Drink of the Week: The Champagne Cocktail

the Champagne CocktailI’ve never made any bones about the fact that I’m a lazy bartender who, for reasons of taste and well as convenience, likes to keep my cocktails simple. Still, for this New Year’s weekend edition of DOTW I’m hitting a new high in simplicity and also using the official beverage of the coming holiday as our key ingredient. Make no mistake, however, as simple as it is, this week’s drink is an entirely legitimate and very classic cocktail. It’s also, in my opinion, delicious.

How classic? Well, a variation of it was featured in what appears to be the first cocktail guide published in 1862 and authored by bartender Jerry Thomas, who defined cocktails as containing spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. (This drink lacks only the additional water.)

I first became aware of this particular concoction, I imagine, the first time I saw Claude Rains order one for himself and one for a displeased Paul Henreid in “Casablanca.” I’ve been curious about it ever since, but I only bothered to look up what was in it this year. I only tried it, well, just a couple of nights ago but I immediately fell in love with it. Yes, some might call making a cocktail out of fine champagne gilding the lily, but who can afford fine champagne these days?

The Champagne Cocktail

Champagne or other Brut (dry) sparkling white wine
1 sugar cube
Aromatic bitters
Lemon twist (optional garnish)

Soak a sugar cube in your bitters — Angostura is traditional but I had equally good luck using Fee Brothers Old Fashioned aromatic, which has a slightly gentler flavor — and then place it at the bottom of a champagne flute, if you’ve got one, or a regular wine glass if you don’t. Pour in your champagne, chilled of course. Do not attempt to mix the sugar cube with the champagne as the gradual decay of your sugar cube will actually be adding extra fizz and visual interest to your beverage along with a very, very slight dash of sweetness. If you want, rim the glass with your lemon twist and toss it in. Toast which ever year, old or new, you prefer.

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Classic though it be, I gather from David Wondrich that the Champagne Cocktail has long had detractors who argue that good champagne should be left alone. They probably have a point if you’re drinking a $150.00 bottle of Dom Perignon. I however, was drinking a really not so bad $7.99 sparkling white from Spain — which I dare not call Champagne for fear of offending the French — and I greatly enjoyed the extra flavor, subtle though it be, and the additional fizz.

On that last point, Rachel Maddow informs us that making Champagne cocktails is the perfect way to revive somewhat flat, left-over bubbly. If that doesn’t justify the existence of this fine beverage, I don’t know what would, and it certainly makes it a fine way to keep your News Year’s festivities going for as long as you can manage.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Mojito

the mojito Yes, I’ve been putting it off. Forgive me, I know not why I waited. The Mojito might be the trendiest drink going right now and there are the usual cocktail abuses committed by misguided bars, but overall it’s the kind of booze trend that even a staunch cocktail classicist can support.

Like so many classic cocktails, this venerable Cuban creation is a sturdy drink — great in the hot, moistish weather we’re still kinda sorta having in Southern California — that can bear a number of variations and is actually quite easy to make. And, or so the Wikipedians tell us, it’s possibly a relatively ancient drink and was even approved of by the Cuba and daiquiri loving Ernest Hemingway. What other encouragement do you need?

The Mojito

2 ounces light rum
1/2 to 1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice/wedges
1-3 teaspoons superfine sugar
2-5 sprigs of fresh mint
1-2 ounces (approx.) club soda or seltzer (sparkling water)

Combine lime juice and sugar — use more sugar to go with more lime juice or less to go with less — with mint in the bottle of an old fashioned glass or, perhaps, a smallish collins glass. Muddle enough to mix the sugar and juice and also lightly smash the mint leaves; they need not be pulverized. Add ice — very preferably crushed ice. Also add the spent lime wedges from your juicing. Stir vigorously with a swizzle stick or bar spoon — enough to melt some of the ice. Then, top off with a small amount of club soda or plain sparking water/seltzer and stir a bit more. It’s important to remember that last step. I know because I forgot a couple of times and wondered what was missing. Without just a dash of sparkle, a mojito fails to come alive.

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Though I provided a fair amount of flexibility above, there really are an enormous number of ways to skin the mojito cat and the ‘net provides no end of options. Even so, the simplest way I found was demonstrated by Rachel Maddow on a recent segment highlighted by this reasonable thought: “nuns deserve good drinks.” Her version was fairly similar to the way I make a caipirinha and involved less squeezing and measuring and definitely called for a wide-bottomed rocks glass on account of some heavy duty muddling. You basically just cut up a lime, throw in an entire tablespoon of sugar (!) and smash the heck out of it along with the mint leaves.

I found that version worked very nicely, but I was, to my own surprise, actually drawn more to the more squeezey/less smashy low lime juice and low sugar version promulgated by David Wondrich. If you keep the lime juice to 1/2 ounce, the natural sweetness of the rum and just one teaspoon of sugar is plenty to create a really full bodied refreshment. Still, the other ways are not one bit bad. There are doubtless many roads to mojito hell, most of them involving sour mix or who knows what other kinds of chemical monstrosities, but just as many paths to mojito enlightenment.

  

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.

  

Drink of the week: The Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned As the name implies, this drink is perhaps the very oldest classic cocktail extant and, as with the Martini, it carries with it as much controversy and variation as you can possibly imagine. It’s staying power is no mystery in that it’s based on the fact that whiskey has some natural sweetness to it and, as Julie Andrews and the Sherman Brothers remind us, just a very literal spoonful of sugar really does help that medicine go down

Oddly enough, for such a simple drink, it’s one that only the best bartenders we’ve met seem to have mastered. On the other hand, as “Mad Men” viewers will remember from one particular episode, Don Draper has, too.

The Old Fashioned

2 ounces of whiskey (bourbon, rye, or Canadian)
1 teaspoon of superfine sugar and 1/2 ounce water, or 1/2 ounce of simple syrup
Angostura or Regan’s Orange Bitters
Orange wedge and/or maraschino cheery (very optional)

Dissolve superfine sugar — regular table sugar or cubes will also work but are harder to dissolve — in water or pour 1/2 ounce of simple syrup (i.e., sugar water) into an wide mouth Old Fashioned glass. If you like, muddle (smash) an orange slice in the bottom of the glass. Add ice cubes, whiskey and bitters — again, we personally prefer Angostura for bourbon or rye or Regan’s Orange for Canadian, but it’s your call. Stir vigorously with a swizzle stick or club spoon. If you like it a bit diluted, feel free to add just a bit of water, though purists will disagree wildly.

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Now, as I alluded to above, there are a great many controversies about the Old Fashioned and what works best in one. Don Draper and I are quite partial to the muddled orange slice and/or marischino cherry, particularly if it’s one of the very expensive gourmet cherries you’ll find at some excellent high-end bars. Famed politics and cocktail maven Rachel Maddow finds all that sweetness to be of the sickly variety and offers only a slice of lemon zest in a move that’s similar to the traditional recipe for the sazerac, a drink we’ll be covering later. She also uses a sugar cube and a muddler rather than my preferred choice of using superfine sugar or simple syrup for an easier sugar distribution, as well as soda water. Esquire‘s resident cocktail historian, David Wondrich, is of a similar mind.

I will say that I haven’t tried using soda water in the tiny quantities that Ms. Maddow does, nor have I tried one with as little ice, but I will be givingĀ  the Maddow/Wondrich historical version a shot soon enough. It might be a bit strong for most people, but since Wondrich and Maddow suggest two of my favorite products — Canadian Club and Rittenhouse Rye (100 proof — yes, sir!) — I’m optimistic that this originalist take might just work as well.

On the the other hand, while I’ve been known to (gasp!) water my Old Fashioneds with just an additional splash or two, using a significant amount of soda water for this purpose is a big no-no, though it’s standard practice at many bars. Moreover, do not use maraschino “juice” in place of sugar/simple syrup, also standard practice at a lot of watering holes. To be scientific about it, it comes out way icky that way. I think me, Maddow, Wondrich, and even Draper would agree about that.

  

Drink of the Week: The Manhattan

the Dry ManhattanWe’re continuing with the old reliables in our second week here at Drink of the Week central. The Manhattan, which may really have originated on the island in New York City, is really just a sweet inversion of last week’s beverage, the martini. It merely substitutes whiskey for gin or vodka, sweet vermouth for dry vermouth, and a maraschino cherry for the olive. Since it can be fairly sweet, it’s a more accessible drink than a martini. It was a favorite of the “Sex and the City” crew, but we love it anyway.

Here’s our starter recipe:

The Manhattan

2 ounces whiskey (bourbon, rye, Canadian, etc.)
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2-3 dashes Angostura or Regan’s Orange Bitters
Maraschino cherry or lemon peel as garnish

Pour your whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters over ice cubes into a shaker. Shake or stir very vigorously for as long as you can stand it and pour into chilled martini or wide-mouthed champagne glass, garnish with cherry or lemon peel.

The shaking vs. stirring debate is less intense here than on the martini, but it exists. Some — including MSNBC host and drink maven Rachel Maddow — make an aesthetic argument. They argue that shaking “clouds” the drink and therefore ruins its presentation. We, however, love the white froth that shaking produces — it’s more visible if you use a healthy amount of Angostura bitters — which reminds us of the crema you get on a well-brewed cup of espresso. It’s also true that the shaking temporarily produces those clouds (actually small bubbles), but they are gone soon enough and the icy coolness of a well shaken Manhattan is irresistible.

Whatever you do, though you may want to limit them for various reasons, never eschew the bitters completely. If you do, your punishment will be a sickly sweet beverage. As for the type of bitters, we personally prefer Angostura with bourbon or rye, and Regan’s Orange with the lighter (less sweet) Canadian or American whiskey.

Actually, though, even with a few dashes of bitters the above recipe may be too sweet for many. One solution is to simply use only half as much sweet vermouth, but also perhaps reducing the amount of bitters down to one dash to keep the drink from being too harsh. Another possibility, one we prefer, is to find a good, 90 proof or higher bourbon or rye that can stand up to all that sweetness. Another excellent alternative is the “perfect Manhattan” in which, instead of one ounce of sweet vermouth, you use half an ounce of sweet vermouth and half an ounce of dry vermouth. Especially in conjunction with Canadian whiskey — Crown Royal or the just-about-as-g00d Canadian Club, in any case — we’ve found it to be pretty close to its name. Depending on your preference, you may want to limit the bitters on this one.

If you use Scotch, the drink is called a Rob Roy, but we’ve yet to figure out how to make it taste good. Something about the smokiness of Scotch doesn’t seem to quite work for us, but we’ll give it another shot some day.

A word about vermouth. Use a good one like Martini & Rossi or, our personal fallback choice, Noilly Pratt. We know the super cheap brands like Gallo are tempting and don’t taste bad, but it’s really worth it to spend a whole $8-$10.00 for 750 milliliters of a decent brand. If you really want to go to town, there are some outstanding higher end vermouths which usually sell for well over double that price. A brand like Carpano Antica can make a perfectly amazing Manhattan, even when used with a plebeian and inexpensive rye like Old Overholt. The only problem is that Carpano tastes so good on its own and you might just want to scarf the stuff straight.

  

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