Drink of the Week: The Honolulu

the Honolulu

Last month, I was faced with the challenge of coming up with a cocktail to justify those free bottles of Booker’s and Baker’s bourbon that the Jim Beam Small Batch folks so kindly sent my way. This week, I have another — and I think even better — cocktail usage for these justifiably widely praised high-proof and moderately pricey bourbons.

The Beam folks might insist that the best way to enjoy these bourbons is with just a splash of water or an ice cube, but I think they really work well in this week’s drink. It’s a bitters-free variation on the Manhattan (originally featured on BE here) that really comes into its own with a bourbon packed with flavor, and alcohol, than on an ordinary 80-90 proofer. It’s also about as simple as a cocktail gets.

The Honolulu

1 ounce bourbon
1 ounce dry vermouth
1 ounce sweet vermouth
Lemon twist (garnish)

Combine in the bourbon and vermouth in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Depending on your preference, stir or shake (I shake) vigorously. Strain into a highly chilled cocktail glass, add the lemon twist, and drink. You may also ponder what the connection could possibly between this drink and the famed Hawaiian metropolis. I haven’t a clue.

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At least using Booker’s or Baker’s, this is a very refined drink for people who enjoy a lot of intriguing flavors dancing across the tongue. While using the very high-proof Booker’s resulted in a gentle-yet-tongue tickling beverage with a subtly spicy flavor, I actually leaned towards the version I made with Baker’s. At 107 proof, Baker’s is practically children’s fare compared to the massive 128.5 power of Booker’s, but at least using the Martini vermouths I had on hand, the result was actually more complex and intriguing.

I did try to experiment with this drink by substituting Punt e Mes for the sweet vermouth and adding a Badabing cherry. You know how they say that most experiments fail? Stick with the traditional Honolulu. This is a cocktail that’s interesting enough to entertain the brain while powerful enough to (oh so pleasantly) dull it. No reason to mess with something this good.

Say goodnight, Gracie and Eleanor.

[Writer's note: I'd like to dedicate this post to my mother, Charlotte Bows Westal, who went on to the great Coconut Grove in the sky at age 84, shortly after this post was put together earlier this week. Mom was never a really a writer, a big drinker, or a connoisseur, but she knew the value of good grammar and a well-stocked bar -- even if she wasn't above pouring the cheap stuff into bottles of the good stuff or reading questionable bestsellers. She would have liked today's clip, too, I think. Maybe she even saw it on the big screen back in '39.]

  

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Drink of the Week: The Billionaire

The Billionaire So, you see, the Jim Beam people have been celebrating the fact that September is National Bourbon Heritage Month (declared by an act of congress!) by sending out free high-end booze to people like me. Which is all well and good — very good, in fact, as far as I’m concerned.

There is a small catch, however.

You see, the company line is that the two slow batch bourbons in questions, Booker’s and Baker’s, are not really intended for cocktails. Sure, at 107 proof for Baker’s and a gobsmacking 128.5 proof on my particular bottle of Booker’s, not a lot of people are going to drink this stuff completely straight, but for most serious bourbon drinkers a bit of water or maybe a single large ice cube will do just fine and be dandy and very nice.

Still, this is a cocktail blog and cocktails are what I like. Also, rules are apparently made to be broken and mixologists have, in fact, been using Baker’s, at least, in cocktails. I found this very nice little recipe, credited to Manhattan bartender Dushan Zaric, that was set up for Baker’s but actually works even better for this boozer with the harder edged Baker’s. Also, given recent political events, I kind of enjoy the name. This one’s for you, Mitt.

The Billionaire

2 ounces very high proof bourbon
1 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 ounce grenadine (ideally a brand that has some actual pomegranate juice in it)
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1/4 ounce of absinthe or, if you’ve got it, absinthe bitters (I don’t!)
1 thin-sliced lemon wheel (garnish)

Combine bourbon, lemon juice, grenadine, absinthe, and simple syrup (you can probably substitute a tablespoon of superfine sugar) in a cocktail shaker. Add tons of ice. Shake vigorously and pour into a chilled cocktail glass or rocks glass. (I used the latter.) Sip, and try not to spill any on your ascot.

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Though this drink teeters on the edge of my personal sensitivity towards excess tartness, all that grenadine and simple syrup, plus the natural sweetness of bourbon, turn out to be more than sufficient for counteracting the lemon juice in a productive matter. I should add that most (but not all) recipes call strictly for absinthe bitters, not just absinthe and some seem to imply you should use some kind of super-fancy grenadine.

Well, all I can say is that my drink tasted fine using the cheap-ass absinthe and the more-authentic-than-usual grenadine I happened to have on hand. I might actually be a member of the income-tax paying 53% percent, but I sure as hell ain’t no billionaire.

  

Drink of the Week: The Brown University

Regular readers may have sensed that I like to keep things very simple. Life can be awfully complicated and stressful sometimes, and I myself tend to see the world as not a black and white matter but one of endless shades of gray. Still, where ever we can keep things simple, I think, we probably kind of should. Why make life harder than it has to be?

Cocktails don’t get that much simpler than the Brown University. It also seemed a good fit for yet another really great bottle of whiskey to mysteriously turn up here at Drink of the Week manor.

Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which is another worthwhile spirit under the Jim Beam Small Batch umbrella, has a taste that’s gentler than most bourbons, which makes sense as it’s mere 80 proof, not the 88-100 (or more) proof we bourbonistas are used to. It’s sweet in the way of a good bourbon, and it’s certainly not harsh, yet it’s far from boring and has plenty of the right kind of complexity. I’ve been joking for a while that I was getting to the point where merely 80 proof liquor was starting to bore me. Basil Hayden’s reminds me that I really am joking when I say that.

Anyhow, time to try the stuff in a unfairly obscure cocktail classic, Brown University.

Brown University

1 1/2 ounces bourbon
1 1/2 ounces dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Stir for a good long time or, if you’re using a less sublime bourbon than the brand I found myself using, consider shaking…perhaps.  With this drink the anti-shaking traditionalists may be right on the money. Definitely strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

If you like, you may toast Rhode Island’s Ivy League school and, maybe, you can find out for me what the connection is between the drink and the college, because I haven’t a freaking clue.

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The Brown University may be simple with it’s equal parts of bourbon and white vermouth, but it’s as sophisticated as cocktails get. It seems to contain a spice rack full of flavors. In fact, an even simpler version of this drink that’s made without bitters is called a Rosemary, and that seems appropriate. Of course, some of that savory spice might have been the influence of Basil Hayden’s and I didn’t have a chance to try this one with another brand, though I surely will. Whatever brand you end up with, you definitely want to stick with one of the mellower bourbons for this one, I think.

And now we close with a musical interlude provided by some the talented young ladies of Brown University.  I hope they all get to try the beverage that bears their alma mater’s name sometime.

  

Drink of the Week pre-5/5 special, part 2: the Mint Julep

the Mint Julep

We conclude our May 4, 2012 doubleheader with one of the most legendary of all cocktails and the ultimate Derby Day tradition. It’s also a drink, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve only tried for myself in the last couple of weeks.

According to such experts as New Orleans bartender Chris MacMillian, the Mint Julep was to the 19th century what the Martini was to the 20th. As MacMillians also reminds us, this super classic drink’s roots actually go back far further — juleps were eulogized in 1634 by “Paradise Lost” poet John Milton in his “Comus,” which some of us old English majors have actually read, even if we don’t remember a word of it. Today, the bourbon, sugar and mint concoction is primarily associated with Southern belles and gents in old movies seeking a cool libation on a powerful hot day, not to mention the ultra-famed horse race which will once again be run tomorrow afternoon.

As I heard from numerous sources, however, the actual juleps served in recent years at the home of the Kentucky Derby have been anything but satisfying. If word on the cocktail street is correct, Churchill Downs has fallen prey to the #1 enemy of good cocktails — a pre-mix! Tragic, perhaps but also almost understandable given the enormous crowds who arrive each year for Derby Day. In any case, if you want a really good Mint Julep, you’ll have to go a high quality bar with a decent mixologist in residence or, of course, you may make one yourself.

The Mint Julep

2.5-3 ounces bourbon whiskey
1/2 ounce simple syrup or 1 tablespoon sugar and a splash of water
About 5-8 fresh mint leaves
Lots of ice — preferably crushed.

Combine mint leaves, simple syrup or sugar (preferably superfine or powdered) and water in a rocks/old fashioned glass or, if you have one (I don’t) a traditional metal julep glass. Gently muddle the mixture, being careful not to overdo it as, we are warned, over-muddling mint can release some displeasing bitterness. Fill up your glass with ice, add the bourbon of your choice, and stir. Toast your favorite racehorse and sip slowly.

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There’s no doubt about it, I’m a piker when it comes to the Mint Julep. I’ve made a few decent versions of it but I don’t own the special sack — called a Lewis bag — or the mallet needed for making the crushed ice fine enough to make the julep a sort of highly alcoholic snow cone and I also don’t own a blender. Even so, this drink works fine with lots of ordinary ice, particularly if you’re a bourbon lover, as I am. I made some very good versions of it using the remainder of my Angel’s Envy — I still had some left over from my exploration of the Chicago Sour — but I had  good luck as well using some very inexpensive yet sweeter and highly drinkable Evan Williams brew. I’m sure Maker’s Mark or really any brand of bourbon you like a lot would work delightfully.

The only problems I encountered were when I tried to dial back the sweetness. None other than James Bond in “Goldfinger” ordered his drink tart. When I tried it that way, the flavors simply didn’t come together. Just because you own a license to kill and save the world once a year doesn’t mean you know everything.

Of course, I don’t know everything either. Something tells me the drink, as prepared a bit differently from me by Chris MacMillian himself below, was really something.

  

Drink of the Week: The Angel’s Decree

the Angel's DecreeDespite the fact that many U.S. denominations frown on booze or ban it outright, it’s nevertheless no surprise that Christian imagery has found its way into the argot of whiskey distillers based in some of the most devout regions on the planet. “The Angel’s share” refers to a certain small percentage of whiskey that seeps into the wood in barrels and usually evaporates.

It’s become a minor trend to refer to this phenomenon. A bourbon fancier’s magazine is named for it, Jim Beam has found a way to extract the bourbon back out of the wood and perversely named it the Devil’s Cut. Meanwhile, famed bourbon distiller Lincoln Henderson, previously associated with the fine brands Old Forester and Woodford Reserve, has crafted a Kentucky straight bourbon he calls the Angel’s Envy.

The booze press has been very kind to this bourbon and for good reason. It’s designed for the serious whiskey lover and is described as being ultra small-batch and super premium. By intelligent design, it’s not as smooth as some products but it mostly justifies its large, but not enormous, price (about $45.00 in most places) by being plenty flavorful. It makes for an excellent Manhattan, quite a sturdy Old Fashioned, and I imagine it would work equally well in most classic bourbon cocktails. It’s also excellent with just a little bit of soda water.

Still, there’s always room for innovation. Henderson and his colleagues finish their product in casks previously used for port, and there is a hint of the richness of the dessert wine in the whiskey’s flavor. Logically enough, port is a significant ingredient in a number of recipes they’ve developed, including the one below that’s pretty ideal for the unseasonably warm weather going on in parts of the Midwest, even if it’s actually a bit cooler than usual here in sunny So Cal. In any case, this beverage is a nice one and simple enough for any soul.

The Angel’s Decree

1 1/2 ounces Angel’s Envy bourbon
1/2 ounce port
1-2 dashes aromatic bitters
ginger ale

Combine bourbon, port, and bitters in a smallish Tom Collins glass with ice cubes and stir. Top off with ginger ale…it’s more interesting if you don’t stir it again at this point. Sip and ask for divine guidance on whether or not your soul will be safe if you try this very tasty concoction with another brand of bourbon.

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I really like the Angel’s Decree but, at the risk of sounding as if I’m in a state of heretical despair, I’m not sure it loves me. My issues with all true red wines — they make me feel, if I may use a technical term, icky — are what drove me to explore cocktails in the first place. Port is easily my favorite kind of red wine but, as I learned again this week, it’s still red and even in very small doses for me leads to feelings that are short of heavenly. That, however, should not stop you from enjoying the drink.

The good news for me is that the sweet vermouth you use in a Manhattan only looks red. (The color is mostly from the caramel used to give it’s sweetness.) I think that’s how I’ll largely be taking my Angel’s Envy. Regardless, I trust no celestial being will be in hot pursuit of my footwear as a result.

  

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