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1934 — Just one heady year after Prohibition was repealed, Esquire Magazine, in a civic-minded attempt to reestablish the norms of a long dormant drinking culture, published a list of 10 Worst Drinks of the Previous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.

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.

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.

Vieux Carré

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?”

[vc] through the sun

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.

The Story:

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.

[vc] glamour shot

Vieux Carré
1oz Rye whiskey
1oz Cognac
1oz Sweet Vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine
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.

Ingredient Notes:

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.

[vc] grid

Variations:

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.

[vc] shot

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.

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.

Chrysanthemum Cocktail

“Numerous early-20th century cocktails, none more pleasant to sip than this drink, were named after flowers.”

— Jim Meehan, PDT Cocktail Book

There are more complex cocktails than the Chrysanthemum, there are more inventive drinks and more refreshing drinks, but I can’t think of anything more unrelentingly pleasant than this bizarre little sipping cocktail from 1916.

History:

In bars, the Chrysanthemum is semi-known: ask for one, and you’ll see your bartender try to summon it from a dim echo of memory. Even if he or she knew the recipe at one point, they’re rarely made and never ordered. On the internet, however, seemingly every cocktail blog that has ever existed in the world has written about it in one way or another.

[c] google screenshot

Usually when I see this kind of wall-to-wall, Kardashian-grade coverage of a topic, I just move on. But here’s the thing: I can’t stop telling people about this drink. It’s that fucking good.

It’s sometimes erroneously credited to Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. Craddock’s book does include the recipe, but he adapted it from Hugo Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks, published some 14 years earlier in New York City. Ensslin, a German immigrant, was head bartender at the Wallick Hotel at the southwest corner of Broadway and 43rd St (an intersection now more or less engulfed by the neon madness of Times Square), and he self-published his cocktail book and sold copies out of his modest home, in what is now Harlem. He wasn’t the celebrity Craddock was, but his talent, told through his drinks, was monumental.

The Chrysanthemum is unusual in that it doesn’t contain any traditional liquor base at all. It’s chiefly dry vermouth, spiced and warmed with the 80 proof liqueur Bénédictine, and spiked with a dash of absinthe. 

Chrysanthemum Cocktail

2oz dry vermouth
1oz Bénédictine
2 or 3 dashes (<0.2oz, about 1tsp) of absinthe
Stir over ice for some 20-30 seconds. Serve up, garnished with an orange peel.

[c] glamour shot

The vermouth is a very light spiced wine, whose botanicals stretch and showcase and diffuse the much more pungent Bénédictine very well. We get all of Bénédictine’s warm spice, the cinnamon, saffron, honey and nutmeg, combining with the vermouth to give a curious and alluring bready note. The absinthe spikes up and adds complexity, culminating in a delicate, elegant, beautiful drink.

[c] bottles

Variations:

The only problem with this drink is that it’s a little bit sweet, on par, as Erik at Savoy Stomp points out, with a glass of apple juice. With the sweetness and the absinthe, I’ve had more than one person compare it favorably to a Good & Plenty. It’s not so sweet to be a problem for everyone, but it’s a valid critique. And that’s already toned down: in Ensslin’s 1916 original, it was equal parts (!) Bénédictine and dry vermouth. Craddock improved it in 1930 by making it 2:1, but he still says to shake it, which absolutely no one should ever do. Nonetheless, his 2:1 with a few heavy dashes (~1/8th oz) of absinthe is most-quoted recipe.

If the sweetness is an issue, it might seem obvious to reduce the amount of Bénédictine, but this is a mistake. Bénédictine is the backbone of this drink, and bringing it down to even 0.75oz gives you a watery, effete cocktail. In Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book, he lists it as 2oz dry vermouth and 0.75oz Bénédictine, but he comes with a full 0.25oz absinthe. This does succeed in bringing down the sweetness while keeping the overall force of the drink, but for me, the absinthe chases away much of the delicacy.

[c] from the topIf sweetness is a problem for you, my favorite mitigation is to tune up the vermouth a little. My submission:

Chrysanthemum Cocktail (Dry)
2.5oz dry vermouth
1oz Bénédictine
2 or 3 dashes (<0.2oz, about 1tsp) of absinthe
Stir. Up. Orange peel.

It’s worth your time, any way you take it. Cheers.