Drink of the Week: The Russian

the Russian.You know the White Russian and you probably know the Black Russian, which subtracts the diary product but leaves the Kahlua and vodka. Still, I bet the Russian, full stop, is unknown to you, as it was to me until just a few days ago.

I found this drink while pouring over my increasingly well-worn copy of Harry Craddock’s 1930 “The Savoy Cocktail Book” seeking something simple. I’m a bit overwhelmed at the day job right now — no, I don’t make my living doing this — and I really didn’t have the energy to even so much as squeeze a lemon or a lime. And so I stumbled over this little known relic of the days when vodka was a rather exotic ingredient unfamiliar to most Americans who mainly knew whiskey, gin, and probably the once ubiquitous applejack…if they ever dared to enter a speakeasy, that is.

I have no idea if the Russian — actually called “The Russian Cocktail” by Craddock, who called about 90% of his drinks the “the _____ Cocktail” — was an invention of prohibition-era booze marketers trying to popularize vodka in Western Europe and the soon-to-be post-18th Amendment U.S. (See the Moscow Mule, which came a bit later). I do know, however,  that mixing vodka with a chocolate liqueur and the right kind of gin makes for a drink that’s definitely sweet, but with just enough bite to be interesting. It’s also about as easy to make as a cocktail gets.

The Russian

3/4 ounce vodka
3/4 ounce gin
3/4 ounce cream de cacao

Combine your liquids in a cocktail shaker with a ton of ice. Shake very vigorously. Strain into a cocktail glass chilled within an inch of its life. Toast, Dostoevsky, who gave the world “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Crime and Punishment, and “The Idiot” and this perhaps tangentially related joke.

“Did you know the Russians are coming out with a new car. It’s called the Dostoyevsky?”

“Really.”

“Yeah, it’s available in a two-door and Fyodor.”

***

To be honest, this drink is about as Russian as that joke. The name notwithstanding, it’s neither the vodka or the gin that dominates this drink, it’s the creme de cacao. If you don’t love chocolate, you won’t love the Russian. That’s not to say the hard liquors don’t play crucial supporting roles.

This drink definitely works far better with a gin and a vodka able to stand up to a chocolate onslaught. My first time out, I used Sky Vodka, the last remnants of my No. 3 London Dry Gin, a flavorful and stout product, and Gionelli white creme de cacao. It was pretty darn delightful. Much less so, however, when I ran out to the local grocery story and decided to pick up a $20.00 double-sized bottle of Gordon’s Gin, which can often work delightfully in mixed drinks, including martinis. This time, however, it just didn’t have the gumption we needed. I was tempted to blame my more photogenic choice of DeKuyper’s brown creme de cacao for my insipid Russian but, on reflection, I decided the two chocolate liqueurs I used were about on par.

I next tried it with the Plymouth Gin that made the Olivette sing last week. Very good. Then, I tried it with 100 proof Smirnoff. Sweet, but strong like a Trotsky icepick.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Olivette

Image ALT text goes here.I’ve slipped up again in the holiday boozing department as there’s nothing particularly Father’s Day appropriate about today’s drink. Of course, there’s also nothing particularly un-fatherly about it. If dad likes gin, olives, and isn’t averse to a tiny bit of  anisette/licorice flavor, he might just dig this very sophisticated, very boozy classic martini alternative as much as I do if you serve it up to him this Sunday.

And I do kind of dig it. I wrote last week of my moody martini disenchantment and I’ve found this drink perhaps the perhaps the perfect antidote. It features my favorite part of the martini, the olive, but it’s balanced out by tiny proportions of sugar water and the alcoholic punch in the face we call absinthe. It does come from “The Savoy Cocktail Book,” definitely one of the big daddies of the field. I’ve modified it ever so slightly to better suit my personal taste buds. More about that after today’s recipe.

The Olivette

1 1/2 ounces Plymouth Gin
1/2 teaspoon simple syrup
1/4-1/2 teaspoon absinthe
2 dashes orange bitters
1 olive (mandatory garnish)
1 lemon peel (semi-mandatory garnish)

Combine the liquid ingredients and shake the contents. (You can also stir this drink if you like…but you’d be wrong.) Strain into a chilled, smallish cocktail glass or coupe over an olive. Mr. Craddock said  you should squeeze the lemon peel on top, and I’m inclined to agree. Toast the olive, for it is green, pimento stuffed, and full of life…or, you can toast your dad if you’re so inclined.

***

I find the Olivette as wonderfully sophisticated as the best traditional dry martini, yet with far more flavor going for it. While the simple syrup might seem a counterintuitive touch for a drink with an olive in it, it creates a very pleasing balance with the orange bitters (Reagan’s for me, as usual) and the very strong anisette flavor of  absinthe.

I’ve altered the Olivette from Harry Craddock’s recipe. Instead of my half and quarter teaspoons, the original calls for two dashes of simple syrup and three dashes of absinthe. I remain eternally befuddled by how I’m supposed to include a dash of something that doesn’t come from a dash bottle and too lazy/cheap to buy one just for the purpose of duplicating Mr. Craddock’s recipes. I prefer being a bit more precise anyway.

Even so, when I tried approximating the original drink with 1/4 teaspoon simple syrup and 1/2 teaspoon absinthe, I found the latter ingredient somewhat overpowered the drink. If you’re a bigger fan of licorice than me, however, you might like it this way. I liked the drink a whole lot better when I reversed the proportions and used 1/2 teaspoon of sugar and just 1/4 teaspoon absinthe — for me the ultimate example of a “little goes a long way” ingredient.

Of course, the primary and most important ingredient of the Olivette is gin, and not just any gin. Plymouth Gin is called for in, we are told by whomever felt like taking the time to count, 23 of the cocktails in “The Savoy Cocktail Book.” It is, as I wrote last year, both a style and a brand of gin. That’s because there’s only one brand of it available, so we’ve essentially got a monopoly on our hands. In this case, the monopoly works very nicely.

The ever-so-slightly less dry, fruitier flavor of gin from the English town that produced our nation’s ultra-abstemious founding Puritans really does seem to be the ideal gin for this lost classic of a drink. I say this with some authority because I also tried the Olivette with a perfectly good brand of regular London dry gin. It kind of tasted like a Dow Chemical spill.

  

Drink of the Week: The Fifty-Fifty Cocktail

The Fifty Fifty Cocktail. Tastes change, my friends. As a child, I pretty much only knew yellow mustard. As I grew, I discovered Gulden’s Brown, Grey Poupon, and various other not-so-exotic variants. I quickly learned to disdain the yellow vinegary and go for the brown and/or spicy. That ended last year when I suddenly realized that nothing was better on pastrami than plain old Morehouse or French’s.

It’s also true that martinis were the first real cocktails I ever routinely ordered or made for myself. I started out with vodka martinis, grew bored and moved on to dirty vodka martinis, and later dry gin martinis — all the while tacitly admitting that my favorite part of the drink by far was the olives. By sometime shortly before the first election of Barack Obama, I grew downright snobby about gin over vodka…but now that all feels so very 2013 of me. As I write this, I’m missing my old vodka martinis, and that’s weird. To be brutally honest, I’m kind of over standard martinis right now; my go-to cocktail basic is an Old Fashioned.

Still, when nothing will do but a martini, I do have a drink I like and it flies in the face of the lionization that the super dry martini has benefited from. So, forget you Hawkeye Pierce, see you later James Bond, ta-ta-for-now Nick Charles, bon voyage Luis Bunuel — I think I’ll miss you most of all. Here is the recipe for the least dry martini on the planet. Yes, the name is the recipe.

The Fifty-Fifty Cocktail

1 1/2 to 2 ounces dry gin
1 1/2 to 2 ounces dry vermouth
1 dash orange bitters (extremely optional)
Olive or lemon twist (extremely desirable garnish)

Combine the gin and vermouth with a ton of ice in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass. I know that it is permissible, even recommended by some, to shake this drink, for “The Savoy Cocktail Book” tells me so. However, modern day cocktail snobs insist you should stir the Fifty-Fifty Cocktail instead.

(It’s crucial, by the way, to remember that vermouth doesn’t last forever once it’s been opened. By smaller bottles and refrigerate it, by all means. Don’t let it sit forever even in the fridge or  you’ll live to regret it…especially with this drink.)

Strain into a martini glass or coupe with your choice of garnish. Toast your ever-changing cocktail moods.
****

I’ve made this drink quite a few times on my own in the past. Just as before, I found that my opinion changed slightly every time I tried it.

For gin, I used Bombay Dry and No. 3 London Dry; for my dry vermouth I switched between Dolin’s and Martini. For the all important green garnish, I started with a can of rather amazing tasting anchovy stuffed olives I bought at a fantastic Armenian grocery down the street from me named, what else, Olive Market. (Could the mysterious white substance you see in the picture be anchovy paste? I sure as hell hope so.)

I then switched over to an old favorite, Trader Joe’s World’s Largest Olives…except that they seemed a bit sharper and less mellow than I remember them. Maybe that’s because they’re now a product of Spain and I pretty distinctly remember them being from Greece before. I also tried it with a lemon twist, which resulted in a gentler flavor many may prefer.

One place where my taste definitely seems to have changed is that, contrary to past experiences, I found I liked this drink better and cleaner tasting as it was in “The Savoy Cocktail Book” — sans bitters, simply gin and vermouth. I also found a slight preference for shaken over stirred, which is also different from my recent preferences regarding gin martinis. (Vodka martinis should ALWAYS be shaken, by the way, if you’re going that route. I’ll go to my deathbed feeling that way.)

All that being said, I have a hard time coming up with consistent feelings about this drink. Sometimes it feels like a huge improvement over a regular dry martini, sometimes it feels like a sort of meh drink that doesn’t even pack the same alcohol punch as a “real” martini.

So, how do I really feel about the Fifty-Fifty Cocktail? Ask me after I’ve had my next one because every time I drink one it feels a little like a whole new drink. Could it be all the permutations — different brands, bitters or no bitters — or could it just be how I’m feeling? I’m betting on the latter.

A brief addendum: I just noticed that “The Savoy Cocktail Book” calls a Fifty-Fifty Cocktail that includes orange bitters a “Dry Martini Cocktail.” Confusion rules the world!

  

Variety is king in Australian wine

Australia is a diverse country whose various wine regions and wine styles quite literally offer something for every palate, price range and occasion. Shiraz is what a lot of people think of first, and with good reason — they make a wide array of lovely ones in diverse styles. However, that’s the tip of the iceberg in Australia. Whether it’s white wine or red wine, hot or cool climate, made in gentle or bold and brawny styles, Australia has something to offer. There is also quite a bit of value to be had on our shelves coming from the shores of Australia. Here’s a look at three wildly divergent wines, each delicious in its own right, representing its region and variety well, and all reasonably priced.

australia_1

Brokenwood 2013 Hunter Valley Semillon – This winery has been around for more than 40 years, and they have been featuring Semillon in their portfolio for more than 30 of those years. The fruit for this wine was picked by hand, and is entirely Semillon. Fermentation and aging was handled entirely in stainless steel. This wine has a suggested retail price of $20. Honeydew melon and Granny Smith apple aromas are prominent on the nose. Lemon zest, bits of nectarine and white pepper are all prominent on the palate, along with hints of grapefruit. The finish is crisp, clean and refreshing with continued citrus notes and a gentle hint of brioche. This wine works well as an aperitif or paired with a lighter foods. Semillon in this style is eminently age-worthy — don’t hesitate to lay this one down for a decade or more and watch its fascinating evolution.

Innocent Bystander 2012 Pinot Noir – Winemaker Phil Sexton has been producing wine in the Yarra Valley since the late 1990s. The area, and the fruit it produced, inspired and continue to inform the Innocent Bystander line. The fruit was picked by hand and destemmed. It’s entirely Pinot Noir. Fermentation took place with native yeasts; 60 percent was aged in stainless steel, the balance in oak. This wine was bottled unfiltered. It has a suggested retail price of $20. Ripe strawberry and mushroom aromas light up the gorgeous nose of this Pinot Noir. The palate here is studded with red fruit, tinged with bits of black fruit as well. Cherry is the dominant characteristic and it’s joined by hints of cinnamon. Sour cherry, rhubarb, earthy chicory and black pepper fill out the gentle finish. This is a pretty good example of Pinot Noir that tenderly envelops your senses and keeps you coming back for sip after sip. At less than $20, if you shop around, it’s a terrific Pinot for the price.

australia_2

Imprimata 2012 McLaren Vale Grenache – The relatively new producer has been making wine in McLaren Vale, where owner Ben Hammerschlag started looked for the optimal property in 2006. This offering is 100 percent Grenache. Fermentation took place in stainless steel tanks, and barrel aging followed over a period of 5 months in 2 to 3-year-old barrels. This wine has a suggested retail price of $25. Raspberry, red plum and a subtle hint of charcoal are all part of the super-engaging nose of this Grenache. Purple and red fruit flavors fill the palate; all manner of berry and plum flavors are on display here. Savory herb, black pepper and hints of stewed red fruits emerge on the finish, which has terrific length. This wine has power, grace and the ability to pair up with an incredibly wide array of foods.

Certainly, we should all keep drinking Australian Shiraz; they do a bang-up job with it. However, if the only thing from Australia you’re drinking is Shiraz you’re missing most of the picture. There’s a whole world of wine out there to enjoy. Think of the trio above as a mini introduction into some of the other wines and styles that Australia offers to the wine lovers of the world. Don’t stop here — keep tasting and drinking your way through the deliciousness. Find a grape you love and explore it from a variety of Australian regions, or find a region and explore various wines from there. In either case you’ll learn a lot and have a tasty time.

Check out Gabe’s View for more wine reviews, and follow Gabe on Twitter!

  

Drink of the Week: The Leatherneck Cocktail

Image ALT text goes here.Memorial Day weekend of 2014 is about to get underway. For most of us, it’s just another Monday holiday and the gateway to summer vacation time. For those of us who have lost someone important in one of America’s wars, however, it’s another kind of day entirely.

Though it’s origins are somewhat foggy, Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, honoring the many fallen soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War.  Though it was intended as a solemn remembrance, especially given the shamefully scant number of days off most Americans get these days, you can’t blame people for spending it doing fun things like, say, making cocktails. That definitely applies to me.

The Leatherneck Cocktail is one of the beverages unearthed by famed cocktail archeologist Ted Haigh in his hugely influential Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. As many of you probably know, a Leatherneck is a member of the United States Marine Corps, but I think it’s fair to salute anyone who’s put themselves in danger and perhaps paid the ultimate price on behalf of the rest of us.

The Leatherneck Cocktail

2 ounces blended North American whiskey
3/4 ounce blue curacao
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice.

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Frank Farrell, a Marine turned journalist credited with creating the Leatherneck Cocktail, said you should shake this drink “violently” and that’s not half wrong. Definitely a very vigorous shaking is in order to bring out its more refreshing aspects.

Strain your Leatherneck into a cocktail glass and toast anyone you may have known who sacrificed something important in a war, anywhere in the world. If you actually don’t know anyone who’s endured that sort of a loss, toast that instead.

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A number of very familiar booze brands will probably work here. Technically, I believe, “blended” means any whiskey that’s not single malt or is also not “straight” bourbon or rye. In practice, a classic Leatherneck Cocktail must, I gather, be made with something that is North American and is neither bourbon, nor rye, nor Tennessee whiskey (e.g., Jack Daniels). Good examples would be most brands of Canadian whiskey, like my beloved Canadian Club or Seagrams VO. Seagram’s 7, which is actually U.S. made and blended, would definitely also qualify if you happen to have that around.

Ted Haigh uses Crown Royal, which to me has always tasted like an ever-so-slightly smoother, higher-end version of Canadian Club. I usually have some CC on hand but didn’t this week. I did, in fact, have an actual vintage spirit on hand. It was an unopened bottle of Crown Royal dating back probably 20 years or more given to me by some beloved relatives of mine.

This testament to the very moderate drinking habits of many Jewish-Americans comes to me from two of my very favorite cousins, who know who they are and how much I appreciate their generously provided free aged booze and overall wonderful cousin-hood. My Crown Royal-based cocktail definitely made for a refreshing beverage that, I think, is a reasonable credit to our fighting forces.

Of course, this is  a very simple drink — really, a whiskey daiquiri — that could maybe be spiced up and improved in a number of ways I’m sure. Any ideas on what could constitute a Flying Leatherneck?

  

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