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.

Bottle Conditioned Cocktails: La Grenade

I find carbonated drinks to be mysteriously satisfying.

I know I’m not alone on this. It’s just a tingly feeling, a strange pleasure completely isolated from the thinking part of the brain, and yet so many of us find it so pleasant. It’s the kind of dumb sensory stuff that makes me feel like a gorilla, but regardless: there’s nothing quite like it.

One of the better trends in the craft cocktail world over the last couple years has been applying that sensation to our drinks. Not just adding soda water or sparkling wine to cocktails (as we have been since forever) but actually carbonating the cocktails themselves. The basic idea is instead of relying on a splash of carbonated liquid for your bubbles, use flat liquid and then carbonate the whole thing in whatever way you can. It works particularly well with cocktails that are designed for carbonation. So while a carbonated Negroni (Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin) is weird and semi-unpleasant, a carbonated Americano (Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Soda Water) is glorious.

There are two ways to carbonate. We’ll call them the easy way and the hard way.

A work in progress...The Easy Way: As far as I know, this is a technique yet again pioneered (or, at least popularized) by Jeffrey Morganthaler, and is referred to in the home-brew business as “force carbonation.” You make your batch of cocktail, get it as cold as possible, somehow get your hands on CO2 (either a large tank or single-use cartridge), and hit the liquid with the gas in a pressurized environment. This is SodaStream, Soda Siphons, anything by iSi, and pretty much all DIY carbonation methods. It’s clean and simple, and produces larger-type bubbles. From there, either serve it, or bottle it for later (picture, right).

The Hard Way: Fermentation. Yeast + sugar = alcohol, heat, and CO2. When you’re done fermenting (in other words, when the yeast has eaten all the sugar it can), you’re left with low-alcohol mixture (beer, wine, etc), which, if you did it under pressure, is also carbonated. If not, the bubbles escaped to air, so you can add a small amount of what’s called “priming sugar” before bottling, and the yeast will finish off this sugar in the bottle, creating the carbonation you experience when you open it. This is called “bottle-conditioning” or “secondary fermentation.” The best beers and all Champagne producers do this, giving them their very small, delicate bubbles. (Aside: the most knowledgeable and passionate Bubble Connoisseur I know, Ms. Victoria Young, insists on such small bubbles.)

Now: me, you, or anyone with a soda siphon can do technique #1. I did a couple for the cocktail menu at Gang Kitchen. Don’t get me wrong: it’s hard to come up with a good carbonated cocktail recipe, as CO2 turns into carbonic acid (C2HO3) when induced into a solution, which fucks up the balance of whatever you’re trying to do. But as a technique, force carbonation is fairly easy.

As for technique #2, Champagne and beer are tricky enough, but it must be mind-bendingly difficult to bottle ferment a cocktail and do it in a way that’s not gross. Fermentation is primal. It muddies the waters, very unlike the clean measurements and individual ingredients we cocktail people are used to. Yeast affects flavor and final character dramatically, and a little carbonic acid is the least of your concerns. If you use the wrong kind of yeast, it’ll be disgusting. If you add your spirit at the wrong time, nothing will happen at all. If you miscalculate the sugar levels even a little, your bottles will literally explode.

It’s hard. And Jeff Josenhans, at the Grant Grill, has managed to do it.

How cool.

La Grenade
Cognac
Hibiscus Tea
Pomegranite Juice
Black pepper
Bay leaf

Sadly I don’t have a recipe for you. I imagine, as a technical innovation, that’s under lock and key.

The cocktail is called “La Grenade,” which I wish was a reference to that exploding bottle business but is actually the French word for “pomegranate” (the same root as the pomegranate syrup Grenadine, if you were ever wondering). Initially the first impression is one of wine. The delicate carbonation combined with the floral element from the hibiscus and the tart juiciness of the pomegranate evoke a Lambrusco. The cognac is barely detectable, coming though as a kind of stickiness on the finish. The pepper adds a bit of spice, and the bay leaf just kind of hangs out.

If I’ve got my critical pants on, I’ll say I can’t help but feel like it might want for a little acid to help with that slightly thick finish. I notice that neither this nor the Mule (his other Cocktail Sur Lie, as he calls them, French for “on the lees” a.k.a. resting on yeast) use any citrus. I wonder if they mess with the fermentation process.

That said, this is delicious, something I would absolutely order again. As with anything cocktail-related I can’t do, I want to learn how to do this. Thus far, I’ve only learned enough to know how impressive it is that he actually pulled it off. This is a proper achievement. Check it out some time.

Barrel-Aged Vieux Carré (a.k.a. Ancien Carré)

Barrel-aging entire batches of cocktails is a relatively recent phenomenon. The idea, they say, is that the cocktail softens and sweetens in the used whiskey-barrel, picking up picking up flavors and tannins and adding a really cool complexity. The New York Times Magazine did a nice little piece on it about 18 months ago, and has since been written about extensively, including by Jeffrey Morganthaler, who more or less invented the process.

To cities a little more serious about cocktails – Portland, Seattle, New York, etc. – Barrel Aging has come, peaked, and all but left. In the rest of the country, as will happen with trends, barrel   aging   is   fucking  everywhere. But apparently, everywhere still doesn’t include San Diego, so here we are. There’s a bit at Small Bar in North Park and a bit at Vin de Syrah and The US Grant Hotel Downtown, but for the most part the trend has avoided our fair city.

This is problematic for those of us who want to put them in our mouths. So we have to do it ourselves. Enter barrel:

I’ve wanted to try to barrel age cocktails ever since I heard about it. I started the hobo way, with oak chips I picked up from the local homebrew store and a bottle of Buffalo Trace White Dog, and it went…. okay.

You’re supposed to use about 2oz of oak chips per 5 gallons of liquid. I used 0.75 oz for about 12 oz of liquid, exceeding the recommended dose by about 2000%. “I’ll super-age it,” I thought, because I’m an idiot. It tasted like a puréed oak tree. I am not a patient man.

I had fully intended to try again, but my friends Dan and Sam bought me a 3L barrel from these wonderful people for my birthday. The first thing I could think of was a Vieux Carré. It’s one of my favorite cocktails, with a delicacy and sweetness that evokes barrel aging anyway, and I’m terribly curious to see what happens to it.

The only (possible) problem is that barrel aging yields the most dramatic changes to things that haven’t already been barrel aged. So gin over whiskey, white rum over aged rum, etc. But Jeffrey Morganthaler’s first experiment was with Manhattans which he says changed considerably over two months, so fuck it. I’m having daydreams about selling this for $15 each at the bar and making my money back, but odds are good that this will be just for my friends and I.

Ancien Carré
25oz Hine V.S.O.P cognac
25oz Rittenhouse 100 rye
25oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
6oz Bénédictine
25 dashes angostaura bitters
25 dashes Peychauds bitters

First, prep the barrel with water and let sit. Casks are made without glue, so we need the oak to soak up the water and swell, sealing the barrel. The water will leak out at first, so we do it in the sink.

Empty water. Then, we mix all the ingredients together. Then pour. Carefully.

Then, demonstrate monkish patience and try not to see the little guy poking out at you from the bottom of your barware shelves.

It went into the barrel Tuesday, February 7th. I anticipate about two months, but will start tasting it in a week or so to see how its coming along. I’ll keep you posted.