Drink of the Week: The East India House Cocktail

The East India House Cocktail. It’s not exactly a secret around here that I greatly lean towards cocktails as opposed to drinking even truly fine spirits straight. Still, it’s fairly obvious even to me why the best cognacs and other high end brandies are among the most popular of all beverages to enjoy neat. Certainly that applies to the Ile de Ré Fine Island Cognac from the Camus line of fine cognacs with which I was recently blessed by the Powers that Booze.

The PR materials for this brandy emphasize the fact that this particular cognac actually comes from a tiny island off the coast of France which is legally included in the Cognac appellation. My grasp of French geography is nowhere near strong enough for me to know if this is a bit of alcoholic loophole, but no one seems to be complaining about the quality of this cognac which, we are told has a “maritime” feeling and a dash of iodine in its flavor. I’ve never drunk iodine, so I wouldn’t know, but this is definitely about as sippable as any brandy or cognac I’ve enjoyed, and there is a bit of similarity to a good, slightly smokey Scotch I’m sure many will enjoy. It’s also very, very good with an equal part of brandy’s best known significant other, Benedictine.

Nevertheless, while many consider it a sacrilege to make cocktails out of really outstanding cognac, breaking that particular taboo is a big part of the name of the game here at DOTW Central. Even so, we’ve managed to find a very nice cocktail that permits the cognac to be the star of the show, adding a number of sweeteners in small amounts to make for an intriguing and very drinkable whole. While not the equal of the mighty Cognac Sazerac, todays drink is worthy of the status of a very good second-tier classic.

The East India House Cocktail

2 oz cognac (or brandy, if you are an impoverished peon who doesn’t get free booze in the mail)
1 tsp. pineapple juice
1 tsp. superfine sugar
1 tsp. orange curaçao
1 tsp. maraschino liqeuer
1-2 dashes aromatic or Peychaud’s bitters
1 cherry or lemon twist (fairly optional garnish)

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail sugar, stir briefly to dissolve the superfine sugar. Add ice, shake vigorously and strain into a well chilled cocktail glass. If you’re looking for something to toast, you might consider the phylloxera louse. While it’s not typical to salute a vine-eating vermin, this wingless insect was kind enough to leave the Ile de Ré alone back in the 1850s even as it was munching up mainland wine crops. I’m not 100% sure this is relevant to the quality of the island’s cognac today; I just like saluting lice.

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There are several versions of this drink, also sometimes referred to simply as the “East India Cocktail,” so feel free to experiment. Some versions I stumbled upon call for raspberry syrup in place of the pineapple and sugar, which sounds worth a try. Robert Hess of “The Cocktail Spirit,” dispenses with the sugar and just goes with the pineapple juice, though the original recipe called for pineapple syrup (i.e., pineapple juice and sugar). I found his version a bit lacking.

While I’m a fan of all of the ingredients, I’m not certain I’ve found the perfect mix here, so I definitely encourage further experimentation. If anyone out there has better luck with different proportions, I’d love to hear about it. I will say my favorite version featured Angostura bitters and a lemon twist, but every permutation I tried worked fairly well.

For those of you wondering about the name of this week’s drink, the East India House was a real place in London. It was the headquarters of the East India Company, which was crucial in the development of British Imperialism from the Renaissance up through the 19th century, when it was nationalized by the English parliament.

Especially if you’re of Indian or Chinese extraction or just really into human rights, you might consider a drink with a name like that to be a distasteful celebration of oppression. However, another drink I considered making this week was called the “Antebullum Mint Julep” which we are told was a drink commonly enjoyed at pre-Civil War Southern Plantations. What next, I wonder. “The Gestapo Cocktail” or, perhaps less offensively, “The Spanish Inquisition”? as you may be aware, at least that last cocktail has the virtue of being forever unexpected.

  

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Drink of the Week: Between the Sheets

Between the SheetsLast time I was here we were talking about the distinguished history of the Mint Julep and referencing poet John Milton and his rather obscure poem, “Comus” (actually a masque if you want to get technical). Well, you can forget those high flown references this week because we’re getting down and dirty with a classic drink with no such poetic connotations.

Yes, before there was Sex on the Beach and the Screaming Orgasm there was this week’s bluntly named — at least by prohibition era standards, anyways — libation. On the other hand, it’s also probably a lot more appropriate for Mother’s Day weekend than you might care too think, given that cocktails like this are very often the mother of motherhood, if you will.

Between the Sheets

1 ounce brandy or cognac
1 ounce white rum
1 ounce Cointreau or triple sec
1/2 an ounce (or less) fresh squeezed lemon juice

Combine brandy/cognac, rum, lemon juice, and triple sec or Cointreau in a shaker with lots of ice. Shake vigorously and pour into our old friend, the pre-chilled cocktail glass. Shake, put on some Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Beyoncé, or Perry Como (don’t say I don’t give you people some options) and sip sensuously.

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Between the Sheets is an unusual drink not only for its pre-1970s salaciousness, but in that it’s in the small but fascinating family of multiple base spirit cocktails with its rum/brandy combo. Admittedly, however, this is not as much to my personal taste as the Saratoga — which features brandy and rye — from a few weeks back, but it will do.

I tried it several different ways but no clear favorite emerged. The version with inexpensive Bols triple sec was not cloying, as some drinks made with it can be. Using the high end triple sec, Cointreau, added a classy but not super-enthralling note of complex bitterness. Both drinks were fine but when I got a bit more experimental and used orange curacao, which I generally tend to prefer to triple sec, the drink became annoyingly super-sweet. Not sexy at all.

It might not be a huge personal favorite of mine, but I encourage you to give Between the Sheets a shot. It’s a tasty enough drink and a reminder of the healthy, natural activity that brought us all into the world so we can enjoy cocktails and feel guilty about not calling our mother’s enough.

Now, a behind the scenes look at the making of the cocktail we call humanity.

  

Drink of the Week: The Saratoga

The SaratogaA couple of years back I was in a restaurant bar in L.A.’s Chinatown known for it’s Tiki-style specialties. Not sure what to order, I asked the bartender, an older gentlemen who clearly knew what was what in that venerable Asian-American enclave, what cocktail he liked most to make. “Beer,” he told me, utterly straightfaced. Forget it, Bob, it’s, well, you know where.

In my experience, most bartenders aren’t really big on offering up suggestions that go beyond the best known drinks. That leaves it up to more adventurous imbibers to suggest something a bit different. The only problem is that it’s kind of hard to remember the ingredients and exact proportions of most great cocktails. Not so with today’s slightly unusual but also highly symmetrical dual-spirit concoction. If you can remember “equal parts brandy, rye, and sweet vermouth and bitters” you’ve got this drink mostly down.

My Good Friday 2012 drink is also about as classic as they come. It dates back to 1887 and the second of Jerry Thomas’s seminal 19th century cocktail guides. The name, I gather, comes from Saratoga Springs in Upstate New York. Once upon a time, the town combined spa-like resorts, natural beauty, and also a healthy business in gambling, and not only at the famed race track. In any case, the drink is an outstanding variation on the Manhattan and so simple even the most distracted and busy bartender should be able to manage it — well, assuming the bar even stocks rye.

The Saratoga

1 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce brandy or cognac
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes aromatic bitters
1 thinly sliced lemon wheel (borderline essential garnish)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Combine the rye, brandy, vermouth and a dash of two of bitters in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Stir or shake it vigorously, and strain the results into a chilled cocktail glass, preferably with the lemon wheel already sitting it in it — not perched on the side of the glass. Sip and contemplate how much harder it must have been to get a hold of the large quantities of ice necessary for good cocktails in 1887.

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I used Rittenhouse Rye which, being 100 proof, stands up really well to the combined sweetness of my beloved Noilly Pratt red vermouth and the wonderfully value priced Reynal brandy. I found the lemon slice to be an essential component. It’s one garnish that really does kind of make the drink, for me anyway. You might also want to give lemon peel/zest a try.

I did do a little experimenting. At the suggestion of a 2009 post on the Alcademics blog, I tried it with some Scotch (the Glenrothes). It was nice, but not quite as nice as with rye. I also tried it with some very good bourbon (Buffalo Trace) which was, however, a bust as bourbon is probably about as sweet as brandy.

  

Drink of the Week: The Hot Toddy

The Hot ToddyHave you ever found yourself wondering exactly what a hot toddy is? I know I have. I’ve had them in bars maybe once or twice at most and occasionally messed around with heating up some whiskey and water with a little sugar or something else, but I’ve never quite had a handle on what makes a toddy a toddy. The funny part is that after working with them a bit more earnestly the last week or so, I’m still wondering what a hot toddy is.

The problem is that every recipe I’ve found seems to bear relatively little relation to every other recipe, to the point where I’ve determined that there is no baseline recipe for hot toddies there way there might be for other cocktails. Beyond involving hot water, sweetener, and some form of hard liquor that’s usually is whiskey but could also be brandy or rum, there’s nothing very much in common between any two recipes, though a lemon usually comes into play and some people, who may tend to be from the U.K. or British commonwealth countries, use tea instead of hot water. Figuring out the “classic” hot toddy seems to be a fool’s errand.

Therefore, I’m presenting, instead, my own personal hot toddy. Of the various combinations of boiling water, whiskey, and sugar that I’ve experimented with this week, this is the one that’s worked out the best for me.

The Hot Toddy

4 ounces boiling water
1.5 ounces bourbon or Scotch whiskey
2 teaspoons of sugar, preferably brown
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice or lemon slice or peel
1 cinnamon stick as optional garnish.

Place sugar in a small coffee or tea cup. Pour in boiling water and stir to dissolve sugar. Add lemon juice — or don’t and substitute a very thin lemon slice garnish with your cinnamon stick. Based on personal preference feel free to increase or eschew the juice entirely. Add your booze, stir, and sip. (If you have a heat sensitive like me, don’t worry. The room temperature booze should cool the drink down to a reasonably drinkable temperature.)

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Feel free to experiment with your favorite brandy, rum, or another type of whiskey. The sweetness of bourbon seems to appeal to me the most here, though using a decent single malt scotch was also very nice. You can boost the booze up to 2 ounces if you want or maybe reduce the water though it will get cold faster. I should add I was using Old Fitzgerald’s 100 proof bourbon, but I suspect 1.5 ounces of 80 proof Jim Beam or what have you would be good and potent enough for most people with 4 ounces of water.

Just watch the lemon juice and/or lemon slice as a little can go a long way. If you go the lemon slice route and want to warm up your drink, remove the lemon before nuking it in the microwave. On that road lies nastiness.

Toddies are nice. It’s actually fairly hard to mess up whiskey, a bit of sugar, and some water and wonderful for warming up on a cold night.  You might find you don’t need that sweater or sweatshirt after consuming one of these.

On the other hand, the docs tell us that, contrary to what some of us have been told, it’s really not the absolute best thing if you’re actually sick, especially with a fever. The dehydrating diuretic properties of alcohol makes momma’s chicken soup better for cold of flu sufferers, leaving aside the whole issue of drug interactions. (For starters, booze and anything containing Tylenol/Acetaminophen should not really mix in your body. It’s a liver thing.) On the other hand, if you’re simply sick from worry or stress on a cold winter evening, there is no simpler remedy.

  

Drink of the Week: The Sidecar

Sidecar cocktailAllegedly dating back to the days of World War I and Papa Hemingway’s favorite bar in Paris (that would be Harry’s, of course) and apparently invented either by or for a motorcycling serviceman with a sidecar on his vehicle, this is a drink that is being revived more and more often these days. As with most of the other classic cocktails, there is a pretty huge amount of variation in the proportions of what boils down to being a delightfully simple drink. However, after looking at a number of recipes from different sources, there are two basic variations.

The Sidecar (modern day)

2 ounces cognac or brandy
1 ounce Cointreau
1/2 – 1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake very vigorously, and pour into a pre-chilled glass. Some bartenders garnish with a lemon twist. Others rim the glass with sugar by wetting the edge of the glass with lemon juice and placing the glass on plate of bowl of sugar. However, serving this drink garnish free in simply a chilled glass will do just fine.

Now, some recipes from less reputable sources might also suggest you could use any brand of triple sec — Cointreau is the relatively pricey “original” triple sec and is drier than the garden variety. After experimenting all week with a cut rate version using a decent but basic brand of the orange liqueur, I’m here to tell you that simply doesn’t work in the above recipe. Even with an entire ounce of lemon, it was way too insipidly sweet if I used the smaller amount of lemon juice for me, and I have more of a sweet tooth than most hardcore cocktail aficionados. Even with more of the super tart juice, however, the darn thing simply failed to come together, which I guess is why everybody in the booze world I respect implies it’s either Cointreau or the highway here.

However, there is an older version of the beverage which is an entirely different story and great news for us impoverished cocktail hounds

The Sidecar (original)

1 ounce brandy or Cognac
1 ounce Triple Sec or Cointreau
1 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice

Again, this is prepared by simply shaking very vigorously and lengthily and pouring into a chilled martini glass.

While this is a bit less stiff than the drink above and in theory should be more sickeningly sweet, the cocktail alchemy seems to be entirely different and the arguably excessive sweetness of the triple sec and the tartness of the lemon juice counterbalance each other quite beautifully with the brandy acting as an effective moderator. I can’t wait to try this and the above recipe with Cointreau. Maybe somebody will send me a free bottle…

As for brandy vs. Cognac, I’ve had Cognacs that were not as good as the inexpensive French brandy (Raynal) I’ve had great luck with on other drinks, but just be aware that Cognac is simply a more expensive type of grape brandy made in a specific part of France. If anyone wants to send me some Cognac, they’re naturally welcome as well.

  

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