What’s the best recipe for a Clover Club?

1934 — Just one heady year after Prohibition was repealed, Esquire Magazine, in a civic-minded attempt to reestablish the norms of a long dormant drinking culture, published a list of 10 Worst Drinks of the Previous Decade. There, among what they called out as the “pansies,” were the Brandy Alexander, the Bronx, a shaken 50/50 mix of rum and sweet vermouth called the “Fluffy Ruffles,” and, for some reason, the Clover Club.

Well, it wasn’t exactly called a pansy “for some reason.” It’s for this reason:

cc-pansies

Such is the injustice that has followed the drink its whole life. The Clover Club is too pretty to be taken seriously. It’s the Brad Pitt of cocktails.

History:

In January of 1880, an informal dinner of 15 newspaper men was arranged. The social benefits of this association became quickly apparent, and they formed the Thursday Club, which met every 4th Thursday for almost two years. For various reasons, the group re-branded, and on January 19, 1882 at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, they met with a new formal name: The Clover Club.

To call it formal, however, was to miss the point. Its membership was made up of 35 men from all over industry, government, and law, as well as various other prominent wits. Oscar Wilde was there. There was no specific aim — “a Club for Social Enjoyments, the Cultivation of Literary Tastes, and the Encouragement of Hospitable Intercourse.” The one major rule was to enjoy yourself: if anyone was found to be too ponderous, sullen, or dull, they’d be mercilessly heckled. “The Clover Club,” according to the old Waldorf-Astoria bar book, was “composed of literary, legal, financial and business lights of the Quaker City, [who] often dined and wined, and wined again.”

As no self-respecting drinking club could be without its own drink, a Clover Club cocktail was needed. We don’t know when or by whom it was invented, but by 1901 it’s referenced, and 1908 finds it published, in William Boothby’s The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them. By then it is already popular at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, where William Butler Yeats, upon first discovering the drink, reportedly took down three in a row.

The Clover Club organization more or less disbanded around WWI, and by 1934, Esquire calls the now-orphaned cocktail one of the worst drinks of the previous decade. They’re wrong on both counts — it’s an exceptional drink, and it’s not from the previous decade — but no matter. It had somehow lost its association with the gentlemen’s club of noted wits, and becomes one of the “pansies.” Still in 1949, Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts incompetently dismisses it as “something for the ladies.”

And so it is today. Just look at the damn thing:

cc-glamour-shot

The pink. The white head. The cocktail glass. The garnish. It’s seems specifically designed to provoke insecure men. Which is a shame, because here’s the thing: the Clover Club is savagely fucking tasty.

What is the Best Recipe for a Clover Club?

Over the course of a month, I made every Clover Club recipe I could find. I tried grenadine vs. raspberries, dry vermouth vs. no dry vermouth, tweaking ratios, and did several blind trials with 16 different gins, which reduced to 8, then to 4, then to a winner. So here, the best Clover Club recipe, and then, below, I’ll explain my choices:

The Clover Club
2oz Hendrick’s Gin
0.75oz fresh lemon juice
0.75oz simple syrup (1:1)
1 egg white (about 1oz)
4-5 raspberries

Add egg white to tin. Add the rest of the ingredients, as well as the raspberries. Seal, hold tight, and dry shake, without ice, for 5-6 seconds. Add ice, reseal tins and shake hard for 15 seconds. Strain into cocktail glass. Express a lemon peel over the top, then discard peel (for the aroma). Garnish with a raspberry, or 2, or 3, on a pick.

Ingredient Notes:

cc-lineup

Raspberries vs. Grenadine: FRESH RASPBERRIES

There’s a bit of wavering about whether it’s raspberries or grenadine in this, and it’s comforting to discover bartenders have been wavering since the very beginning. Booth’s 1908 recipe calls for grenadine but adds that raspberry syrup “will answer the purpose” while a 1909 recipe calls for raspberry syrup, but says grenadine will work if raspberries aren’t in season. So it seems pretty simple: raspberry season is June — October, and pomegranate season is September — February, so pre-globalization, just use whichever you can get.

That being said, it’s 2017, and we can have everything all the time, so use raspberries. Grenadine makes a fine drink, but it’s not magic. Raspberries, in this, are magic.

As for fresh vs. syrup, use fresh. Syrup mutes the flavor, and fresh raspberries sing out of this drink. The PDT cocktail book advises raspberry jam, and again, it’s a fine drink, but fresh is always better.

cc-jam

Vermouth vs. No Vermouth: NO VERMOUTH

Very smart and talented people claim that a spot of dry vermouth improves the drink, and indeed, dry vermouth shows up in some of the earliest recipes. What dry vermouth achieves is to lend complexity — midtones — to a sour that otherwise rests on its brightness and vibrancy.

This is personal taste territory, and I tread lightly to disagree with such august opposition. Legendary cocktail historian David Wondrich says vermouth turns “a serviceable drink into an ambrosial one.” Julie Reiner, equally legendary operator who opened a bar in Brooklyn almost 10 years ago and named it after this exact drink, chooses vermouth. Along with that are a couple quieter choices as well — Plymouth, softer than it’s London Dry big brothers, and raspberry syrup instead of fresh. Her choices all lend toward subtlety and nuance instead of the vibrant, electric sour I’ve landed on. I admit I think mine is much better, but obviously she’s not incorrect. It’s just a difference in taste, and I like it better without vermouth.

Note: If you are using vermouth, I personally found it best with Tanqueray. To me, Tanqueray best incorporates the complexity of the vermouth into the greater drink. I feel like vermouth spoke too loud for the other gins, even Beefeater.

GINS: HENDRICK’S

Imagine my surprise. Plymouth is traditional, in that some very early recipes call for it (though they didn’t have the selection we now enjoy). I was sure it would be Tanqueray 10, but nope — the structure and floral nature of Hendricks just melds perfectly. Side-by-side it against your favorite and tell me I’m wrong.

Here are the gins I tested, more or less in order of how I preferred them:

cc-trails

Individual Gin Notes:

MY FAVORITE:

Hendrick’s: really delivers that brightness I enjoy. Raspberry depth all the way through, buttressed by floral components of gin. Strong but mild, complex and delicious. Perfect.

TOP TIER, WOULD HAPPILY ACCEPT ANY TIME EVER:

Beefeater 24: very close second, even won some early blind rounds against Hendrick’s, just that Hendrick’s won more often. Really outstanding, bright, full flavored. “No hair out of place.” As it warms it can betray a little spirit hottness, but this is a very close 2nd.

Sipsmith: interesting that this would be so close at only 41.6%, but it provides the perfect infrastructure for the drink. Another close 2nd. Allows the raspberry to sing while complementing them with what translates as a textured grapefruity semi-bitterness. Really great.

STILL GREAT, BUT WOULD SLIGHTLY PREFER ONE OF THE ABOVE:

Beefeater: Very good, creamy and a little hot. “Like ice cream,” I wrote. Simple but tasty.

Tanqueray: Also extremely good. Starbright and vibrant at first. Gin shows through a little too much as it warms, but this is still an excellent drink.

Tanqueray 10: Same benefits and detriments as Tanqueray original. I thought the grapefruit would come through more, but I get more grapefruit-y notes on Sipsmith than I do on this.

FINE, BUT IT GETS BETTER:

Miller’s Westbourne Strength: one of my favorites for so many other uses, and almost made the above category. The cucumber here comes through as a green note that is very interesting, but ultimately distracting away from the clarity of flavor, which I see as the one of the Clover Club’s main strengths. Good though.

Plymouth: a little boring. Tastes fine, not bad, just a bit flat.

Death’s Door: just weighs in a little out of balance on this particular drink, but certainly not bad. “Creamy, tasty, good. A little hot on the finish but good on the whole.”

DON’T RECOMMEND FOR THIS APPLICATION

Aviation: this gin really stakes a different claim for itself — strong sarsaparilla notes, and some lavender — and that claim distracts from the overall drink. “Not bad — like a spinoff. Makes a Root Beer-flavored Clover Club.”

Sipsmith VJOP: in both trials, it wouldn’t foam up right. Flat, hot and uninteresting. I made it again because maybe the non-foaming part was my fault, and didn’t foam second time either. A catastrophe.

Plymouth Navy Strength: I thought extra proof points would do this favors, but still more suppresses flavor than enhances it. And there’s a strange, barnyardy earthiness just out of grasp that I find unpleasant.

Old Harbor San Miguel Gin: again, a bold new-style gin that is tasty, but too much cilantro for this application. “Green. Herbal. That’s cilantro. Not unpleasant, actually, but no reason to use this gin for this drink unless it’s all you have around.”

Ford’s Gin: this coaxed an earthy midpalate out of the cocktail and led to a somewhat unpleasant finish. I have no idea where that’s coming from on the gin, but we both placed it in the bottom half of its heat.

cc-trails-shot

TRIVIA:

What is a “Clover Club?”

The name “Clover Club” was adopted from a then-famous phrase, “While we live we live in clover, when we die we die all over.” To be “in clover” was to be flush with luxury, comfort, and happiness, and the phrase shows up in the early 1700s, when clover was seen as a particularly savory and fattening meal for cattle.

What does that phrase come from?

The entire “while we live we live in clover…” phrase itself was coined by singer and playwright Samuel Sanford. Sanford was also an actor, as well as a hideous bigot — he achieved fame in 1850s for writing a fiercely pro-slavery stage version of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which he titled “Happy Uncle Tom, or Life Among the Happy.” He himself played Uncle Tom, in blackface, and an 1895 article in the Baltimore Morning Herald adoringly reported that “Sanford’s life is practically the history of negro minstrelsy in America.” What a dick.

Batched ingredients don’t separate. Ever.

This will be a short post, because while I found this fact to be a revelation, I suspect most people already know this intuitively, and to them, I sound pretty goddamn stupid.

It’s against policy to sound stupid in the public sphere, but I risk broadcasting my density here for the benefit of those who, like me, have always insisted on shaking the batches before every use.

Batching:

In a busy bar, you’ll often batch liqueurs, syrups, or even base spirits together to make service more efficient, turning a 5 pour drink into a 2 or 3 pour drink. Thus, for something like the Mane of Needles, say:
2oz Rye                                 — becomes —          2oz Rye
0.75oz Carpano Antica                                        1.75oz batch
0.5oz Campari                                                        dash orange bitters
0.25oz Benedictine
0.25oz Fernet
dash orange bitters

Easier, no? I’ve been a fan of batching for a long time, but I’ve always warned my bartenders: agitate the batches if it’s the first time you’re touching them that day. It only made sense to me that the constituent ingredients would settle out over time, the way juice does.

My intention was to figure how quickly they separated, not whether they did at all, so I set up a couple experiments. I made 5 cocktails with ingredients of dramatically different sugar levels, ABV, and colors (all that data is at the bottom. if you’re curious) sealed them in glass bottles, and tucked them away.

[bi] initial

The general idea was to check every few hours to see how quickly the colors separated. My hypothesis was that it would happen within 6-8 hours.

First few hours: nothing. First few days: nothing. After two weeks, they still looked like this:

[bi]two weeks later

Convinced I was missing some minute but crucial gradient, I held it up to bright light and looked harder:

[bi] montage

Zero color variation.

“Ok,” I thought, “maybe whatever accounts for color completely mixes in but something must settle out, right?” So I took a siphon, and siphoned off each bottle into three glasses: top 1/3rd, middle 1/3rd, bottom 1/3rd. And tasted them all side by side. And nothing. They’re exactly the same.

Do the ingredients really not separate over time?

Obvious Answer:

Of course they don’t separate over time.

If alcohol and water settled out, a bottle of vodka would be stronger on top than it is on the bottom. If sugar settled out of alcohol and water, a bottle of Campari would be sweeter on the bottom than on top.

When you first add things together, they’re not completely mixed, and you see sugary wisps in the liquid. But shake or stir it a couple times, and once those wisps go away — once it’s all fully mixed together — your job is done. The liquid doesn’t know it used to be 3 different things. All it knows is that is has a certain amount of water, sugar, and alcohol, and because of Brownian Motion, the levels thereof will be constant, throughout the liquid, until the end of time.

Again, this may be obvious to you. It may seem like I’m urgently tapping you on the shoulder to tell you that giraffes are tall. And in hindsight, yeah, of course. But it took me 2 weeks of experiments and a long text conversation with a friend who has a Ph.D. in chemistry (thanks, Addison) to work it out. So, you know. There’s that.

Bonus Fact:

Solids, of course, settle in the bottom of the bottle. In bottled citrus juice, the pulp starts to settle within the hour. But what about bitters?

Angostura bitters does indeed have tiny solid particulate matter that settles out over time. Look closely to the bottom of the bottle:

[bi] bitters sediment

Clearer still is a brief close-up video to see them dancing about:

 

I couldn’t possibly tell you how much of an effect those little particles have on flavor. I have no idea. But it’s probably a good idea to not batch your bitters, and to add them à la minute to each drink.

Added Bonus Fact:

This principle has an appealing corollary, which is that if you, say, found an ideal gin and sweet vermouth for a Negroni, you could just pre-batch a bottle of negroni and keep it at home for easy cocktails after long shifts. Food for thought.

Experiment Data:

This wasn’t interesting enough to put in the body, but in case your curious, these are the cocktails I chose because the ingredients had widely disparate sugar & alcohol levels, and were of different colors. Sugar levels are taken from educated guesses by smarter people than myself, most notably Dave Arnold in Liquid Intelligence and this random, helpful little website.

bi-contestants

 

What’s the Best Sparkling Water for Cocktails?

[soda] round 1

We’re here to talk about sparkling water in cocktails. But first:

My Obsessive Nature, a.k.a. A Briefish, Seemingly Unrelated Disclaimer on Why Its Hard to Buy Things

I like research.

Before I buy something, for example, I tend to comb through reviews. This can be important, like finding the right hotel for a vacation. This can also be shatteringly unimportant, like when I suddenly realize I’ve wasted 90 minutes on a Tuesday morning comparing customer reviews and build specifications between a bunch of $12 can openers. I can’t help it. It’s who I am.

I say that to say this: what follows is an article about what carbonated water is best for your cocktails. My conclusions have changed my thinking about soda water (a little). But even at its most dramatic, we’re talking about a flavor difference of 20% maximum, and usually closer to 5%. Which is my way of acknowledging that what follows is esoteric and largely insignificant, and if you ignore my conclusions regarding sodium content vis-a-vie effervescent cocktails, I assure you that your life won’t be any worse for it.

Anyway.

Carbonated Water & Its Many Forms

[soda] the lineup

Carbonated water is what happens when carbon dioxide and water are hanging out together under pressure. Sometimes it’s natural: mineral-laden water, bubbling up through limestone in underground springs, finds some trapped underground CO2 and self-carbonates. People used to find these special places, and drink/soak there as a medicine. When they’re constantly traveling to Bath to “take the waters” in Jane Austen novels? This is what they’re doing.

Some of the carbonated water you can buy is natural, and while others are imitations of the natural minerals, or the natural carbonation, or both. All in all, you can break down bubble water into 4 different categories.

Four Categories

•  Carbonated Water or Seltzer Water or Sparkling Water: pure water, artificially carbonated.
•  Soda Water or Club Soda: water, carbon dioxide, and small amounts of added sodium salt and/or potassium salt.
•  Mineral Water: naturally carbonated water from a protected underground spring, containing more than 250 parts per million (ppm) dissolved minerals/salts, like  sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium, etc.
•  Spring Water: water from a protected underground spring, containing less than 250ppm dissolved minerals/salts.

This alone is fairly simple, but it’s only the very beginning, because each individual brand of sparkling water needs to be evaluated on three traits. And these three traits aren’t in any way predictable from the four categories, because waters within the same category swing wildly from one extreme to the other.

Three Traits:

(1) How carbonated is it?

This is vital, and the only unconditional trait you need in your carbonated water. You want big, ripping carbonation. In something like a Tom Collins, carbonated water is only about 1/3 of the liquid in the final drink, and has to carry twice its own weight in effervescence. The more carbonation, the brighter and more alive your drink will be.

(2) How does it taste?

Carbonating water is like hitting it with a spotlight — bad tasting water tastes even worse carbonated.

[soda] jarritos(3) How does the mineral composition affect the experience of flavor?

As affirmed by Dave Arnold and explained well by Kevin Liu here, a very small amount of salt can make flavors “pop,” even if it’s not enough to actually perceive any salt at all (known as subthreshhold saltiness).

To compound that, we know a small amount of salt is incredibly effective at reducing bitterness, so in the case of bitter sparkling drinks like Americanos or Campari & Soda, it might give the the other flavors a boost.

The Experiments:

I picked up a couple bottles of every brand of sparkling water I could find. Which is, by the way, a good way to look insane in the check-out aisle.

[soda] cost difference supermarket

I got a couple rain-cheap grocery store brands, a few world-famous mineral waters, two ludicrously expensive artisanal mixing waters straight from an advertisement in Imbibe, some super basic carbonated distilled water, and capped off by a gift: the elusive and broadly-revered Topo Chico, courtesy of the excellent Carlos Ochoa.

12 waters in all, and a decently representative sample:

[soda] grid

San Pellegrino and Crystal Geyser were immediately disqualified for insufficient carbonation, and Crystal Geyser doubly because it sucks (In my notes is one line, a cryptic, but damning, “this is shit and the people who make it are shit and I hate them.”).

Then, we did tests. Lots of tests.

[soda] tons of rounds

All in all, I blind tasted all of them, 6 at a time, shuffled randomly:

— 2 rounds all the way through, just water alone
— 6 rounds as Americanos
— 3 rounds as Lillet + Sodas
— 2 rounds as Tequila + Sodas
— 1 round as Gin + Sodas
— 1 round as Vodka + Sodas
— 1 round of Tom Collins’

The round of vodka sodas was particularly difficult.

The round of vodka sodas took an especially severe toll on our tasting panel.

So why did I do this so many times? Because the results were incredibly subtle, and maddeningly inconsistent. I’ve never experienced anything like this. One round of Americanos, Fever Tree is the best. A few more rounds it hovers around 2nd or 3rd place, and then once it drops to last. Mineragua was 3rd place for the first Lillet + Soda test, but then the next time it drops to last. La Croix is an underperformer at Americanos but it makes the 2nd best Lillet + Soda. My homemade soda + a crack of salt made the best tequila soda, but when bittersness came in, it was only 4th best at an Americano. Why is Refreshe Seltzer better than Refreshe Soda? WHY?

I mean really. What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?

Conclusions:

I did it so many times that, yes, I managed to find patterns and draw conclusions:

 

(1) The biggest factor is the amount of carbonation. If you taste the water, hold it in your mouth before you swallow. CO2 in liquids forms carbonic acid, and it should burn. If you can pleasantly hold it in your mouth for 5 seconds, it’s not carbonated enough. San Pellegrino is nice for lunch, but it’s nowhere near bubbly enough for your cocktails.

(2) We’re really only talking about simple Americanos or spirit/wine + bubbles. In the round of Tom Collins’, which introduces sweetness and tartness, I literally couldn’t tell the difference between the 3 or 4 best versions. Just bring enough carbonation, and it’s fine.

(3) The more bitter your cocktail, the saltier your water. Q Soda and Mineragua in particular are salty as hell, but in bitter drinks they make the flavors pop because of that salt + bitterness thing we mentioned earlier. And the top performers, as far as I could tell, just had sea salt. Sodium citrate, an industrial salt in the Refreshe Soda, was not as beneficial.

(4) Enjoying a water alone and its performance in cocktails are two very different things. Both Q and Mineragua, for example, are too salty for me alone, but added to bitter sweetness in an Americano, that ceases to be a problem. Likewise, Fever Tree is the king of sipping waters in my house, but it doesn’t come close to dominating the competition the way I thought it would.

(5) We’re not talking about a big flavor difference here. This ain’t different vermouths, or even different gins. We’re talking about water. For most of these we’re dealing with shades of carbonation and shades of salt. The subjective difference between 1st and 4th in the conclusions could very well have been due to what I ate last.

(6) Water costs money. More on this in a second.

What’s the Best Sparkling Water for Cocktails?:

Q Club Soda.

[soda] q winner

Big carbonation, nice and salty, and well flavored, Q was the best all around competitor, with Fever Tree, Refreshe Seltzer, Topo Chico,  Mineragua, and my homemade water (carbonation technique nicked from Liquid Intelligence) coming in as respectable runner ups.

[soda] winners circle

But.

If I didn’t have my own, would I be buying Q Club for home? No, I would not. I would be buying Refreshe Seltzer and adding a pinch of salt (or Topo Chico, if I could find it). Because of the final column, cost, that I left off earlier.

[soda] grid w prices

If I were in some kind of competition, I’d bring Q Club. But it’s not significant enough of a difference for me to buy boutique imported water at nearly $0.20 a fucking ounce. Q was best, and Refreshe Seltzer is somewhere around 3rd. But Q is 7.5x the cost of Refreshe, and only like 5% better.  And I’m not living that life.

In other words, did I just make you read 1500 words on carbonated water just to tell you it doesn’t matter all that much? Yeah, I did. Sorry. I tried to warn you.

SUPPLIMENTAL CAVEAT: There’s still so much I don’t know about these waters. Sodium, in miligrams, is available on the back. But what about potassium? Or calcium, or magnesium, or fluoride, or nitrates? All that stuff can show up in mineral water, and it tastes like something,  and I don’t have the tools to identify them. And honestly, what tools I could’ve bought (pH strips, etc) I opted against buying when I realized how difficult it is to draw conclusions from such scattered, subtle results in the first place.

TRIVIA #1!: Why is salted water even a thing at all? This is already much too long, but the history of artificial carbonation is pretty awesome, so I’ll just leave this superb article here if you want to know more.

TRIVIA #2!: If you’re wondering if the English town of Bath was named Bath because people bathed in the natural hot springs, the answer is yes.

What’s the best Gin and Vermouth for a Negroni?

There is a rule in my house: if I ever make a Negroni for myself, and Victoria is home (or about to come home), I have to make one for her too. Every time. This rule was put in place more than two years ago, and never once has it been broken, never turned down, never exceptioned.

There is only one other such mandate between us, in the case of bacon.

That’s the Negroni. It’s the bacon of cocktails. And yes, I take that comparison as seriously as it deserves, because like bacon, (1) it is always great, and (2) I’m never not in the mood for it.

The Negroni:

[nt] stirring

So first things first — what is a Negroni?

I’m not going to spend too much time on the history, but briefly: from the moment Campari was invented in 1860, it’s had a heedless love for sweet vermouth.

Somewhere along the line, some genius (perhaps Gaspare Campari himself) united them with a little soda water and created the Americano, still the greatest pre-meal cocktail ever made. And the story goes that in 1919, Count Camillo Negroni walked into the Caffe Casoni in Florence and ordered an Americano with gin instead of soda water. He took one sip, lightning struck in the same spot three times, Jesus appeared on a biscotti, and the Negroni cocktail was born (unless it wasn’t. See Trivia, at bottom).

Look anywhere for the recipe for a Negroni and you’ll find the same thing, more or less everywhere, from more or less everyone:

The Negroni
1oz gin
1oz Campari
1oz Sweet Vermouth
Stir, and serve either on ice or up. Garnish with an orange slice or peel.

[nt] intro glamour shot

Almost no one specifies types of gin or vermouth, and in a way, it’s not vital — one of the charms of the Negroni is it’s near invincibility. Use any gin or sweet vermouth you like, and it’s going to taste great. Substitute Campari for any of it’s competitors, and it’s going to taste great. Understir it, overstir it, add orange bitters, screw up the measurements, carbonate it, age it in barrels, do whatever you want to it, and it’ll still be great. It’s great for men or women, first dates or business meetings, after dinner, before dinner, before breakfast, on the train, in outer space, anywhere, always, forever. It’s bitter, it’s sweet, it’s perfect. It is one of the handful of mixed drinks that enjoys universal respect in this industry.

But that’s my problem. I get it, no one looks for the best Negroni because saying “best Negroni” is a little like saying “best orgasm” — yeah, there are shades of difference there, some better than others, but even a terrible one is still better than almost everything else in the world. But. If you could have the best one every time, wouldn’t you?

And so, our question: what’s best? What gin, what vermouth, what combination?

Rules:

These are my guiding principles:

(1) Campari. Bartenders are a tinkery bunch, which is mostly a good thing, but here, we’re sticking with Campari. Yes, a Cynar/Aperol/Cappelletti/etc Negroni is a fine drink, but a true Negroni has to be made with Campari.

(2) Sweet Vermouth. Not dry vermouth, not bianco vermouth, not barolo chinato (which is like double-dutch heaven), but sweet vermouth. The red kind. Because that’s what’s in it.

(3) Gin. It’s made with gin. For the love of god. Not mezcal, not aquavit, not genever, not barrel-aged gin. Gin.

(4) Equal Parts. A Negroni is equal parts Gin, Sweet Vermouth, and Campari. Yes, it comes with a bit of sweetness. Deal with it. The sweetness is part of the charm. There’s no adding more gin. That’s blasphemy, and it also doesn’t taste as good.

Procedures:

Identical glasses, identical large (2″ x 2″) ice, stirred the same amount of times, tasted double blind by both Victoria and I according to the sticker on the bottom of the glass method. As double blind as possible, anyway. Punt e Mes is recognizably darker than the others, but it tastes so different it’s not like we wouldn’t have known anyway.

[nt] double blind

Competitors:

I chose gins and vermouths that are fairly standard. Yes, obviously I’m only tasting 5 each, and yes, I might be missing out on some other brand that makes the Negroni of my dreams. I’m sure you’ll message me about it.

GIN: Beefeater, Tanqueray, Plymouth Navy Strength, Hendrick’s, and Aviation.

VERMOUTH: Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes, Dolin Rouge, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, and Martini and Rossi

[nt] intro montage

Process:

First, we did 5 rounds of 5, keeping the gin constant and doing 5 different vermouths. Victoria and I silently rated them, then shared when we were done. Then, we did 5 more rounds, keeping the vermouth constant and doing 5 different gins. By the end, every one of the 25 possible combinations was tasted twice in two different heats. Points were given based on our respective ratings (we didn’t always agree, of course), and the data looked like this:

Negroni raw data

There are a couple different ways to look at this:

The way I like best is to count the amount of times each ingredient earned a 1st place ranking. You’ll notice every ingredient had its own heat, so at one point or another, they all got at least 2 first place prizes, one from each of us.  If I tally up Victoria’s and my votes, the data looks like this:

Number of times each gin won it’s heat:

Tanqueray — 6
Plymouth Navy Strength — 5
Hendricks — 4
Beefeater — 3
Aviation — 2

Number of times each vermouth won it’s heat:

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino — 7
Carpano Antica — 4
Punt e Mes — 4
Dolin — 3
Martini and Rossi — 2

[nt]  test lineup

Another way to sort the data is individual Negroni scores. As we tasted every combination twice and both of us ranked them 1-5 each time, each Negroni has 4 ratings, so if it were #1 every single time, it would score a 4:

By points (lower is better):

Beefeater & Carpano — 6
Tanqueray & Cocchi — 7
Hendricks & Punt e Mes — 7
Aviation & Carpano — 7
Plymouth Navy Strength & Cocchi — 7
Tanqueray & Dolin — 9

This isn’t perfect because they’re rankings as opposed to evaluations, which means even if all 5 were bad (looking at you, Martini and Rossi) they still get ranked 1-5. However, this is how we did the Final Round, because it has the added benefit being fairly diverse, which is good because they’ve already competed against themselves in every possible way.

The final combined results, with my ranking and Victoria’s ranking for reference

6th: Carpano and Aviation | #6 and #5
5th: Plymouth N.S. and Cocchi | #5 and #3
4th: Beefeater and Carpano | #4 and #4
3rd: Hendrick’s and Punt e Mes | #2 and #6
2nd: Tanqueray and Dolin | #3 and #2
1st: Tanqueray and Cocchi | #1 and #1

Not even close. We both, independently, liked Tanqueray and Cocchi best by a significant margin. They were all great, but Tanqueray and Cocchi tasted tasted the most like the ideal Negroni. No hair out of place. As close to perfect as I can imagine.

In fact, of the 6 times Tanqueray and Cocchi was rated, there is only once where it wasn’t #1, a weird spike in the data on our very first test and one I’m tempted to explain away by error, but we’ll never know. Nonetheless:

The Best Negroni*
1oz Tanqueray
1oz Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
1oz Campari.
Stir on ice. Garnish with an orange peel. Drink. Melt. 

[nt] winner!

*That is, best of the 5 gins and 5 vermouths we tried, of course. And according to our specific palates. Out of only 1:1:1 Negronis. With strict rules. This is a very limited experiment featuring two people and 10 products. But, Tanqueray and Cocchi is now my champion, and what I’ll make against any new combination I’m told about.

Ingredient Conclusions:

GINS

[nt] gin lineup

Tanqueray: The bars I’ve worked at have always carried Beefeater instead of Tanqueray so I’ve never been too familiar with its nuances. But I’m finding the more of these experiments I do, the more I find Tanqueray still standing at the end. I’m beginning to realize what an incredible gin this really is.

Beefeater: Great product, great for Negronis. Most cocktail bartenders I polled before starting this said Beefeater and Carpano are the best, and indeed, it’s great. Carpano was too sweet, too much vanilla for most gins, but Beefeater handles it admirably.

Plymouth Navy Strength: I really thought the strength would counter the sweetness of the cocktail, but it just made most of them kinda flat, like a dampener.

Hendrick’s: Performed better than I would’ve thought. I figured it didn’t have the backbone for this and only included it as a reference point, but it did well. Its floral nature is absorbed by the cocktail and doesn’t stick out. I’ll drink Hendrick’s & Punt e Mes Negronis all day.

Aviation: I love Aviation gin. It won my Martini experiments, after all, but the sarsparilla note comes through as wintergreen, and has no place in a Negroni.

VERMOUTHS:

[nt] vermouth lineup

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino: Performed incredibly well. Mixes with Campari like a dream.

Carpano Antica: Great vermouth, but most of the Negronis, especially against peers, were too sweet with too much vanilla. It’s like a Vanilla Negroni as opposed to just a Negroni.

Punt e Mes: I like Punt e Mes Negronis a lot, but Victoria doesn’t much. It really shouldn’t have been in this experiement because t’s like a spin-off of a Negroni. It’s too different. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a cherry/chocolate Negroni with Punt e Mes, but if I just want a normal one, Punt e Mes is not the answer.

Dolin Rouge: Too weak. All the Negronis with Dolin tasted flat & dull.

Martini and Rossi: Terrible. The worst performer of the whole experience. It tastes like an herb shop. The only time this was best was when it ran unopposed.

 ====================================

Trivia: All of that history up there is true, unless of course Count Camillo Negroni never actually existed, but we’re pretty sure he did. It’s a minor rats nest and I don’t feel like getting into it. If you’re curious, there’s an admirably complete discussion of the topic here.

Are Whiskey Stones Worth It?

There’s something about Holiday Gift Guides, in magazines and such, that I find tremendously frustrating. Not because the suggestions are worthless, but because every single one seems to be just barely on the far side of useful. There are two kinds: the chintzy necessities you already have, except this time imprinted with kitsch (i.e. R2-D2 Measuring Cup Set, $19.99) or the solutions to problems that really don’t exist (i.e. a small electronic pouch to pre-warm your pijamas, $39.99).

Sitting, ostensibly, in the latter camp, nearly standard on such lists for the last few years, are Whiskey Stones. Whiskey Stones are 1″ cubes of soapstone that you keep in the freezer and drop (gently) into your glass of whiskey, they claim, to chill your whiskey without diluting it. One package gets you nine little rocks, and it costs $20.

[whiskystones] intro

I get asked about Whiskey Stones a lot, about whether someone’s boyfriend or son would like them, about what the best kinds are (there are a few), about how I feel about ice, and several other versions of the same basic question: are Whiskey Stones worth it?

This is not one question, but three:

(1) How much cooling power do they have?
(2) Is chilling without dilution something you even want?
(3) What is it like to use them?

The first question can be answered with science. The second two fall to personal taste, and are therefore more vexing. But we’re going to tackle it anyway, because this is a blog.

(1): How Much Cooling Power do they Have?

I’m going to save you the suspense: almost none.

You would think that 2oz of whiskey stones and 2oz of ice, both straight from the freezer, would have a similar effect, no? Just that one dilutes while the other doesn’t? While that indeed does seem intuitive, you’d be wrong. You’d be wrong because ice is magic.

Without getting too much into it, the fact that ice is cold isn’t why it’s so good at chilling liquids. It doesn’t take much energy (a.k.a. chilling power) to take ice from 31°F to 32°F, or water from 32°F to 33°F  But it takes a ton of energy to turn 32°F ice into 32°F water. Like 80x more. It’s the melting, called the “heat of fusion,” that makes ice magic.

So what does this mean for whiskey stones?

In the marketing materials, they say they used soapstone because it has “unique ability to retain temperature for extended periods of time.” and that’s true: compared to most stones, the specific heat of soapstone is high. But comparing it to ice is like comparing a foot massage to oral sex: it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same fucking sport.

pulp-fiction-043

In my trials, 2 Whiskey Stones in 1oz of whiskey, which is not much, brought the temperature down a measly 10.3°F. By comparison, a frozen glass (very thin) chilled it 14.9°F, ice chilled it 22.5°F, and a frozen glass (thicker) chilled it 25.2°F.

I’m also definitely not the first person to do this:

•  the Art of Manliness found Whiskey Stones register a 8°F difference
•  the appropriately named Cool Material posted a 7°F difference
•  drinkhacker put a ridiculous 3 stones in 0.65oz whiskey and posted a 12.8°F difference
•  Doing Science to Stuff found a meager 6.2°F difference
•  the metric folks at Scotchblog.ca found it to be 9°F (I converted for you).

This graph is pretty typical:

ice-v-whiskey-stones-v-tilt-sphere

Taken from drinkhacker.com

 

Basically, somewhere between 6-10 degrees, depending on how many you use. Which if you’re wondering, really isn’t much. It’s barely noticeable in the glass against the room temperature ones.

Conclusion: Whiskey Stones don’t chill for shit.

(2): Is Chilling without Diluting Something You Even Want?

But what’s the value of this? I mean, what’s the relationship between spirits enjoyment and temperature anyway?

Experiment time:

[whiskystones] across

I tried 1oz of 45% whiskey, side by side, 5 different ways, and took temperature readings after 5 minutes:

  1. neat, at room temperature (66°F)
  2. whiskey stones (56°F)
  3. frozen thin glass (51°F)
  4. frozen thick glass (41°F)
  5. ice (44°F)

Because so much of this falls to personal taste, I tasted with Vikki and we both silently jotted down our favorites, then shared them:

Screenshot 2015-01-17 17.55.39

Conclusions:

•  I usually drink Japanese whiskey straight, so it’s unsurprising that I would like that best. Vikki’s no stranger to Japanese whiskey either, though she liked it 2nd best.

•  The frozen thick glass was the coldest, and while the cold temperature did suppress some of the more delicate flavors, it also suppressed some alcohol burn and also added silky viscosity, which we both loved. I wouldn’t always have whiskey so cold, but for casual drinking (instead of tasting/experiencing all possible nuance), it was great.

•  As for our old friend ice, we both loved it in the beginning, as a little dilution of a 45% spirit does release and stretch out some flavors. But after a while it became too diluted and therefore gross. Get bigger ice or drink faster.

•  The big question was why did we love the frozen thick glass but not the frozen thin one? For this, I can only guess — the thin glass made the spirit cold enough to suppress flavor but not enough to add texture, and seemed to be in some weird middle ground, neither as flavorful as neat nor as silky as actual cold.

Thick glass vs. thin glass.

Out of the freezer: thick glass vs. thin glass.

(3) What is is like to use them?

And finally, Whiskey Stones. Both of our least favorite, by far. The temperature change was negligible. The threat of taking a rock to the teeth, however, was not. Drinking whiskey, or really doing anything at all, doesn’t exist in a vacuum: the same whiskey in the same glass at the same temperature would taste a lot better enjoyed around a fire with old friends, and a lot worse at a Motel 6 in Gary, Indiana.

Atmosphere and aesthetics matter. Temperature-wise, it didn’t really do anything but disappoint me. Beyond the disappointment, beyond the constant specter of dental injury, I ultimately found it a weird bit of superfluous pageantry to drink with actual rocks clunking around in my glass.

So, are Whiskey Stones worth it?

No. They’re not.

The Problem with the Martini

I know several people who probably followed this link just to tell me that there is no problem with the Martini, that it is the Platonic ideal of gin cocktails and God’s Perfect Drink. Let me first tell you that I agree, for the most part, that a well-made Martini is a radiant and profound drink, and also that you’re wrong, there is indeed a problem, but it has nothing to do with taste.

That awkward moment when you realize you mixed up “drier” and “wetter,” probably as a result of drinking a bunch of martinis.

The Problem:

Get 20 cocktail bartenders in a room and ask them all for a recipe, and you might get a little individual variance.

Ask for a Last Word, and you’ll get the same thing from everyone. A Corpse Reviver #2, and there might be a little trembling on whether to use Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano, but the ratios will be the same. I have, embarrassingly, killed a whole drunken hour arguing about whether it’s lemon or lime juice in a Southside, but again, it’s essentially the same drink.

But the Martini. The goddamn Martini. The Martini diffusion is hopeless.

Everyone agrees on the principle ingredients: a martini is gin, dry vermouth, (sometimes) orange bitters, stirred, up, with a lemon peel. If you disagree with any of this, I invite you to explore your wrongness in the footnote(1) at bottom.

But it’s not that easy, because look it up 10 times and you’ll get 8 different ratios, the range of which is both hilarious and absurd. Just gin and vermouth, right? How much of each? Consider the list below, which is the Martini ratio given in all the books I have at home, plus a bit of google poking. I didn’t cherry pick these. These are the first 15 I found:

Ratio of Gin to Vermouth

1:1 — Edmund Spencer, via The Flowing Bowl, 1898 (+orange bitters)
2:1 — Sam Ross, via Bartender’s Choice (app)
3:1 — Jim Meehan, via PDT Cocktail Book
3:1 — Death & Co. Cocktail Book (+orange bitters)
3:1 — Dushan Zaric, via Liquor.com (+orange bitters)
4:1 — Andre Domine, via Ultimate Guide to Spirits and Cocktails
5:1  — David Wondrich, via Epicurious (+orange bitters)
5:1  — Simon Ford, via Liquor.com (+orange bitters)
5:1  — Gary Regan, via Joy of Mixology
6:1 — International Bartender Association (IBA)
6:1 — Dushan Zaric, via Food Republic (+orange bitters)
6:1 — Dale Degroff, via The Essential Cocktail
8:1 — Ted Haigh, via CocktailDB.com
10(+):1 — Cookworks, via FoodNetwork
10(+):1 — David Wondrich, via Esquire

You’ll notice that some people don’t even agree with themselves. I want to make the best drinks I can, and this list gets me no closer to the perfect Martini than I was before.

So I did what any sensible person would do: I made them all. Over the course of about 6 weeks, I made every ratio, with every gin I have at home, across two different vermouths, with and without orange bitters. And then I drank them.

[martini] montage

So Who’s Right?

Possibly everyone. Or at least, everyone between 5:1 and 1:1. Also maybe no one. Because, as it turns out, there is no single perfect recipe. The ideal recipe varies wildly from gin to gin, and further depends on your dry vermouth, and even further, likely, personal taste.

To find the best ratio, first assess what you’re looking for: a good martini radiates out of the glass. It shines like a diamond. It is a strong, bracing drink, that nonetheless charms you with impeccable balance and clarity of flavor, a harmonic resonance that’s remarkable when hit just right. So make everything between 1:1 and 5:1. Then try again, this time with orange bitters. Find your champion, make sure to write it down (you’re pretty drunk by now), and write off the moral cost of today’s inebriation as a learning experience (the story of my damn life).

Eight gins in all, and here are my last page conclusions, sorted by my personal preference:

[martini] Spreadsheet
Interesting, no? Some preliminary conclusions:

(1) Beyond 5:1, you’re just drinking cold gin.

(2) When the vermouths did disagree, Dolin almost always wanted to be a bigger part of the drink than Noilly Prat. It also tasted better every time.

(3) Orange bitters works with more juniper-forward gins, like Beefeater and Fords. In the others it made the flavors less clear.
(3a)… with the obvious exception of Hendrick’s, which was admittedly a very close call, maybe the closest of this whole experiment.

(4) If you’ve got to guess, go 3:1. It was best 5 of the 8 times, and even when it wasn’t best, it was never bad.

(5) Even my least favorite of the eight, Hendrick’s, was still damn tasty at 3:1 with orange bitters. A well made Martini is a wonderful drink.

My Favorite Martini

2.25oz Aviation Gin (for elegance/licorice accents) or Tanqueray 10 (for brighter fruit accents)
0.75oz Dolin Dry Vermouth

Stir briskly in a mixing glass, over ice, for about 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled Martini glass, and express the oils of a lemon peel over the top.

[martini] glamour shot

Notes from the Martini Trials:

1st (tie): Aviation Gin, 3:1

More licorice, like licorice candy (good & plenty). Bubblegum. Has an elegance that’s hard to touch. Deep and strong and balanced. 2:1 with orange bitters was a close second… it had more flavor, but muddied the clarity of 3:1 without bitters. Savory. Wonderful.

1st (tie): Tanqueray 10, 3:1

Made with whole orange, grapefruit, and limes, as well as chamomile, this had a much more citrus forward clarity. Lemon Starbursts. “All kinds of candied citrus,” I wrote, “I could drink these all the time.” Radiant. Dynamic. This pops.

3rd: The Botanist, 1:1

Nice sweetness. Surprisingly balanced at 1:1. How weird. The gin complements the vermouth very well, and makes the overall cocktail almost savory. This is a great drink.

4th: Ford’s Gin, 3:1 + Orange Bitters

Nose is great. 1:1 without bitters was actually pretty good here too, but 3:1 with takes the day. Probably my favorite of the classic London Dry style martinis.

5th: Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength, 5:1

Nice cucumber dryness. This is the gin in which I actually taste cucumber, and that note is highlighted here, as opposed to masked. This is an example of why gin martinis are so cool.

6th: Plymouth, 4:1 + Orange Bitters

Very nicely textured. Orange bitters bring a candied orange flavor that’s quite nice, and make it a little front heavy. This is very nice but not extraordinarily memorable, like a white dress shirt.

7th: Beefeater, 3:1 + Orange Bitters

At its most balanced. It’s still a little raw, but 2:1 is too weak and 4:1 is too much. It’s a stiff, tasty drink, meant for those who want their drinks stiff and tasty, and care about those adjectives in that order.

8th: Hendricks, 3:1 + Orange Bitters

This was a really tight choice between orange bitters and not. 1:1 was good too, but a little tart. 3:1 had nice acidity, mouthwatering. Clean. Floral. Probably cleaner without bitters than with, but I thought the round orange flavor made it more dynamic.

  •     •     •     •     •     •     •

Footnotes:

(1) A Martini is made with gin and vermouth. It doesn’t matter at all that 95% of the “martinis” I’m asked to make are with vodka. This is a gin drink. If you want a 5oz cone of 19°F vodka, fouled with tepid olive brine and made murky by lactose wisps of dissolving cheese, fine, but a martini it ain’t.

(2) Martinis may or may not contain orange bitters. Orange bitters are traditional, satisfying the original requirement of being called a cocktail, but most people these days choose to omit them. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s not. We’ll deal with it case by case.

(3) A Martini is stirred, not shaken. If you shake it, you lose the velvety texture, overdilute it, and make it all turbid & ugly. James Bond has gauche taste and he should keep it to his fucking self.

(4) Our garnish will be a lemon twist, not olives. I hate olives. Sorry. Bias.

(5) Yeah, I’m really using footnotes.

Go back to where you were.

The Best Mojito in the World

[mojito] recipe porn

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:

  1. Whether Havana in July or Manitoba in January, they will be ordered in all occasions until the end of time.
  2. 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.

The History:

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.”

[mojito] three glasses

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.

The Principles:

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.

The Players:

[mojito] ingredients

Rum. Limes. Sugar. Mint. Carbonated Water.

RUM: Flor de Cana 4yr silver rum

Use a Spanish style, clear/silver/white rum. What’s Spanish style? It’s an oversimplification of course, but if your rum is from a Spanish speaking country and/or is called “Ron,” it’s Spanish style. It will be light and clean. And probably <$20, which is even better.

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.

[mojito] rums

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.

[mojito] lemon hart 151Just for kicks, I tried Wondrich’s recipe of floating a little Lemon Hart 151 on top. Still delicious, but it takes a clean drink and confuses the flavors. Not an improvement.

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.

[mojito] over muddled mint

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: highly carbonated mineral water

[mojito] soda water back to backQ Soda and Fever Tree are the expensive good ones, and Topo Chico and Mineragua are the cheaper good ones. You want high carbonation and some dissolved sodium to make the flavors pop. If you want to know why, I did a best sparkling water write-up here.

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.

Mojito
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.

[mojito] glamour shot

Cheers.

Vodka — Horizontal Tasting

[cv] grid

The Question:

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:

  1. Vodka is a spirit without any real character or distinction, and therefore
  2. 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.”

word cloud

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.

[cv] intro shot

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?

[cv] ready for tasting

The Tasting:

Potato:
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.

Rye
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.

Wheat:
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.

Conclusions:

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!

Syrups, Part 1: Herbs

“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.

Herbs

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:

  1. What exactly do we want out of our ingredients?
  2. What is our solvent?
  3. 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.

For the trails, I used mint because (1) it’s delicious, and (2) it’s delicate enough that the conclusions here can be applied to basil or lemongrass or pretty much anything else.

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.

Which one?

Everyone Gif

The Experiments

3oz sugar
3oz water
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:

  1. 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.
  2. Boiled: brought sugar, water, and mint to a boil, let simmer for 5 min, removed from heat and strained.
  3. Steeped: brought sugar and water to a boil, removed from heat, added mint and let cool to room temp.

[syrups1] procedure

The amounts were the same for all three, so hopefully we can get a semi-scientific comparison.

[syrups1] cooling

Results:

(1) Muddled:

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.

(2) Boiled:

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.

(3) Steeped:

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.

Verification:

Confirmation/drinking  time: I made a Southside with each syrup, and tried them side by side.

Southside
2oz Beefeater Gin
0.75oz lemon juice
0.75oz mint syrup
Shaken and fine strained, up.

[syrups1] taste tests

  1. Muddled: Barely any nose. You’ve got to look for the mint. Gin more takes over.
  2. Boiled: Mint is loud and low like a boat horn. It could almost pass for one of the botanicals of the gin.
  3. 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.

Conclusions:

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.

Bonus Truth:

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.

Post Script:

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.

The 24 Whiskeys of Christmas

*** Fair warning: this is going to almost aggressively boring to those of you who aren’t into whiskey. And I mean, seriously into whiskey. ***

In the middle of December, the angelic Daniel Wootton sent a friend and me an advent calendar. One that was a bit more geared toward our particular interests.

[24] advent calendar

It was a gift to both of us, so my friend and I had to drink them together. The problem is that I don’t see him everyday… so instead of a half-ounce each of whiskey for 24 days, we did something like 4 ounces of whiskey in three successive rounds. Once we started approaching palate exhaustion — once the tasting notes became laborious and the camera started filling up with cute pictures of his dog Zygo (which happened all three times) — we’d retire and go again later.

Why share this? Why not? I mean, all these pictures and all these notes, n’ here somebody here gon’ post?

ROUND 1

1. Scapa 16yr old — 40%

Color of light gold. Smells sweet and a little fruity. Like fruitcake. Color doesn’t suggest Sherry but flavor might. No smoke or peat. Honey a little. Tastes big and heavy. Sweet entry, full bodied. Candied fruit. Raisins. Rich and complex for an unpeated whiskey.

Wondering how I’d never heard of this. It’s delicious.

2. Glenfarclas 20 year — 60%

Quite a bit more earthy. Sherry entry. Dried fruit. Burnt gold color. Drier than the Scapa. Smells like dry hay. Water makes the flavors cascade, but it’s still a bit sharp on the finish. Tiny hint of peat.  

I expected to like this a lot more. Glenfarclas usually does such good work. Oh well.

3. Johnny Walker Gold — 40%

Color is… well… gold. Maybe they don’t caramel color this one. Nose has a hint of peat, but not much. Tastes of brown sugar. Caramel. Some peat. Flat at the end. 

Blended scotch is for peasants. Yes, I’m a snob.

4. Bowmore 15 year “Darkest” — 40%

BBQ smoky nose. A pulse of peat smoke. Tastes way smokier than it smells. Sam calls out a Mesquite BBQ taste, which is right on. Big beautiful sweet smoke. Chewy smoke. Caramel.

“Darkest” is a silly name for whiskey. Regardless, this is unexpectedly wonderful. I want a bottle.

1-4: The Dawning

5. Yamazaki 12 — 43%

Malty graininess. Hint of smoke and honey.Medium bodied, well balanced with a nice faint current of smoke throughout.

Fantastic, but I already knew that. Like all high quality Japanese flavors, delicate and complex. An old favorite.

6. Talisker 2000 Amoroso Finish Distiller’s Edition — 43%

Sea saltiness. Brinyness. Peat and smoke. Take all the normal Talisker loveliness and add a sherry cask finish. Candied fruit and caramel. Peppery finish.

Not necessarily better than the standard Talisker 10, but still good. Quite sweet, but with a lot of personality. Not unlike myself.

7. Tobermory 15 year — 46.3%

Bready nose. Grainy. Smells thin & peaty. Heat initially. Numbing prickliness.  Big empty peatiness leads into a honey sweet finish. Unbalanced.

Feels like it was sloppily distilled, but maybe I’ve been drinking. Then, maybe not. I hesitate to call it bad, but let’s say it’s unburdened by greatness. I won’t be back.

8. Four roses Single Barrel 2012 — 54.7%

Big caramel richness. Tropical fruits. Banana. It’s weird to spike all this malt with bourbon’s corn muscularity. Like bringing a linebacker onto a soccer field. All the same, long sweet finish. Woody spice. Intense grainy heat. Lingering woodiness. Creme Brûlée. Charcoal. Faint banana finish.

Four Roses makes damn good whiskey.

5-8: Even Whiskeyer

ROUND 2

9. Glenlivet Nadurra 16 – 0512T — 53%

Color is light straw. Like well-hydrated urine. On the nose, bruised yellow apples. Otherwise, I don’t smell a fucking thing. Sam blew past the nose and just started drinking. Taste is more present: yellow apples. Caramel. Peat finish. Lemon zest. Long finish. Full bodied. Bittersweet – oak dryness mixed with sweet finish.

Better than I expect from Glenlivet. Maybe because of the high proof. Cool.

10. Wasmund’s Single Malt — 48%

Gold. Shimmery. This one is from Copper Fox distillery in Virginia. Googling tells me it may have been aged for as long as 42 months. The notes for this one are best presented as quoted:

Nose:

Vikki: A garden.
Sam: A newly painted and remodeled kitchen.
Jason: Topsoil.
Vikki: Disturbingly chemical.

Taste:

Sam: I just licked the floor of that kitchen.
Vikki: It tastes like I just ate a flower.
Jason: Mulch. Heavy mulch. Kava.
Vikki: Moss. Peaches.

11. Caol Ila 12 — 43%

Very light in color. Equal parts sweet and salty and oily and peaty. Long finish. Medium bodied. Touch of sweetness. Perfectly balanced.

“Cool Eye-la.” As delicious as it is fun to say. One of my longtime favorites.

The Triumphant Return

12. Aultmore 5 year single cask — 66.8%

Smells funky. Like armagnac. Young and green. Still smells like it came from a carbon-based life form. Youth + proof = hot hot heat.  Watering down leads to some softer notes, but it’s still green.

Definitely needs more age. Doesn’t yet have its shit together.

13. Glendronach 15 revival — 46%

Now that’s age. Smells like old whiskey is supposed to smell. Taste is rich and dark. A little sherry influence? A little malt bitterness. Brief finish. What age does to scotch.

Slightly incomplex, though the sherry helps. All the same, this is a pretty good whiskey.

14. Hibiki 17 — 43%

Smells of brown sugar and plums. Hibiki is partially aged in old plum wine casks, more evident here than in the 12 year, which is a kind of obvious thing to say. Taste: restrained. How Japanese. Light with grain whiskey (it’s a blend i.e. not all malt). Glint of peat. Caramel brown sugar front palate.

Sam: “its a great dessert whiskey.” Agreed. I wouldn’t pay $100 for it, but I’d gladly accept if offered.

15. Jameson — 40%

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

16. Edradour 10 year — 40%

Solid. Sweet all the way though. Barley sweet, grainy, molasses like. Faint echo of peat – or is that heather? A plains flower.

This tastes like a plains flower, growing wild on the grassy, wind-swept Scottish plains. Probably trampled by sheep. Maybe we should stop for the night.

#12-#16: Things start to get a bit loopy

ROUND 3

17. Auchentoshan three wood — 43%

Very woody and surprisingly grainy. Grain overwhelms nose. Sip, and grain continues. You could sell me on this being a rye. Nice sweetness from barley develops at the end. A bit woody and very grain forward. I’m supposed to be getting sherry, but I’m not. Strange.

This one makes me wonder if a mistake could be made in filling these little 3cl bottles.

18. Lagavulin 16 — 43%

Full bodied. Oily even. Peat bomb. Smells like dried craft paint. To quote Brian Cox: “works like a depth charge.”

An epic whiskey. Not for the faint of heart. One of my favorites.

19. Compass Box Hedonism — 43%

Very pale. Watery yellowish. To me, it smells like nothing. Then faint bacon(?). But mostly nothing. Tastes extremely light. Unrelenting sweetness that endures front to back. I don’t know if it’s blended, but it tastes like it is. Lightly peaty. Kinda gross.

The connection between this whiskey and the concept of hedonism remains utterly opaque.

20. Aberlour 12 double cask — 43%

Unpeated. Light fruit. Honey sweetness. Tastes light and sweet. Same as the nose, lightly fruity and a bit of heather. Licorice notes. Light sherry leads to sweetness.

It’s certainly not bad, just not terribly interesting. Reminds me of the Balvenie Doublewood, except less engaging.

17-20: Baroque decadence, and the beginning of the end.

21. Dalwhinnie 15 — 43%

Nose is rich honey, spiked with faint agricultural graininess. Every once in a while, whiskey reminds you that it’s essentially an agricultural product. Very faint here, but still cool. That note vanishes for me in the actual palate… very light entry, then builds in flavor and heat to a full, honeyed, slightly hot mid palate explosion.

Like a sneeze, only better. I forgot about this one. I like this one.

22. Wild Turkey Rye — 50.5%

Sam: “now that’s rye.” Oh yes. Taste is big, kicking sweetness. Rye grain. Muscular. Peppery. After the last three honey sweet malts, this is a jolt.

Higher proof and bigger balls than anything we’ve had. USA! USA!

23. Glenfarclas 30 — 43%

Nose is subtle but expressive. Raisins. A bit of fruitiness. Definitely sherried. This is already better than that Glenfarclas 20 year back in #2. Taste: up front, peat and sherry and honey malt all at once. Then the flavors extend out, dropping off individually to highlight the others. Almost unbelievably long finish.

This is what you’d hope a 30 year old whiskey would be. The best one we’ve tried yet. Amazing.

24. Master of Malt 50 year old Speyside 3rd Edition —43%

50 fucking years? Wow. Color is light gold with curious tints of green. Smells of apples, raisins, and cinnamon spice. Basically, like a snack. These are mostly confirmed on the taste: raisins and spice and cinnamon, in that order. Super long finish as well.  Oak dryness to finish, despite the light color. Dried fruit. Honey. A little blunting on the finish, actually. I feel like you taste some tails in there.

I actually prefer #23, but still… phenomenal.

21-24: My only friend, the end.

What an incredible gift. This was a lot of fun.

We're gonna need a montage.

Thanks, Dan. You’re the best.

Seriously.

Cheers.