My latest column for Cleveland Scene.
Question: When you eat or drink something you like, do you ever stop and wonder why you like it?
I do, because I'm a nerd.
To be clear, this isn't some end-of-Revenge of the Nerds-style pronouncement—it's more of a statement or fact: When you're a nerd as I am, it's never enough to "just like" something. You've got to really sink your teeth into it; you've got to explore it from all angles, and wherever possible, reinvent the wheel in hope of coming up with a better wheel. That's what a nerd does.
During the day, I'm a software engineer who consults for large companies. I don't know a single person who writes code that hasn't tried to write a blogging engine from scratch. Is that pragmatic or practical? No. But that's what a nerd does.
Through understanding what the things we like are made of, we nerds seek to better understand ourselves. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that we take the same approach to making drinks.
The cocktail that follows is a simple take on a Tom Collins that uses several ingredients that I made myself. I did that because I wanted to understand how their individual components could benefit a drink and where the flavors in the resulting drink were coming from.
I wanted to know these things because I'm a nerd.
That, and I wanted to trick my wife into thinking I'm cool. (I still don't know what she sees in me.)
30g lavender-lemon shrub (recipe to follow)
10g Thai chili rich Demerara syrup (recipe to follow)
Rinse a chilled Collins glass with absinthe. Fill with ice.
To a Boston shaker filled 3/4 with ice, add the gin, shrub, and syrup and shake to chill and combine. Strain into the Collins glass, top off with fizzy water, and serve.
- Shrubs are traditional drinking vinegar and a method of flavor preservation. Ripe, in-season fruit is macerated with sugar and combined with a certain measure of vinegar.
- To make lavendar-lemon shrub, first remove the zest from two lemons and extract a half cup of juice for later use. Place the lemon zest in a bowl with a handful of lavendar (stems and all) and cover with 1 cup of raw turbinado sugar. Cover the bowl and let sit in the refrigerator for a day. The next day, add a half cup of lemon juice and a half cup of rice vinegar and stir to dissolve the sugar into a syrup. Straight your mixture and discard the solids.
- Ordinarily we’d use the flesh of a fruit and its juices to make a shrub. We’re still technically doing that here, albeit in a more roundabout way—we’re really more concerned with the perfume of the zest and lavendar. These are dry ingredients, to be sure, which is why we add the juice back in at the end.
- Lavendar is savory herb with an intense bouqet thanks to high levels of linalool and linalyl acetate, intensely aromatic compounds that have also been shown to reduce stress.
- This drink benefits from a botanical, citrusy gin where juniper is not a primary ingredient. A more juniper-forward gin would overwhelm the lavender, which is really the star of this drink.
- To make Thai chili simple syrup, add six Thai chilies to a pot along with two parts raw turbinado sugar and one part water. Dissolve the sugar into the water over moderate heat and cover until completely cooled. Strain out the chilis.
- Thai chilis can be found at most Asian supermarkets. They add a building heat to the drink that crescendos with a rush of endorphins that arrives right around the same time as the effervescence of the fizzy water.
The debut of my new bi-weekly column for Cleveland Scene Magazine.
The goal of the column is not so much different than the goal of the blog: I want to make cocktails spirits more accessible to people.
Unlike the blog, the column will have a Cleveland slant to it. The goal is not necessarily to break news or profile bars/restaurants and their owners: I'm more interested in covering specific topics and educating through conversations with Northeast Ohio's finest barkeepers and distillers.
When my wife said recently that I'm not allowed to have any more hobbies, there were any number of things that she could've been referring to.
Was it the ice cream store that I now co-own and operate on top of my quote unquote day job? Was it my cabinet full of rendered animal fats for cooking? Was it the bottles of spirits that are slowly taking over our Downtown Cleveland apartment? Was it the fact that I have Thai Chili simple syrup sitting on a shelf in the fridge next to her almond milk? Or how about the fact that all of our vacuum wine-stoppers are occupied by bottles of vermouth and Lillet?
It's hard to tell.
One thing is clear, though: My wife is the best. She loves me even thought I spent $230 on bitters on our last vacation, a haul that includes the Lavender bitters I use below.
My love affair with bitters is well-documented but my current infatuation with savory cocktails is a much more recent development. First there was a cocktail that we had at a preview dinner for Toast, a new wine bar opening up a few miles from our home in Cleveland's Gordon Square Arts District. It contained some measure of Old Overholt Rye, Cynar, Green Chartreuse, Punt y Mes, Grapefruit Bitters, and grapefruit peel, and boy was it delicious: It was savory, endlessly complex, and easy on the eyes. Then there was the bottle of home-made celery bitters that Heidi gave me at a recent cocktail party. I tried them and thought, "I wonder how can I get more of this in my life?"
What follows is my attempt to capture those experiences in a glass.
(Please don't tell my wife I used the last wine stopper on a bottle of Cynar.)
Chilled 4.5oz champagne coupe
10g fresh-squeezed orange juice
To a Boston shaker filled 3/4 with ice, add all ingredients and shake until combined and chilled.
Strain into a chilled champagne coupe.
- Cynar is a bitter Italian liqueur made from artichokes and 12 other herbs and plants that changes from sweet to savory across your palate and stimulates the sides of your tongue with its gentle acidity.
- We could have used another savory bitters here, but lavender worked well because it is extremely aromatic and shows up at the finish. Cynar was an adventure on its own, but the lavender bitters puts the drink over the top.
- I used orange juice in this recipe because it's what I had lying around. Fortunately, orange juice provides just enough sweetness to balance the drink, it has an affinity for the cinnamon notes of Templeton Rye, and the acid hits your palate in concert with the Cynar. Win-Win-Win.
When I called the Old Fashioned—my Old Fashioned—the best drink in the world, I wasn’t messing around: Inasmuch as this is a blog about preparing and enjoying great cocktails and I adore each and every one, the Old Fashioned is just about the only drink that I ever think to make for myself.
Whiskey, sugar, water, bitters, and citrus peel.
As with food, we sometimes find the simplest preparations to be the most transcendent. To me, there is nothing better than a salt and pepper-seasoned steak so rare that it may as well have been walked through a warm room.
If the Old Fashion is dry-aged ribeye, consider the Sazerac a nice Strip-Loin.
Place an empty rocks glass in the freezer to chill for 5 to 10 minutes. If you don't have that kind of time, pack the glass with ice and fill it with water until you've built your drink.
Place two Demerara sugar cubes on a napkin or paper towel and soak with Pechaud's bitters. Place in a mixing glass and muddle into a paste.
Add 25g of rye whiskey and 25g of Cognac—about a fluid ounce of each—along with a drop or two of Angostura Bitters.
Stir until sugar is fully dissolved. Then add ice and stir until chilled.
Retrieve your rocks glass and empty it if needed. Add a splash of absinthe and coat the sides of the glass with it as you pour it out. Strain the rest of the cocktail into the glass.
Express a lemon peel over the drink and rub it against the rim of the glass. Now throw it out.
- My wife and I attended a sushi-making class in Cleveland last year and the chef described the optimal amount of water for making rice in a rice cooker as the amount such that if you place the tip of your finger on the rice the water rises to your first knuckle. I loved how this instruction was at once inexact and extremely exact and time-tested. Sometimes things just work. Similarly, The Napkin Technique described above is some serious Disney magic. Placing sugar cubes on a napkin and saturating them with bitters ensures that they hold as much bitters as they possibly can; the rest gets absorbed into the napkin. This amount (which ends up being a little more than 1 gram for 2 sugar cubes) is the ideal amount for a Sazerac, and it works great if you prefer to use cubes in your Old Fashioned.
- We use sugar cubes here because using simple syrup would dilute the drink and mute the flavors in a way that is undesirable. Moreso than the Old Fashioned, the Sazerac is a drink that begs to be nursed. The anise notes, lemon oils, and rye spice need to be crisp.
- The only thing I hate as much as muddling sugar cubes and dissolving them fully is doing an absinthe rinse. It takes about 30 seconds for one drink, but what if you're making the same drink for 20 people? That's when you buy a glass bottle with an atomizer cap. Three or four sprays and you've got a nice even coat and no waste.
- The Sazerac was made with Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac until a pest epidemic eradicated much of France's grape crop in 1870. Rye whiskey stood in and has been used ever since. This recipe uses both: I like the spice that a nice rye provides, but I like the roundness of flavor in a Cognac. Why not use both?
- I learned to add a drop of Angostura here to open up the flavors from Jeffrey Morgenthaler's The Do's and Dont's of Sazeracs. It's really a must read.
- As a rule, you should stir any drink that does not contain citrus juice if you want to achieve a clean appearance. Shaking, though expedient, makes any drink cloudy. Citrus juice is cloudy to begin with, so you may as well shake it.