Drink of the Week: The Improved Cocktail (Take 2)

Image ALT text goes here.So, as we learned last week, once upon a time, the term “cocktail” was not today’s generic term for any mixed alcoholic beverage but instead was a drink that called for a base spirit, bitters, sugar/simple syrup and maybe a bit of additional water and a fruit garnish of some sort. Thus, the original cocktail — which was not, obviously, called the Old Fashioned yet, as it was actually still kind of a newfangled thing — begat the Improved Cocktail, which adds a small amount of a liqueur to the mix and which, unlike the Old Fashioned today, is primarily served up (i.e. with the ice strained out).

While punches and numerous other mixed drinks definitely predated this Gilded Age classic, today’s drink is definitely something of an ur-cocktail in that it presumably helped open the door for the cornucopia of strong boozy beverages that are now the backbone of pretty much any home or professional bartender’s repertoire.

Last week’s Improved Cocktail recipe, however, was built around genever (the ur-gin from the Netherlands), and while that recipe can work very nicely with base spirits that are now more common, I’m not sure it’s the absolute best way to go when you’re dealing with whiskey or brandy. This week’s recipe is purloined/adapted from several different online sources which, in turn, were borrowed from the original recipe from ur-bartender Jerry Thomas. Compared to my genever recipe, it adds literally just a dash of one more ingredient and cuts the liqueur proportion in half, which may work better with base spirits that are somewhat more sweet.

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Drink of the Week: The Improved Genever Cocktail

The Improved Genever Cocktail.If you Google “improved cocktail,” you will find a number of somewhat differing drinks featuring the most venerable of the base spirits (i.e., whiskey, brandy and gin) or genever, aka “Holland gin.” That’s because, as Michael Dietsch puts it, improved cocktails are more of a template and less of a recipe. Still, I’ve just found that the “improved” model is a pretty amazing template with which to build a recipe.

If the name seems odd to you, it’s important to remember that the actual meaning of the word “cocktail” has changed since the Gilded Age heyday of 19th century bartending. If you walk into a bar today and ask for a cocktail, your confused bartender is likely to say, “Sure, which one of the hundreds of thousands of potentials drinks do you mean?”

If, however, you walked into ur-bartender Jerry Thomas’s bar circa 1876 and asked for a cocktail, you’d find yourself with what we now call an Old Fashioned, a base spirit with sugar or syrup, bitters, maybe a bit of water and a garnish. That was a cocktail. Drinks that didn’t contain bitters were not yet considered cocktails — they were just mixed drinks, and some cocktailians still prefer that terminology. Specifically, if you had ordered last week’s drink at Mr. Thomas’s bar, you would have likely asked for a Holland Gin Cocktail, the once popular term for the spirit thatevolved into the dry English-style gins we all know. When you started adding other forms of booze to it, you were getting a bit fancy. Hence, the Improved Cocktail.

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Drink of the Week: The Genever Old Fashioned

The Genever Old Fashioned.Before there was gin, there was genever — sometimes also called jenever — a concoction that is similar and yet different from the ubiquitous clear booze we now enjoy in our martinis and G&Ts. One obvious geographical difference is that most gins are now made in England or thereabouts, and by law, a liquor can only be marketed as genever if it’s from the Netherlands or Belgium. Only a few brands can be found at all in the United States and, so far, I’ve only seen one on store shelves: Bols Genever. The flavor is definitely different; the manufacturing process is more similar to whiskey, and many detect a more malty flavor.

There’s quite a bit more history on how Dutch genever became English gin, and you can learn some of it in a post I wrote a few years back. However, I never actually owned a bottle of the stuff until this week, when curiosity finally got the better of me and I purchased a bottle of Bols. In Europe, I understand that genever is often served more or less in the same way that whiskey or vodka is traditionally consumed there — more or less straight, possibly with a beer chaser or with a small amount of sugar. It’s use in cocktails is something I’m still learning about, though I know it has been mentioned in some of the oldest cocktail books.

I am, however, under the impression that Old Fashioneds are one popular way to serve genever, and the ur-cocktail seems like a pretty good place to start with one of the ur-liquors. At the same time, genever isn’t whiskey, so you might want to vary the recipe ever so slightly from the basic whiskey Old Fashioned. Or, maybe you don’t.

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Drink of the Week: The Liberal (Old School Version)

The Liberal.At the start of Labor Day weekend 2014, I gave you the updated version of the Liberal, a classic cocktail that I still think fits very nicely with a holiday that was created to honor the American labor movement, but which was also placed on the calendar pretty far from International Workers Day (May 1), a holiday associated with labor movements that had more radical connections. As a center-left type who will very definitely NOT be voting for Jill Stein this coming November, I am quite comfortable being described as an old school bleeding heart liberal, and so I am happy to now be providing the old school version of the drink, more or less cribbed from Ted Haigh’s essential “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails.” On the other hand, I’m sure conservatives could enjoy this drink as well; at least it’s not called The Progressive.

This version differs from the update I presented two years back in that it has equal parts of both whiskey and sweet vermouth, rather than emphasizing the base spirit, placing it a bit further from its roots as a variation on a Manhattan. It’s definitely a bit sweeter than the updated version, but I’m sure most people would prefer the older model for that very reason. See what you think.

The Liberal (old school version)

1 1/2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
1 1/2 ounces sweet vermouth
1/2 teaspoon Torani Amer
1-2 dashes orange bitters
1 cocktail cherry (optional garnish)

Combine the liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass and either stir or shake vigorously, depending on your preference. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and add the cherry if you’ve got it. Salute your right to drink your cocktail shaken, stirred or at all, regardless of your race, religion (or lack thereof), gender identity or sexual preference.

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Martin Ray Vineyards & Winery highlights two California regions

Martin Ray Winery’s history dates back to the 1940s in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Their second life started in 1990 when Courtney Benham bought the winery and moved it to the Russian River Valley. While they’re now deeply ensconced in Sonoma County, Martin Ray Winery continues to produce wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains too. Both of these areas are well suited for a variety of grapes to thrive. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are among those that do the best. I recently tasted a number of selections from them. Here are four that I really enjoyed and highly recommend.


Martin Ray 2014 Mill Station Chardonnay ($35)

This is entirely Chardonnay from a single vineyard located on Dutton Ranch in The Russian River Valley. Aging took place over 12 months in 40% new French oak. After aging, select barrels are chosen for the final blend. The spice-driven nose also features a bevy of other attractive aromas such as subtle toast, crème fraiche and yellow apple. Lemon curd, Anjou pear and more are on display throughout the layered and complex palate. Continued spices, hints of lemon merengue pie crust and more emerge on the long luscious finish.

Martin Ray 2014 Bald Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay ($35)

All of the fruit for this wine (entirely Chardonnay) was sourced at the namesake vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Barrel aging took place over a year in 40% New French oak. Pineapple and spice aromas dominate the lovely nose. Asian pear, citrus zest and hints of stone fruit are all apparent on the engaging palate. Wet limestone and gentle hints of brown sugar appear on the above average finish.

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