. The one linked above is the one I have, not this one. I got this bottle from Neyah at Nopa in San Francisco, its not sold in Chicago as far as I can tell.
  • Bundaberg - Australian ginger beer, which it appears is at least partially fermented and flavored with real ginger root. It lists yeast as an ingredient, but also carbonated water. I found this one at my local Cost Plus World Market.
  • Barritt's - This is the ginger beer that the folks at Gosling's Rum say you have to use to make a proper Dark 'N Stormy (and you have to use their rum too, at least according to them and a Bermuda trademark they were issued). My friend Adam at the Clark Street Ale House donated this one to my collection (thanks Adam!). I'd heard about it around town but never seen it in a store. It is made with high fructose corn syrup, "natural and artificial flavoring" and other equally exciting sounding ingredients.
  • Ginger People - mentioned earlier, its made with ginger juice and ginger extract, cane sugar, and "natural flavors" among other ingredients.
  • D&G Old Jamaican - the beverage gurus at Tavern on the Park sold me a bottle of this one for my collection. I'd never seen nor heard of this one, and the guys would only tell me that the "have a guy who gets it for them." I was excited about it, until I noticed that it proclaims on the front that it is a "naturally and artificially flavored carbonated beverage."
  • Fentimans - This was the last addition to my collection, and I found it at Sam's Wine & Spirits in the South Loop store. I happened to notice it in a shopper's basket while I was roaming the store, and so I asked about it. My favorite cheesemonger, who happens to work at this store, highly recommended it and said its very hard to find. Their website says its at Cost Plus, but I haven't seen it there.
  • Sioux City - mentioned above, and made by the folks at White Rock Beverages according to the cap, although its not listed on their website. Like some others, it contains HFCS, "natural flavor," "caramel color" and a few other ingredients, including, notably "brominated vegetable oil." What the heck is that doing in there?
  • Reed's Original Ginger Brew - not technically a ginger beer, its labeled a ginger "ale." I understand they make an Extra Ginger that is labeled ginger beer, but I could not find it anywhere. This one has some unusual ingredients, including "fructose, pineapple juice from concentrate and honey," as well as "lemon and lime juices from concentrate" along with spices, ginger root and sparkling water. All natural ingredients at least!
  • Fever-Tree Ginger Ale - also not a ginger beer. When I tried it previously, I thought it was spicier than most ginger ales, so I thought it might be able to compete in this category. I was wrong, it was totally overpowered by all of the other competitors. Its still a lovely ginger ale though.
In Part II, I'll post tasting notes and rankings of our favorites. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Mixology Monday XXIII (I wish I could have) Brandy

Its time again for another Mixology Monday, this month hosted by Marleigh over at Sloshed! and the topic is brandy. Brandy is one of those spirits I've been researching over the past few months, and have started to taste and experiment with them more. However, since I'm currently suffering a terrible cold and haven't been able to partake of cocktails, I thought I would write about a few of the brandy distilleries I have visited and throw in one favorite recipe for good measure.

California Brandy Distilleries
A couple o
f years ago, we attended a distilling conference, and part of the festivities included a distillery tour. I had the privilege of touring the Jepson, Germain-Robin and Solomon Tournour distilleries. Here are some fun photos and storie
s from the trip.

First Stop: Jepson
In addition to a variety of wines, the folks at
Jepson are using a cognac still to produce fine brandies from Colombard grapes (rather than the ugni blanc favored in Cognac). They walked us through their process in depth and let us try their products. Just like us, they do
everything in true small batches, by hand (see hand labeling in photo to right).

Jepson brandies are virtually impossible to find in Chicago, so I was glad that I brought some home with me. My favorite is the
Old Stock brandy, which I typically enjoy neat in a nosing glass (and I agree with Dominik about using a tulip glass rather than a sn
ifter if possible!). It has rich spice tones, along with rich vanilla and caramel flavors.

Next Stop: Germain-Robin
This was the distillery I was most excited to see, given their reputation and products. We were greeted by the master distiller, Hubert Germain-Robin (pictured at far left), who was a gracious and delightful host. He walked us through his entire operation and process, and let us taste some of their creations.
Germain-Robin makes their brandies from pinot noir and other richer varietals not used in the Cognac region.

Germain-Robin products are a bit easier to find in Chicago, especially their very nice Alambic Brandy, which is a bit fruitier and lighter, but with spice overtones. I really loved the Select Barrel XO, and wished I could have tasted the Anno Domini. Guess I'll have to save that one for a special occasion, since its $350 or so.

Third Stop: Solomon Tournour
Our last stop on this day of tours was at Solomon Tournour, a distillery so small you probably haven't heard of it. It appears they don't even have a website, or at least I cannot find it. They make really interesting products though, all done by hand from local fruits, including a lovely pear eau de vie and several fruit brandies. In the photos you'll see the still at Solomon Tournour, as
well as Chris Solomon. The distillery is located in a rural area, on Chris's property. This was the smallest scale distillery I've seen, but run by one of the most passionate people I've met.

Of course I cannot find his products here in Chicago, but I'd recommend seeking them out if you are in Northern California!

The Brandy Crusta
Just for fun (and because this post is for mixology Monday), I wanted to throw in my favorite recipe for the brandy crusta.

This was reportedly the first cocktail served with a sugared rim, and it was invented in the mid-1800's in New Orleans.

Can't go wrong with this one, especially for someone who has never seen one before (the big lemon spiral is always a fun surprise). There are lots of variations on the ingredients and ratios, but here is my favorite version:

2 oz Brandy
1 oz Cointreau
1 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
½ oz Maraschino Liqueur
1 dash Peychaud's

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass (or other fun glass) that has been lightly rimmed with sugar. Garnish with a large lemon spiral around the inside rim of the glass.

In Chicago, you can get your very own version of this (which will look very similar to the photo) at the
Drawing Room at Le Passage.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Crust and the Alchermes

We recently had lunch at Crust, an organic restaurant in Chicago that makes terrific flatbread pizzas and salads from fresh, seasonal ingredients. Full disclosure, they are a customer of ours - they carry our gin in their bar. But this article isn't about gin or gin drinks.

Like a few other bartenders in Chicago, the head beverage guru at Crust, Andrew, is doing some really interesting things. He makes a full line of infused organic vodkas using seasonal ingredients, and then develop cocktails to feature them. He also makes fresh organic liqueurs and other spirits from time to time.

House-made Alchermes
One our most recent visit, we tried Andrew's latest creation, an Alchermes (can also be spelled Alkermes), which he made by infusing neutral grain spirit with cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon and coriander, sweetening it and blending with a bit of rosewater. He didn't use the ingredient that gives this spirit its name (and also led to its disfavor, once people found out what was in it) - the kermes insect. These insects have a bright red color, and the resulting spirit would be deep scarlet in color if the insect coloring were used.

Tasting Notes
We tasted it chilled, which was the recommendation from the bartender. The nose was very spicy, with the cardamom and cinnamon dominating, followed by a hint of rose. Upon first sip, the spices hit your palate first, but the vanilla and coriander slowly made themselves known, and the rose water remained in the finish. The balance with the rosewater was just right - it has a tendency to overwhelm, but Andrew managed to keep it in check.

I don't know how much this tastes like the Alchermes of olden times (it used to be a healing tonic made by monks), but I'd recommend you go and taste this spirit if you get a chance - it was a very nice change of pace.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cocktail Adventures on the Alabama Coast

We've just arrived back in Chicago after a few days of R&R on the Alabama/Florida coast, in the Perdido Key-Orange Beach area, which is sometimes affectionately called part of the Redneck Riviera.

My parents were trying their hand at snowbirding, as were most of the other people we saw. None of the towns in that area are very large, and they were all pretty sleepy this time of year. We still had a great time, but it was pretty rough finding a decent cocktail in those parts.

In Search of...
unately we came up short in finding a great cocktail, but we found some fun bars, tried one new spirit, and met some great people along the way. Here's a brief sampling of our exploits.

We had high hopes for our first stop, as it bills itself as the "best cocktail bar in the area" with an award-winning drink menu. I'm not going to name it because of what I'm about to show you. The menu was virtually all vodka and rum drinks, and about 98% of them would have been very sweet. With nary a bottle of vermouth or bitters in sight, we decided to go back to basics and ordered straight bourbon. I ordered mine "neat," and the hubby ordered his "straight." The photo at left is what we got. So we played a game of pool and moved on to the next bar.

The K
We had passed this bar a few times on the road, and it looked kind
of interesting. It's definitely the kind of place where you order a simple drink and hang out, which is exactly what we did (and we got what we expected). They had pool and a great jukebox, and the bartender, Rick, was a lot of fun. A classic old-man bar, and we stayed awhile.

Our Cigar Bar at the Wharf
This is the only place in Orange Beach where you can still smoke inside (and boy do the folks at the other bars wonder how exactly they got the city government folks to allow it). We're not big smokers, but we thought we ought to check it out based on how everyone else was talking about the place. So we had a cocktail and shared a cigar (when in Rome...). As before, simple seemed to be best way to go with the drinks, and we got exactly what we ordered. The folks were very nice, and the cigar expert, Zeke, helped us pick out a great one.

Conecuh Ridge Whiskey
The only thing we saw on our trip that we hadn't seen before was Clyde May's Conecuh Ridge Whiskey. It claims to be "Alabama Style Whiskey" and made from an old moonshine recipe developed by Clyde May. a legendary local bootlegger who sold his homemade hooch for decades, before eventually going to jail for it.

The whiskey had a strong maple aroma, and a lingering maple syrup flavor - it was sweeter than I expected (and than I prefer). It has a bit of spice, but is a bit simpler and lighter than my preferred bourbons or whiskeys.

I researched the whiskey a bit when I got back here, and it has an interesting history. It was introduced legally by Kenny May, the son of Clyde May, following his father's recipe. However, it is made in Kentucky using a corn/rye/barley mash rather than the corn/sugar blend that Clyde May was reputed to use. In 2004, the Alabama legislature overrode the governor's veto and named it the official whiskey of the state in 2004 (and it still has that designation). This lit up a firestorm of controversy about the company and brand. In late 2004, Kenny May got in trouble with the law (for selling liquor without a license) - here's the company's take on that. So the May family is no longer involved with the whiskey, and it seems like it hasn't been going too well since then - the company filed for Chapter 11 last year and the case is pending. Wikipedia says there is a shareholder derivative suit pending also.

So we struck out in finding a great cocktail, but we found some fun bars and some interesting liquor history.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Happy New Year and New Stuff to Come!

Happy, happy new year! I feel terrible about the utter lack of posting the last few weeks, please be assured it will not continue! It was it a frenzied month. As you may have heard, 35-40% or more of the spirits sold in the U.S. is during the last 45 days of the year, and we managed to survive the chaos, but my blogging time suffered dearly.

I've just arrived on the Alabama coast for a few days of respite. Soon I shall go in search of a good cocktail and report here on my findings (please let me know if you have any recommendations, aside from driving to New Orleans!).

I have some really fun things planned for the blog in 2008, including:
  • More articles on innovative cocktails and spirits being served in Chicago (I've got a great one coming your way very soon)
  • A new series of profiles of cocktail bartenders - not just the who & where, but the why & how
  • The long-awaited taste comparison of ginger beers - I've got 10 or so collected now. Its a bit daunting to think of tasting 10 Dark 'n Stormy and 10 Moscow Mule recipes, but I'll be up for it at some point (or I'll break it into two heats)

More postings soon, I promise!