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: The Cognac Sazerac

the Cognac SazeracThere was a time when calling a drink a cognac sazerac would have been close to calling a certain sandwich a “beef hamburger.” However, New Orleans’s magnificent contribution to classic cocktails has changed over the years. Today, it is almost always prepared with rye whiskey but, as I pointed out in my prior post on this great beverage, it was originally a cognac-based drink.

The occasion for my welcoming in 2012 with a reconsideration of an old favorite was the kind and savvy decision of the Hennessy company to send me a bottle of their relatively young, but still very drinkable, Hennessy VS Cognac. I’m not a huge cognac or brandy connoisseur at this point, but I’m starting to see what all those rappers and the late Kim Il Sung saw in the stuff. In fact, I sort of accidentally mostly polished off the bottle sooner than I meant this last Christmas Hanukkah when I got overenthusiastic making Sidecars — with Cointreau, at last — for family. I also tried one of their recipes, the Hennessy citrus, which wasn’t bad but was kind of sour for my taste. I think the addition of a bit of egg white. as in this variation, might have helped.

Nevertheless, I had enough Hennessy VS left to revisit what I might actually argue is the more readily enjoyable version of this great cocktail. Harder edged drinkers may prefer the whiskey based drink, but I’m here to tell you this one may well be preferable for those with softer taste buds.

The Cognac Sazerac

2 ounces cognac
1 teaspoon superfine sugar or 1 sugar cube
1/2 ounce of water
2-3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
1 teaspoon Herbsaint
Lemon twist

Start by chilling a rocks glass, either by filling it with ice or leaving it in the freezer or, ideally, both. Dissolve a teaspoon of superfine sugar by stirring it in a cocktail shaker or room temperature rocks glass with unchilled water, whiskey, and bitters. (If you want to go super traditional, leave out the superfine sugar and muddle a sugar cube into the same mixture instead.) Once the sugar is dissolved, add plentiful ice. If you want to conserve water, and you should, you can use the same ice you’ve been using to chill your rocks glass.

Take your now well-chilled glass and add a teaspoonful of Herbsaint, a very sweet but strongly anise flavored liqueur. Swirl the liquid carefully, holding the glass sideways. The idea is to coat it with the Herbsaint. Then, turn the glass upside down over a sink, dumping out any remaining liquid.  Now it’s time to grab your cognac and fixings filled shaker and shake it very vigorously. Strain the result into the chilled and Herbsainted glass.

Then, take your lemon twist and run it along the edge of the glass. Twist the lemon peel over the beverage to magically deliver lemon oil to the drink. Drop it in. Sip while listening to the New Orleans music of your choice.

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A few notes about ingredients and practices. For starters, It’s actually more traditional to use absinthe but, having just purchased my first bottle of the once illegal stuff, I wasn’t wowed. Both liqueurs are heavy on the anise, but absinthe has a bitter edge that I was not too thrilled by. So far, at least, I personally prefer the kinder, gentler, and cheaper sweetness of Herbsaint in a sazerac. There is also a shaking vs. stirring debate here to some degree, but I don’t get why you’d want to stir it. Froth is your friend in a sazerac, I say.

Also, though I really did enjoy the Hennessy VS Cognac, feel free to use your favorite straight-up brandy. Most regular brandy is to cognac as champagne is to sparkling white wine. It’s basically the same, just made from grapes grown in a different part of the world.

  

Drink of the Week: The Sazerac

Sazerac It might seem a bit odd, but it was current MSNBC political goddess and past Air America star Rachel Maddow whose radio “cocktail moments” largely propelled your loyal scribe’s fledgling interest in classic cocktails during the Bush II administration. Moreover, with an epic brohaha in Washington going on at the moment over the debt ceiling, it seems as good a time as any to pay tribute to her with this personal favorite.

The sazerac is the official drink of New Orleans — though we didn’t hear of it on three trips to that wondrous city. That’s likely because, though beloved by serious cocktail buffs, the great drink’s pop cultural fame is next to nil, though we understand a sazerac was recently thrown in the face of food critic Alan Richmond on an episode of “Treme.” We are therefore happy to try and correct this great drink’s relative obscurity; properly prepared it’s an ice cold sipping beverage that’s tasty as anything else produced in the great city of New Orleans. It’s preparation is a little complicated to explain but, trust us, it’s not hard once you get the steps straight in your head. It’s really just a slightly more elaborate variation on the old fashioned.

The Sazerac

2 ounces rye whiskey or brandy/cognac
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 ounce of water
3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
1 teaspoon absinthe or Herbsaint
Lemon twist

Start by chilling an old fashioned, aka a “rocks” glass, either by filling it with ice or leaving in the freezer or, ideally, both. Meanwhile, purists insist on muddling a sugar cube, but it’s much more efficient to simply dissolve the superfine sugar by stirring it in a cocktail shaker or room temperature rocks glass with unchilled water, whiskey, and bitters. Once the sugar is dissolved, add plentiful ice.

Then, take the pre-chilled glass — if you’ve got ice in it and want to conserve precious water, consider adding it to the cocktail shaker/rocks glass with all the other ingredients — and add a teaspoonful of now legal but expensive absinthe or much cheaper Herbsaint (a very sweet but strongly anise flavored liqueur). Swirl the entire glass, coating it with the absinthe or Herbsaint. Then, turn the glass upside down over a sink, dumping out any remaining liquid.

Now, return to the shaker or rocks glass. If you’re an absolute purist who fetishizes clear beverages, simply stir and strain it into the chilled and coated rocks glass. If you’re a borderline barbarian like us, you may shake like crazy and then add it to the glass which will be a lovely, frothy shade of pinkish orange or orangish pink.

Then, take your lemon twist and coat the edge of the glass and twist the lemon peel over the beverage to magically deliver lemon oil to the drink. Some insist you must discard it without actually placing it in the drink. We and most others, however, drop it in. Sip immediately and toast the brave people of New Orleans, the great American city that just might have invented the cocktail.

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A couple of words about ingredients. First of all, note that the sazerac — named for the brand of cognac it was originally made from — primarily uses Peychaud’s bitters. This brand may be the oldest type of bitters still on the market and it has a much lighter different flavor than the bitters you may know. Many sazerac makers, Rachel Maddow included, like to throw in a single dash of the better known and stronger tasting Angostura bitters to “open up” the flavor of the drink. On the other hand, especially if you’re making this with one of the stronger types of rye whisky — particularly a 100 proof brand like Rittenhouse Rye — it’s already one potent little beverage. It is, nevertheless, considered mandatory to use rye specifically if you’re making the whiskey version of the sazerac. You could make it with bourbon, we suppose, but it’s generally not done, possibly for a reason.

While rye whiskey remains by far the most popular main ingredient, we have to say a good word for going super-old school and using cognac or even an inexpensive brandy; we’ve had great luck with an very inexpensive brand called Raynal, technically not cognac but entirely sufficient — which is carried by Bev-Mo and Trader Joe’s in California and perhaps elsewhere. It’s a more accessible version of the drink that goes down surprisingly well with cocktail newbies while being more than complicated enough for more experienced drinkers.

  

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