While I am a person who enjoys beer, I am not a Beer Person.
How do I know I’m not a Beer Person? Because I have no opinion on the Fuggle hop. Because I can and do drink Miller High Life in public, I don’t know what flavor crystal malt imparts, and I don’t give a single lonely fuck if you serve me a saison in a pint glass. I’m not proud of my ignorance, nor am I ashamed. I just don’t care that much. Because I’m not a Beer Person.
The corollary is that I don’t get to try the worlds best beers, because I’m not willing to do things like fly to Belgium, or even really set an alarm. The beer I drink is the beer of convenience; it is the beer that is already in my path.
That being said, when my excellent friend Justin Platt gifted me a bottle of the elusive Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, I admit, I got Christmas-morning excited.
Dark Lord Day:
The Dark Lord is a Russian Imperial Stout brewed with coffee, vanilla, and sugar, weighing in at around 15% alcohol. It is available for exactly one day a year, Dark Lord Day, the last Saturday in April, and only at Three Floyd’s Brewery, in Munster, Indiana.
To get it, you have to perch yourself online for the moment tickets go on sale, as they will sell out very quickly. You are allowed to buy two tickets. The ticket is $30, and doesn’t get you the beer, but rather earns you the opportunity to buy the beer. Upon showing up on Dark Lord Day (itself a beerfest with live music and such), you’re sorted into groups A-E, and when your group is called, you wait in line for the privilege of buying one (1) allotment of Dark Lord, which is between 2 and 4 bottles, depending on that year’s yield.
And if that all seems like a giant pain in the ass, consider this: the two variants of Dark Lord currently sit at #8 and #11 on ratebeer.com‘s Best Beers Ever list, and #8 and #61 on beeradvocate’s. Which is why it’s not something I’d fly to Indiana for, but it’s something I’ll absolutely fucking drink.
Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout:
This beer was seriously amazing. Sits heavy. Mouthfeel like heavy cream. Caramel, obviously, but also a very pleasant fig/dried fruit presence. Darker fruits like plums show up too. Not very bitter, a balancing presence is all. Lots and lots of complexity. And as I settled into it, the dominant flavor for me turned to be milk chocolate, probably because of the mouthfeel. “So much damn chocolate,” I wrote. Coffee and vanilla integrated seamlessly. Crazy good. A+.
A warm thank you to Justin for this bottle. What a cool experience. California’s a bit far, but if I still lived in Chicago, I can see driving an hour for this.
“It’s not easy. It’s not simple. And there’s no way to make it faster or better.” — Martin Daraz, of Highland Park Distillery
Distillery: Highland Park distillery
Location: Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Owned By: Edrington Group (also owns Famous Grouse, Macallan, and a couple others)
Origin: Allegedly founded in 1798. Actually founded in 1826.
A Sense of Place:
No matter which way you’re headed, the Highland Park distillery, on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, is out of your way. From Glasgow, you would head 300 miles north to the seaside port of Scrabster, the northernmost port on mainland Britain, and somewhere that sounds, to me, like a place where you could get punched just for having a full set of teeth. There, you catch the 2 hour Northlink ferry to the tempestuously named Stromness, on an island known as “Mainland,” head east for half an hour, and there you find Highland Park, waiting to reward your journey.
Orkney is an archipelago of some 70 islands off the northernmost tip of Scotland. In terms of latitudinal brothers, we’re talking about Oslo, St. Petersberg, Stockholm, and Juneau, Alaska — historically not whisky hotspots, but the fact that it’s an island tempers the seasons: winter temperatures range tightly between 34°F-45°F, and summer average high stretches to a giddy 61°F. It’s the northernmost distillery in Scotland, and everyone who goes — from the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas to travel writers today — say to be in Orkney feels like the edge of the world.
Highland Park was allegedly founded in 1798 by a butcher, church-official, and secret distiller/smuggler named Magnus Eunson, about whom there are plenty of charming and roguish stories that, in the grand tradition of liquor, are likely all between 50 and 100% untrue. Nonetheless, the story goes, he was distilling on that spot in Kirkwall, and finding amusing and blasphemous ways to hide the liquor from the taxmen until they finally arrested him.
In 1818, a straw-plaiter named Robert Bordwick felt like a legitimate distillery could succeed as a business, and together with his son-in-law John Robertson (Eunson’s arresting officer, as it turns out) bought Eunson’s land on High Park and officially founded Highland Park. They built what is still the current distillery, received their license in 1826, and have been distilling more or less continuously since then. In the last 188 years the company has passed through more sets of hands than I care to list, and has since 1999 been owned by the medium-sized Edringer Group, who also own Macallan.
There’s a little variation among the individual bottlings, but what they all have in common is that they’re all (1) peated, and they (2) use sherry-seasoned casks for aging. This is not a terribly common combination, and one that has me personally coming back to Highland Park again and again:
Spanish Sherry-seasoned Oak: they source all their oak, at least for the standard line, from Northern Spain (the limited edition 15 is American oak). The staves are air-dried as opposed to kiln dried (like our friends at Buffalo Trace in Kentucky), as air-dried wood is universally agreed to be better — it gives the harsh tannic quality in the wood a chance to mellow out. They then make barrels and fill them with dry Oloroso sherry for 2-3 years. By the time they’re emptied, some 11 liters of sherry have saturated the wood, waiting to add spice and dried fruit richness to the scotch.
Local Peat: Highland Park is one of the few distilleries who still malt a proportion of their own barley (about 20%), which they then kiln dry with local Orcadian peat. Because of the climate, their peat is all moss and grass, and gives a distinctive heathery floral note to the finished spirit. They smoke it to about 20 phenol parts-per-million (ppm) over 16 hours, before mixing it with unpeated malt they contract from one of the malting houses on the mainland. This lowers their total peat levels to about 4-6ppm once bottled, which is very low, and it’s kind of amazing that the flavor translates so well.
Also, for what it’s worth: Michael Jackson (the legendary beer and whiskey writer, not the legendary pop singer) wrote of Highland Park that it’s “the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky.” In Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible, the 12 and 25 won best single malt in their respective categories for 2014, and F. Paul Pacult of Spirit Journal has retired the Highland Park 18 from competition, calling it “the best spirit in the world.” So there’s that.
Highland Park 12: It has a pronounced sweetness like salted caramel that gets a little bit stone-fruity, and a nice lingering peat smoke with a little depth. All in all, somewhat light. Vanilla. Not at all bad, but especially tasting it next to older versions I’d be very happy to put it back in the barrel for a few more years.
Would I buy it?: Yeah, but there are 12 year olds I like more.
Highland Park 15: No longer available outside U.S. Being phased out. This is made in American wood as opposed to Spanish wood, 35% first fill sherry barrels. Creamy, vanilla. There’s no sign of that leather I get a little of in the 12 and a lot of in the 18. Cinnamon spicy, like red hots, but also has a cool grassy element. This was the favorite of many at the tasting.
Cost: ~$80, if you can find it
Would I buy it?: Yes, if only because it won’t be around anymore.
Highland Park 18: My definite favorite of the Seven Grand tasting. It’s got a really nice raisiny sweetness from the sherry, but enough leathery depth to keep me coming back. Floral heather mixes with enough peat smoke to make me take notice. I can’t get enough of that dark leathery oak and smoke, like sinking into a comfortable chair in a dim cigar lounge. This, to me, tastes like whisky should taste.
Would I buy it?: Absolutely. One of the best $100 you can spend on whiskey.
Highland Park Freya: Part of their “Valhalla Collection” limited bottlings. 51.2%, 15 years in bourbon casks. Sweetness is more candied, almost like gum (this comment invited mockery from the brand ambassador, but I swear it tastes like Juicyfruit). Strong fruity spice. Peat is a bit subdued and the texture is a bit waxy. A surprise from the others. No dark elements at all. Tasty. Interesting.
Would I buy it?: Absolutely not. Way too much money.
Highland Park 30: Bonus! I went home and had a small glass of this while the others were fresh in my head. All that time in sherry barrels gives it a stronger dried fruit nose, but on the palate it’s all peat, leather, and caramel. Texture is concentrated, a little buttery. After a minute the caramel becomes a little raisinated. New elements keep popping into the mingling of sweetness and peat and oak. It’s not really fair to compare, but this is my favorite. Obvi.
Cost: A lot.
Would I Buy It?: Only on the most special of occasions, to be enjoyed with close friends.
Distillery: Old Bushmills Distilling
Location: Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Owned By: Diageo
Major Products produced: Bushmills, Black Bush, Bushmills Single Malt 10, —16, and —21
Origin: Founded in 1784. Distilling off and on since then.
A Quick Word:
If there were a single misapprehension I could correct in the average drinker, it’s the naïve and somewhat touching belief that the most popular thing is the most popular because it is the best. It’s sweet, really, this inclination toward justice, but the world of liquor is not a meritocracy. Not even close.
I say that to say this: there is one big reason that everyone thinks Jameson is the Irish Whiskey, and everything else is just a cheap echo thereof. And while Jameson does make some tasty products, that reason has nothing to do with either the quality or the flavor of the whiskey itself.
The year 1608 proudly adorns every bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, sitting like a foundation stone above the brand name itself, implicitly suggesting that Bushmills has been around since 1608. This is false — weirdly, brazenly false. While someone in Northern Ireland got a distillation license in 1608, it wasn’t Bushmills. The Bushmills company wouldn’t be even founded until 1784, a 176 years later. Just to clear that up.
(Seriously, they could’ve been founded seventy-six years earlier, and they’d still miss the 1608 date by a hundred fucking years. Once again, please ignore all historical claims from liquor companies. The ones that aren’t half-truths are outright lies, and it has no bearing whatsoever on what the liquor actually tastes like.)
Here’s the history that actually matters: in the beginning of the 20th century Irish whiskey was terrifically popular, with 20+ distilleries operating at full bore. But the twin punches of Prohibition and WWII left the industry bloodied and meager, and by the mid ’60s there were just a handful of distilleries left. To weather the times, Powers, Jameson, and Cork distilling companies merged in 1966 to form Irish Distillers, and set about consolidating resources. In 1972, they acquired Bushmills, making Irish Distillers the only whiskey company in Ireland, a total monopoly that would last some 15 years, and a near-monopoly that would last 15 more.
So why is Bushmills overlooked? Because by the time Irish Distillers scooped up Bushmills, they had already chosen their favorite son: they built a new Jameson distillery next to the old one, opened it in 1975, and put their resources behind it. Even more, once French liquor giant Pernod Ricard took over Irish Distillers in 1988, they jumped on Jameson — the lightest of the whiskies — and marketed it toward vodka drinkers. “Take it as a shot! Try it with some apple pucker!” Jameson got all the attention and popularity, and Bushmills got a black hoodie and an eating disorder.
In 2005, Pernod Ricard unloaded Bushmills on their archnemesis Diageo, who haven’t pushed it much. But apparently, they’re beginning to start, because they recently sent a couple guys to San Diego to talk to us about it.
People who love Irish whiskey call it “smooth” and “mild.” People who don’t call it “boring” and “effete.” And they’re both right, because they’re describing precisely the same thing. Generally, people who like their barley-based spirits lighter will go Irish. Heavier, they’ll go scotch.
Bushmills aims to bridge that gap, by offering higher malt, fuller flavored whiskeys that still retain their essential Irish smoothness. All their products are distilled three times in pot stills, ultimately to between 58.5%-60.5%, and all are aged in some mixture of used bourbon and used Olorosso sherry casks (the mixture varies for each product).
Bushmills Original || Aged 5 years minimum.
Light and fruity at first. A little buttery with spice. There’s an essential grainy lightness that is distractingly light/mild. Like there should be something there. A pear flavor takes over toward the end, a long-ish finish of spiced pear.
Overall: not bad at all, if mild for my taste. The fruit could use some richness to back it up.
Black Bush || Aged 7 years minimum. Unusually high percentage of malt whiskeys(80% malt, 20% grain.)
This fills in nicely that hole I tasted in the Bushmills Original. This is the product they’re pushing hard, and you can taste why — a one-time favorite of mine, back when I used to drink more Irish whiskey. More sherry influence, with apricot and apple backed up by a slight — slight — richness.
Overall: this is one of the better Irish whiskies out there, especially for the price. As a malt/grain blend, I’d put this at a respectable 2nd place behind Redbreast.
Bushmills 10 Pure Malt || Aged 10 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey.
Here’s where we start getting to Bushmills real strength, their 100% malt whiskey. This has no light grain blended in, and it shows — it’s got the same essential flavors, just more robust. Cooked apples. Honey. Melon. Tingly spice. My notes say “apple-y as fuck.” Pear. That fruit really comes through.
Overall: this is my favorite of the lot, and the one that best showcases the strength of this particular distillery. Recommended.
Bushmills 16 Pure Malt || Aged 16 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey. 6-9 months in Port wine casks.
The port shows itself here, along with more alcohol heat. Raisins & honey, oak and heat were the dominant flavors. These are rich flavors but without much richness in the whiskey itself, it didn’t land for me. “Not much force,” I wrote.
Overall: a different set of flavors to be sure, but this one missed the mark for me… though I should say that it was the favorite of many at the tasting, so take that for what it’s worth.
Bushmills 21 Pure Malt || Aged 21 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey.
Finally, here we have some richness, more from the wood I’m sure than the malt. That same signature fruit/spice is familiar, but with much more presence. Darker, richer, and more textured. Honey, almond, spice. The sherry influence itself is surprisingly subtle, perhaps muted by the wood. Cinnamon redhots finish (light).
Overall: tasty to be sure, a great choice for Irish whiskey fans who also happen to be hedge-fund managers. For the rest of us, it’s hard to imagine spending $120 on this. Good though.
The Prologue: Here’s Your Fucking Mojito
As a bartender, I’ve always hated mojitos.
The very word “mojito” has the power to make me shudder. More often than not, I have to fight the urge to say “here’s your fucking mojito” when I drop one off. I know bartenders who have purposefully made horrific mojitos so they won’t be asked to make another — Splenda instead of sugar, Branca Menta instead of mint, etc — and I have celebrated these people as heroes.
I grind my teeth at the dictional and ontological contortions involved in the question, “do you have mojitos?,” and can’t help but scowl at the flinching apology face everyone always gives when they order them.
I really hate mojitos.
The weird thing is, it’s mostly vestigial. There was a time when it was the most annoying drink a bartender would be asked to make, but now it doesn’t even crack the top 20. And yet. Hate.
I can mutter about them them all day, however, and it will have no bearing whatsoever on their two eternal truths:
- Whether Havana in July or Manitoba in January, they will be ordered in all occasions until the end of time.
- Unlike a Long Island, or Tokyo Tea or Scooby Snack or any of the other drinks favored by that particular cohort, mojitos don’t suck. At all. Mojitos are, actually, intrinsically delicious.
Point #2 can be a problem all its own — if precision isn’t required to make a good drink, it’s too easy to be satisfied with good and not reach for great. And this is where our story begins.
I wrote it all out, but then erased it because I honestly don’t care. The mojito, like a whiskey sour or Tom Collins, isn’t invented so much as inevitable: mint grows where limes and sugar cane grow, and soda water because it’s damn hot outside. If, as a culture, you’ve got all that stuff and you never think to put them together, I’m sorry but you don’t get to come out to play.
Just know this: it’s from Cuba, and it shows up in print in the 30s. If you need more history than that, David Wondrich does the best job, as usual, here.
The only interesting thing is the etymology: mojar is the verb “to make wet” or “moisten,” and in Cuban Spanish, “mojo” means “sauce.” So a mojito is “a little sauce” or “a little wetness” which, if you remember that “dry” also can mean “without alcohol,” starts to make some sense.
The Good vs. The Great:
That Good vs. Great thing has always been my problem with mojitos. My recipe was fine, and certainly gets the job done, but I wanted better. And I thought, a few weeks ago, maybe I’d feel better about the drink if I knew, without a doubt, that my mojito was so goddamn delicious that that it would force people to stop and take notice. To tap their friend on the shoulder and say “you’ve got to try this.”
So I did experiments. A lot of them. And after at least 30 iterations spread over two weeks, I dialed in what I believe to be the best mojito recipe in the world, and in the process became tediously familiar with every ingredient, and all their variations.
I am operating under the assumption that the mojito is, first and most, a refreshing drink. That means it can’t be too sweet, lest it be cloying, nor too tart, or the mint won’t come out. It should be shaken — all the built-in-the-glass recipes, even over crushed ice, were too viscous.
It’s important to note that 95% of the drinks I made were good, and so some of this inevitably falls to personal taste. But following these principles, I set out to find the best.
Rum. Limes. Sugar. Mint. Carbonated Water.
RUM: Flor de Cana 4yr silver rum
Use a clear/silver/white rum. An identical side-by-side with Flor de Cana (silver), Banks 5 (silver), Plantation 5 (amber), and El Dorado 15 (dark) yielded not just a winner, but an obvious winner. While Plantation 5 makes my favorite daiquiri, the unavoidable caramel/spice notes in aged rums have no business in tall, refreshing drinks. I love the funk of Banks 5, but it distracted the palate here. With the El Dorado one, a little more rum and less soda would’ve made a handsome drink, but a mojito it ain’t.
I then tried Flor de Cana, a 40%, fairly standard Nicaraguan rum, against the robust Caña Brava,at 43%. I earnestly expected Caña Brava to be the winner, and it was close… it seemed better at first, but after a minute and a little more dilution Flor de Cana surged ahead. To be clear: they were both deliriously good, but my guiding principle was refreshment, and in the end the extra ABV points on Caña Brava took away more than it added.
LIME: fresh lime juice
This was the least examined part, as there’s nothing even close to fresh lime juice. A bunch of cocktail nerds figured out a few years ago that the enzymatic bittering of juiced limes somehow mitigates a little of the lime’s sourness and that limes juiced 4 hours ago are better than limes fresh squeezed. If you feel like timing your drinking to stay 4 hours ahead of your lime juice, go with God. I wish you all the best.
MINT: 6-8 mint leaves, not muddled, shaken with ice in the drink
This was maybe my biggest surprise in the whole thing. It is gospel in the cocktail world: do not over muddle mint. “If you press it too hard,” they say, “you break the little capillaries in the mint leaf and release bitter chlorophyll, thereby ruining your drink.” I’ve lived by this law for years. Until I tried them side by side. One, I over muddled the mint. The other, gentle pressing. The gently pressed mint barely registered, and to my great surprise, the one I practically jackhammered, where I was expecting bitterness, instead presented a full, delicious mint flavor.
Then I shook the mint with ice, and my god: the mint flavor is so much more pervasive and intense, buttressing every point of the palate. Then I took about 3 minutes and tried to over muddle the mint. I muddled the silly fuck out of that mint, then shook it, and still there’s not a single off-putting note in the drink. You cannot overmuddle mint. Please, someone, prove me wrong.
Then, in the spirit of anti-stone-unturnedness, I tried mega mint: 20 leaves instead of 8. It was, predictably, too much. 6-10 leaves, or one small pinch, is magic.
Oh, and there’s no difference between muddling then shaking, and just shaking without muddling. I tried that too. Save yourself the step.
SUGAR: sugar cane, demerara or muscovado syrup
It’s too much with aged rum, but there’s something perfectly soft and subtle about those molassas flavors when they come from cane syrup, or a demerara/muscovado syrup. They are processed much less than white sugar, and add a rustic layer of personality, like a coat of dust on the harvest jeans.
As we learned with the Southside experiments, fresh mint is always better than mint syrup. But some recipes, like the Employees Only one, double down and use both fresh mint and mint syrup. After all, if mint is good, wouldn’t double mint double your delightment? The answer is no. The mint offers a clean flavor; adding mint syrup only muddies it up.
SPARKLING WATER: tight-bubbled mineral water
I didn’t expect this to make a difference, but it did, of maybe 5-10% of total taste: mineral water was better than soda water for all versions. The tighter the bubble, the better. San Pellegrino is a good choice. I realize that’s like telling you to wash your car with champagne, but what can you do?
ICE: crushed ice
Even when you shake it (and you should), the drink benefits from crushed ice. It’s not strictly necessary, but it keeps the inside cold and well diluted, and the outside frosty. No matter the pace of your drinking, the recipe below will stay good to the end.
The Best Mojito In The World:
Look upon it, barkeeps, and despair.
2oz Flor de Cana silver rum
0.75oz demerara or muscovado simple syrup (1:1)
0.75 fresh lime
2.5oz-3oz mineral water
6-10 mint leaves.
Add all ingredients except mineral water, including mint, to the shaker. Add ice, shake to high heaven for 10-12 seconds. Fine strain over crushed ice into a collins glass. Garnish with a mint sprig. Drink. Then find me, and shake my hand.
How big of a role, if any at all, does the base ingredient play in the final character of vodka?
The Necessary Justification:
Yes, I’m really writing about vodka.
Here’s the thing — everyone in the craft cocktail world seems to have the same two things to say about vodka:
- Vodka is a spirit without any real character or distinction, and therefore
- There’s no difference between vodkas.
Point #1 is true by definition. Point #2 isn’t true at all.
Vodka is distilled to at least 95% alcohol. When it’s distilled to 95%, one (specious but nonetheless workable) way to look at it is that there’s only 5% flavor left (see Trivia, at bottom). 99 times out of 100, vodka marketing pretends there’s no flavor at all, focusing instead on what it doesn’t taste like, which is hard if what it doesn’t taste like is everything. This is why they all try to bludgeon you to death with the word “smooth.”
I’ll say that what distinctions do exist are easily drowned out by cranberry juice or even tonic water. But taken neat at room temperature, there are surprisingly significant differences: you find that Absolut is relatively viscous and Russian Standard is impressively neutral, that Ketel One has a tongue-numbing bluntness and Ciroc smells like acetone but actually tastes pretty good.
The Necessary Disclaimer:
I’m not saying vodkas are interesting. They’re not. They are, as spirits, savagely fucking dull. After all my tastings and experiments, my official line remains: if you mix it with anything hardier than soda water, buy Sobieski/Svedka/Smirnoff for like 8 dollars and never look back.
So why do any of this? Because science, that’s why. I’d rather actually know the answer than imagine I know it.
There are a galaxy of factors that can make one spirit taste different from another, and because of this, it’s nearly impossible to hold one production decision accountable for any individual flavor or characteristic.
However — Chopin recently debuted wheat and rye vodkas to complement their famous potato vodka. So if we taste them side by side, we can deduce what role the raw ingredients really play in the final flavor of neutral spirits.
Note: I can’t help but want to shake the hand of whoever decided, in the last few years, that what America wanted was more wheat-based products. Distillation removes the gluten protein, but still: I haven’t seen corporate balls like that since Taco Bell introduced a potato burrito in the middle of the Atkins hysteria.
Assumptions: from all I can tell, they use the same yeast, same overall fermentation process, same distillation process, and same filtering for their whole line. The only variable is what they’re made from. So question: how much does base ingredient matter?
nose: Wet newspaper. Strangely enough, it kind of smells like potatoes. Sliced, raw potato. Grainy.
taste: Hot. A little sweetness, like cakebread. Tastes better than it smells. Lemon frosting.
nose: Wet newspaper again. Stale bread.
taste: Drier. That cakebread business is gone. Some faint citrus on the finish. Still a bit of sweetness mid-palate, but nothing like the potato. Dusty grain.
nose: Dried newspaper. These all smell like fiber. The filtering, maybe? The yeast?
taste: Drier still. Very faint sweetness. Extremely impressive neutrality. No flavors really stand out. I detect faint lime on finish, but it might my imagination.
How interesting. Here, with vodka, distilled and filtered within an inch of its life, we still have fairly sizable distinctions between the bottles. A couple things worth noting:
(1) All three have a distinct wet/dry newspaper nose, which I’m betting is their yeast. Either that, or all three got cork contamination, but then this project is totally screwed.
(2) Potato seems to give a perceived sweetness that I find very pleasant, if while being hot (read: alcohol burn) at the same time.
(3) I was looking for spice in the rye, as rye whiskies are generally spicier than their corn and wheat cousins. But nothing. Mostly, I got a sense of the dusty graininess (also frequently seen in rye whiskey).
(4) This is why almost everyone makes vodka from wheat. If neutrality is the point — and for most people, it is — wheat is the most demure of all our cereal grains. The others have character. It may take some teasing out, but it’s there. But for wheat, especially tasting it last, I couldn’t help but define it by all that wasn’t there.
And here, finally, the inevitable problem with rating vodkas. What do you want from it? Many would want it to taste as close to nothing as possible, so the wheat is best. Personally, I like things that are interesting, so I’d go potato. Take it for what it’s worth.
Trivia: The reason it’s specious to say that liquid distilled to 95% ABV only has 5% flavor is that different alcohols (part of the 95%) have flavors and textures all their own. Both the heads (harmful, isopropyl-smelling) and tails (pungent and heavy,called “fusel oils” because they chemically resemble oil) are alcohol, and their levels in the final product will influence it as much as anything else ever could. Facts!
The elevator opens, and you’re met with the bright ecstatic cacophony of the city. Everyone up here is dressed well, but not as well as you. You’re a little early. You move easily through the crowd as a seat opens before you at the long mahogany bar. She’ll be a few minutes yet, so you look from your watch to the bartender, vest and tie over a shirt so white it must be new:
“May I offer you a drink, sir?”
That’s what the Vieux Carré is to me. It’s a tailored suit. It’s jazz and a good cigar. Muscular and elegant, beguiling and complex, it’s one of those cocktails that you look good ordering and you feel good drinking, as if you yourself are more sophisticated for being in its company. And while that would be enough, it also just happens to be really, really damn good.
As with so many grand Manhattan variations, the cocktail is named after the neighborhood in which it was invented: “Vieux Carré”means “old square,” what they call the French Quarter in New Orleans. It comes to us from 1937 — one of the rare few classic drinks to be invented post-Prohibition — conceived by head barman Walter Bergeron at the famous Hotel Monteleone, which stands now, as it has since 1886, a block off Bourbon Street on the French Quarter’s southern end.
Today, the Hotel Monteleone is most famous for its somewhat curious Carousel Bar, what the website proudly boasts as “the city’s only revolving bar,” in which the bar and everything on it literally circles bartender at the manageable but still bizarre rate of 1 revolution per 15 minutes. The thought of a cocktail this elegant invented in a room that gauche kind of ruins my day, and it’s comforting to know that it actually wasn’t — in his time it was called the Swan Bar, and wouldn’t be converted to an orbital experience for another 11 years.
This is a thoroughly New Orleans drink. Them Crescent City folks are unusually proud of their heritage, and any time you’ve got French cognac and liqueur, rye floated down the Mississippi, and the city’s own Peychaud’s bitters in a single drink, there’s really only one place it could come from.
1oz Rye whiskey
1oz Sweet Vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir for 30 solid seconds (if using Kold Draft, 45 seconds). Strain into cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon peel.
Rye: should be big and spicy. I find Rittenhouse 100 proof does the trick perfectly. Many insist on Sazerac Rye just to hammer in the New Orleans connection (despite the fact that the Louisiana-owned Sazerac Rye has been made in Kentucky for its entire existence), which works great if you can find it. Steer clear of bottles that are too soft or low proof. 45% minimum.
Cognac: I prefer V.S.O.P or better. Too young and you’ll taste the brandy’s funkiness, which still makes a fine drink, but it’s not ideal. The cocktail is at its best when the cognac is giving rich, supple, woody notes to balance the spicy rye.
Vermouth: I prefer Carpano Antica, because not much else can stand up to the rest of the ingredients while maintaining the complexity we’re looking for.
There’s some reasonable dissent on the sweetness (some say more Bénédictine, which is crazy; many say less, which is not), and whether or not to use a lemon peel (personal choice, though I think it’s begging for it), but I think the most fertile disagreement is whether to make this drink on ice or up.
This particular cocktail needs a lot of dilution. That sweetness can cloy if it’s not suitably chilled and diluted, which is why almost everyone chooses to make it on ice. It was definitely conceived that way, and I would never say a Vieux Carré on ice is in any way incorrect.
But it’s not how I like it. I mitigate the sweetness instead by stirring longer than other drinks, about 30-45 seconds, depending on the ice, to get a little extra water before straining it up. This is because one of the principle pleasures of this drink is how the herbal interplay from the vermouth and Bénédictine evolves as it slowly warms.
The cocktail is deliriously good in almost any form, but my favorite part is how the herbal complexity— a background note at first, lumped in with the perception of sweetness — begins to take center stage as time goes on. The warming changes it and the change is half the fun, providing an axis point on which to focus.
It’s like a Manhattan but more interesting. What’s more sophisticated than that?
Trivia!: the Hotel Monteleone apparently offers publications the “official” recipe, which should never be followed by anyone. I’ve found two very similar, equally gross sounding versions:
A la The Georgetowner: A la Saveur
0.5oz rye 0.5oz rye
0.25oz cognac 0.5oz cognac
0.25oz sweet vermouth 0.5oz sweet vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine 0.5oz Bénédictine
3 drops Angostura bitters dash Angostura
3 drops Peychaud’s bitters dash Peychaud’s
Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel. Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.
Served, ostensibly, in a thimble. Served alongside a shot of insulin.
“What’s your recipe for mint syrup?”
I was asked this the other day, and was embarrassed to realize that I had a passable recipe but never really examined it. This is to say, I knew it was a fine way to infuse mint into sugar, but I didn’t know if it was the ideal way. Which is, I admit, inexcusably lazy.
There are 100 different ways to make an mint syrup — literally any combination of water, sugar, and mint will make one — but the question lingered, because we cocktail people tend get particular about this kind of thing. How can I make it best?
All that follows is a piacular and demonstrative answer to that question.
TL;DR: if you’ve got things to do and just want to know the answer, scroll down or click here.
Herb-infused simple syrup is a clean, easy, consistent way to add flavor to otherwise straightforward drinks, particularly when using fresh herbs are inconvenient or otherwise unavailable. If I’m making one mojito, I use mint. If I’m making 100 mojitos, mint syrup starts to look a little better.
With any syrup, the first thing we do is ask a couple fundamental questions, as herbs need to be treated differently than strawberries or limes or nutmeg:
- What exactly do we want out of our ingredients?
- What is our solvent?
- What is our method?
With herbs, what we want are the bright, fragrant oils. Oil transfer won’t happen much in plain water, because they’re non-soluble… you need a solvent, like oil, salt, sugar, or alcohol. What’s more, you probably want some amount of heat to catalyze the exchange, while keeping in mind that the oils are very delicate and should be treated as such.
Let me save you the Google work and tell you the internet is, predictably, all over the place. Some, like Epicurious, say to muddle the mint in sugar, let the sugar draw out the oil, then add water and dissolve (as with the oleo saccharum). Others, like The Hungry Mouse, say to bring the simple syrup to a boil, remove it from heat, and steep the mint as you would tea. Still others say to cook the mint, sugar, and water all together: see Chow, a different Epicurious recipe, About.com, the Wannabe Chef, the Shiksa, and many more.
So, as with all such situations, the only thing left to do is make one.
3g mint (10-12 leaves or so)
I ruled out the obvious bad ideas (the “put the ingredients in a bowl and walk away” theory, etc) and made the three most promising syrups:
- Muddled: muddled mint in sugar, waited 30min for the naturally oleophilic sugar to leech the oils, then added water, dissolved sugar, and strained solids. No heat.
- Boiled: brought sugar, water, and mint to a boil, let simmer for 5 min, removed from heat and strained.
- Steeped: brought sugar and water to a boil, removed from heat, added mint and let cool to room temp.
The amounts were the same for all three, so hopefully we can get a semi-scientific comparison.
Color is Pale yellow/white, like hay, or sunbleached stone. Nose is faint… a bit too faint, but nice bright mint. A little vegetal. Maybe sat too long on the sugar. Light on the midpalate, with a nice clean minty finish.
This had been my method of choice. Until now, anyway. It’s nice and bright, but not too much flavor. It’s also extremely easy to let it sit too long, at which point the mint begins to smell like mulch.
Color is deep, full yellow, more toward apple juice. Not much of a nose, strangely. Boiled off the aromatics? When tasted, it is as suspected: it’s loud but not bright, with more plant bitterness — there’s only one note, and that’s cooked mint.
Much more extraction here, obviously. But that doesn’t necessarily make it better. One of the chief delights of herbs is their brightness, and this more or less takes that all away.
Color is yellow with light green tints, like medium-strength green tea. Nose is much stronger than the other two — as with the others, there’s still some slight vegetal notes, but it has a much brighter mint flavor than the boiled one and much louder than the muddled one.
Baby bear’s porridge: halfway between not enough and too much. This is both bright and loud. The best and most flavorful syrup, by far.
Confirmation/drinking time: I made a Southside with each syrup, and tried them side by side.
2oz Beefeater Gin
0.75oz lemon juice
0.75oz mint syrup
Shaken and fine strained, up.
- Muddled: Barely any nose. You’ve got to look for the mint. Gin more takes over.
- Boiled: Mint is loud and low like a boat horn. It could almost pass for one of the botanicals of the gin.
- Steeped: The best. By far. Bright mint nose. Mint shows up mid to late palate, almost like a wintergreen sensation. Vegetal-flavors still come through a little, but the overwhelming impression is of fresh, bright, mint.
Steep the mint.
Herbs are fragile. Heat changes them. So we want to use a small amount of heat to catalyze the oil exchange but not enough to significantly alter the flavor.
How to make the best possible mint syrup: bring equal parts sugar and water to a boil. Remove from heat, allow 15-30 seconds for the temperature to come down, then stir in lots of mint — more than you’d think, about 20-30 leaves/cup, as quantity has a lot to do with volume of the flavor. Cover immediately, and let cool to room temperature. Once cool, strain out solids, bottle, and refrigerate.
Hidden door #4: a Southside with regular simple syrup and actual fresh mint.
The best. Obviously. This brings a brightness that the syrups can’t touch. Front, mid, finish… all mint. Plays a role in all of it. The best by a landslide. So, the conclusion, so clear it could be seen from space: when possible, use fresh mint.
Hey bartender friends! Lemonade aficionados! Syrup junkies! Do you have a better way? Does your mint syrup make my mint syrup look like a little bitch? Leave a comment and tell me about it. Like I said, I want best.