Sunday, May 17, 2015

Garnish is on a brief hiatus!

Hi folks! Garnish will be on hiatus from May 18th until June 8th. I'm taking a trip to the UK to visit London, Bath, Edinburgh, and the Lakes District. If anyone can recommend some good watering holes in those areas, I'm all ears!

If you're itching for a cocktail, check out the recipes I've posted so far, arranged by base spirit.

See you in June!

- GarnishGirl

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mixology Monday: Cuauhtémoc


This month's Mixology Monday theme is "I'll Take Manhattan!" The challenge is to come up with your own spin on, you guessed it, the Manhattan. That's a fair bit of pressure. I mean, it's one thing to improve upon a cocktail you're ashamed you ever drank, but it's dangerous to mess with perfection.

Mixology MondayWhen I saw the announcement, my Monday post on mezcal was still fresh in my mind. I'd just gotten done writing about how bartenders are swapping out the main ingredients in classic cocktails with mezcal left and right. So why not a mezcal Manhattan? It was worth a try.

After much trial and error (the fun kind, where you get to drink the errors), I decided that simply swapping out rye for mezcal didn't work; the mezcal was too overpowering. I tried adding in some reposado tequila to tone it down, but that just didn't harmonize with the vermouth the way that rye does. Then I remembered my recent taste test of blanco, reposado, and anejo tequilas. Reposado and anejo are both aged in bourbon barrels, giving them smoky vanilla notes similar to that of bourbon. The taste wasn't strong enough in my reposado, but I thought an anejo might work better. I would have loved to splurge on Cabo Wabo, the anejo I tried before I wrote the post, but the $60 price tag was a bit much. I settled on Espolon, which seems to be consistently rated highly for its price ($30). And it really worked. To keep with the theme, I also switched out the Angostura bitters with Bittermen's Xocoltl Mole Bitters.

I decided to give my creation a somewhat unwieldy name: the Cuauhtémoc. Cuauhtémoc is the main borough of Mexico City, essentially what Manhattan is for New York. Hard to spell, easy to drink. I bet mine won't be the only tequila or mezcal Manhattan in the Mixology Monday bunch, and I can't wait to see what other folks come up with. Cheers!

UPDATE: The MXMO roundup is here!


2 oz. anejo tequila (I used Espolon)
1 oz. sweet vermouth (I used Carpano Antica Formula)
1/2 oz. mezcal
2 dashes mole bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with a slice of lime and a brandied cherry.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Maximillian Affair

Maximillian Affair

Boston has a lot of great cocktail bars, and one of the best is Drink in Fort Point. This bar, part of star chef Barbara Lynch's Boston empire, is all about craft cocktails. The staff includes some of the best bartenders in the city, so rather than restrict customers with a menu, the folks at Drink just ask, "What do you like?" Given a base spirit or a few vague hints, they usually whip up something spectacular. That's exactly what happened last time I went. I was with a big group of friends and not sitting at the bar. When the waiter asked what I'd like, I froze - I had no idea. So I just told him I really liked unusual cocktails and to please surprise me. (The bartenders probably groaned when they heard that one.) He came back with a Maximillian Affair.

The Maximillian Affair uses mezcal, which is going to add a strong smoky taste to any cocktail. But to brighten it up and make it drinkable for even the mezcal-averse, it is paired with sweet, floral St. Germain. Punt e Mes and lemon juice round out the recipe. I was thrilled to find the exact proportions online after my visit to Drink. I recently made one for a friend, and he called it a perfect ten. The blending of spirits is really just dead on. It's sweet and sour, smoky and floral. Easily one of my all-time favorite cocktails.

Execution of Maximillian Ferdinand
Manet's depiction of the execution of Maximillian Ferdinand, Emperor of Mexico

History: The Maximillian Affair was invented by Misty Kalkofen when she worked at Green Street in Cambridge, MA. But she now works at Drink, and may have even been the one to make me my first Maximillian Affair - I didn't know enough about the Boston cocktail scene at the time to wonder. The name of this incredible concoction comes from the French invasion of Mexico in the 1860's (Mexico's victory in one particular battle, on May 5, 1862, is the origin of Cinco de Mayo). France had control of the country for nearly five years. Because they were trying to make nice with Austria following the Franco-Austrian war, they installed Maximillian Ferdinand, younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I, as Emperor of Mexico. As you might imagine, the Mexicans were none too pleased with this development, and eventually won back their independence and had Maximillian executed (as painted by Manet above). The entire incident has become known as the Maximillian Affair. It's an apt name for a cocktail that blends Mexican mezcal with French St. Germain. Only, in the cocktail, it's a far more harmonious pairing.

Maximillian Affair

1 oz. mezcal
1 oz. St. Germain
1/2 oz. Punt e Mes or other sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a shaker over ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with a lemon peel. Raise a glass for poor Max.

Recipe from cocktail virgin slut.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Brandy Crusta

Brandy Crusta

This is another recipe from Vintage Cocktails that just looked so good based on the photo and ingredients that I had to make it. It's only the second Cognac cocktail I've tried, the first being the Sidecar. I really liked that one, and the Brandy Crusta is actually its close ancestor. While the Sidecar has a simple three ingredients (brandy, Cointreau, lemon juice), the Brandy Crusta gets a bit more complex, with orange curacao, maraschino liqueur, and bitters, plus an incredibly elaborate garnish. And it's a really excellent cocktail. It's more sour than sweet on its own, but with the sugared rim it's perfect - probably one of the few times I've seen a sugared rim actually used to good effect in a cocktail. Oh, and it is strong. A couple of these and you'll be done for the night.

Brandy Crusta

So what's the deal with that garnish? The Brandy Crusta is famously garnished with nearly an entire lemon peel lining the glass or sitting just inside the rim. I couldn't resist attempting to replicate the perfectly coiled peel from the picture in the book, but it was quite an enterprise. It kept falling into the cocktail. I ended up getting out a pair of tweezers to try and pull it properly into place. In the end there was a big gap between the peel and the liquid, but it will just have to do. I think as long as you get a nice big lemon peel in there, you'll get the right taste; as for the look, I'm afraid I've got very little advice.

Brandy Crusta

History: The Brandy Crusta was invented in New Orleans in 1852 by bartender Joseph Santini. Some accounts say he invented it at the Jewel of the South bar, and others say the City Exchange, a large restaurant, bar, hotel, and auction house (not to be confused with the Merchant's Exchange that featured so prominently in the history of the Sazerac, though they were similar establishments). Santini worked at both; the Jewel was a smaller establishment that he owned, but he was put in charge of the bar at the ritzy City Exchange as well. Some accounts put the Exchange on Gravier Street, but this is incorrect; the City Exchange took up the entire square block between Royal, Chartes, Toulouse, and St. Louis Streets. Already in disrepair, it was mostly destroyed by the 1915 hurricane. Today the Omni Royal Orleans sits on the site. There is less information on the Jewel of the South, but I assume this is the bar that was on Gravier.

Jerry Thomas spent some time in New Orleans in the 1850's and must have come across Santini and his signature cocktail. He included the Brandy Crusta in his 1862 Bon Vivant's Companion and popularized it to a wider audience. The maraschino liqueur is a newer addition to the drink and is not in Thomas' recipe, but it's a nice touch.

Brandy Crusta

Brandy Crusta

1 1/2 oz. Cognac
1/4 oz. Orange Curacao
1/4 oz. Maraschino liqueur
1/4 oz. lemon juice
1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients in a shaker. Add ice and shake until chilled. Rub a slice of lemon around the exterior of a cocktail glass and coat with sugar. Strain cocktail into glass and garnish with one long, curling lemon peel.

Recipe from Vintage Cocktails.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pepino's Vengeance

Pepino's Vengeance

I used to subscribe to Bon Appetit Magazine, and on the last page of each issue they'd usually have a celebrity sketch something out on a napkin (like this one by Aziz Ansari). At some point, Justin Timberlake shared the recipe for his favorite cocktail, the Pepino (Spanish for "cucumber"). It's a mix of tequila, Cointreau, basil, pineapple juice, agave, and cucumber that was cooked up by a New York mixologist named Junior Merino. It's a good cocktail, and one I should definitely make for the blog at some point. But I don't often have pineapple juice on hand, which is how I came across this recipe for the simpler Pepino's Revenge. It was created by Lee Hefter, an executive chef at Wolfgang Puck. It omits the pineapple juice and the Cointreau, giving top billing to tequila and the fresh flavors of cucumber and basil.

One evening, my husband (henceforth "GarnishGuy") asked if I could make him a Pepino's Revenge, but I was out of basil. So I subbed in cilantro, which I thought would go even better with the lime and tequila. (I mean, is cilantro bad in anything? I'd probably eat cilantro ice cream.) We both really liked the result, which I have christened Pepino's Vengeance to distinguish it from the original version. It's citrusy and refreshing, but still very spirit-forward. A great alternative to a Margarita.

Pepino's Vengeance

Pepino's Vengeance

4 half-inch thick slices of cucumber
Handful of cilantro
2 oz. silver tequila
1/2 oz. lime juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup

Muddle cucumber and cilantro in a shaker. Add remaining ingredients and ice. Shake until well chilled. Double strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with a cucumber slice and cilantro leaves.

Recipe adapted from Food & Wine.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Bottle Buy: Mezcal


Mezcal is currently one of my favorite spirits. Just about every cocktail bar you go to will have a mezcal cocktail on the menu these days, and I can rarely resist trying them. Bartenders are dishing out everything from Old Fashioneds to Last Words with mezcal in place of the usual main ingredient. When I was in Denver last week, I went to the fabulous Green Russell and had their Oaxacan Velvet: mezcal, Yellow Chartreuse, lime juice, strawberry balsamic syrup, and cava (they actually used Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal, which is bit unique). Champagne cocktail + mezcal = GarnishGirl heaven.

You may remember from my post on tequila that mezcal is not a type of tequila; it's actually the other way around. Mezcal is a word for any spirit made from agave. Tequila is specifically made from blue agave (Agave tequiliana), whereas mezcal is made from a number of different species and varieties that can even be mixed within a single bottle. The most common is the Oaxacan variety called Espadin, Agave angustifolia. In addition to these different varieties, mezcal also comes in the same four age categories as tequila (blanco/plata, reposado, anejo, super anejo), except that the unaged or barely-aged blanco or plata variety is referred to as joven ("young").

Mezcal is also the stuff that sometimes has a worm in the bottle. Actually, please forgive a biologist for geeking on you for a moment: it's not actually a worm, but a larva. And there are two different species that are commonly used, white and red. The white "worm" is a larva of Aegiale hesperiaris, a butterfly known as the Tequila Giant Skipper, and the red is a larva of Comadia redtenbacheri, a moth without any common name I can find - as a larva, it's known as the Agave Redworm. (That's probably as many scientific names as I'll ever be able to fit into a post about liquor.) Anyway, both of these species are actually pests that infect the Maguey plant, and putting them in mezcal is not some long-time Mexican tradition. It was actually started as a marketing ploy, and only used by makers of cheap, bad mezcal. If you ever see a bottle with a worm in it, don't waste your money.

The taste of Mezcal is intense and smoky. It's kind of like drinking a cigar. Every time I have some, I'm reminded of an episode from the first season of New Girl in which Jake Johnson visits the study of a character played by Dylan McDermott and says: "It smells like leather, and Teddy Roosevelt, and wistfulness. It smells like Shakespeare, if Shakespeare were a damn cowboy. And a hawk's nest, and boat fuel, and cigars... man stuff." This is exactly how mezcal tastes.

If this description appeals to you, then you probably don't need much more convincing that a bottle of mezcal is a worthy addition to your bar. If you're still a bit skeptical, it's worth trying a mezcal cocktail next time you get a chance. Some of my favorite cocktails that use it - like the one below - pair it with enough citrus and sweetness that the smoky taste is far from overwhelming. But it adds incredible dimensionality to a cocktail. The brand I currently have is Fidencio, but Del Maguey is also very good and is cheaper. Another I see on a lot of menus is Sombra.


Price: $30 and up
Alcohol Content: Around 45%
Popular Cocktails: My current favorites include the Division Bell, Maximilian Affair, and Maguey Sour.

I have trouble choosing a favorite mezcal cocktail, but this one ought to be a pretty good crowd pleaser and introduction to the spirit.

History: The Division Bell was created by Phil Ward for Mayahuel in Manhattan. It was named after the Pink Floyd album he was listening to at the time.

Division Bell

1 oz. mezcal
3/4 oz. Aperol
3/4 oz. lime juice
1/2 oz. maraschino liqueur

Combine ingredients in a shaker. Add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a grapefruit twist if you have one - it really brings out the grapefruit notes in the cocktail. If not, a lemon twist will do.

Recipe from cocktail virgin slut.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Pina Colada

Pina Colada

When I first started drinking, I loved the really sweet stuff. The first things I bought for my bar were Midori, Malibu, and Peach Schnapps. Now the thought of making any of those things the main ingredient in a cocktail makes me nauseous. I guess it's a natural progression.

But that's not to say that sweet, tropical drinks don't have a place in an "adult" cocktail repertoire. Some, like the Mai Tai and the Daiquiri and the Singapore Sling, are still considered respectable when made correctly. Tiki bars seem to be experiencing a small resurgence in our current retro-obsessed craft-cocktail movement (most recently, I went to Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29 in New Orleans and want to go back and try every single thing on the menu). And finally, there are the drinks that are just too good to give up on. The ones that might be meant for sitting beachside but are honestly just as good if you're on your couch. The ones you want to drink in large quantities following a breakup (because whiskey would just be too much of a downer).

The Pina Colada is one such drink.

Say whatever you will about it. I love Pina Coladas (but not getting caught in the rain, that kinda sucks). And there is no way I was going to leave it off of my list of cocktails just because it's a little frou-frou. No. I insist that the Pina Colada is a perfectly respectable cocktail. And I'm going to keep making them. So there.

Pina Colada

History: The Pina Colada was (probably) invented in Puerto Rico in the 1950's or 60's. I say probably because there is a popular legend that it came about long before this, and - like any really good legend - it involves pirates. Specifically, El Pirata Colfresi, Roberto Colfresi. He turned to piracy after his wealthy Puerto Rican family went bankrupt. After the death of Jean Lafitte in 1823, he became the biggest pirate threat in the Caribbean. Legend says that he would give his men a mixture of coconut, pineapple, and rum to improve morale. And thus the Pina Colada was born. Unfortunately, it died with Colfresi as well, when he was executed in 1825.

Much as I love the image of a grisly pirate sipping on a refreshing Pina Colada with a little umbrella in the cup, there isn't really much to back up this story. And even if was true, the recipe was lost. But if you'd like to cling to this bit of Puerto Rican folklore, perhaps it isn't so much who invented the Pina Colada in the 1950's as who rediscovered it.

There are three contenders. First, we have Ramon "Monchito" Marrero Perez, a bartender at the Beachcomber Bar in the Caribe Hilton of San Juan. He is credited with introducing the new drink in either 1952 or 1954. A fellow named Jose L. Diaz de Villegas, supposedly a friend of Monchito's, recently co-authored a book on Puerto Rican cuisine, Puerto Rico: La Gran Cocina del Caribe (in English here). He provides what he considers to be the original recipe. I haven't gotten my hands on a copy of the book yet to confirm that he really does claim to have known Monchito.

Others claim it was not Monchito at all who introduced the Pina Colada at the Caribe Hilton, but a Spanish bartender named Ricardo Garcia. The story goes that he was unable to make the bar's signature drink, the Coco Loco, because the coconut plantation workers had gone on strike. (The bar usually hollowed out a coconut to serve the drink in.) So the resourceful Garcia hollowed out pineapples instead, added some pineapple juice to the mix, and invented the Pina Colada.

Finally, the Barrachina Bar in San Juan also claims credit for the cocktail. Their bartender Ramon Portas Mingot may have invented it in 1963. That's an awfully big time gap for something as delicious as the Pina Colada to stay out of the historical record, but who knows. Maybe everybody was too drunk to write anything down about it.

One thing ties all of the disparate origins of the Pina Colada together: Coco Lopez cream of coconut. This mixture of coconut cream and sugar was created in Puerto Rico in 1948 by Don Ramon Lopez-Irizarry, a scientist and entrepreneur who developed a more effective way to remove the cream from coconuts. Coco Lopez became hugely popular, and the Pina Colada might never have come about without it.

So. If I want to make a Pina Colada, what recipe do I use? There are a ton of variations out there. Most stick to the usual rum/pineapple juice/coconut cream formula, but none seem to have the same proportions. Some, including the "original" recipe on the Caribe Hilton's website, also add cream. Some use white rum, some golden rum.

What's a girl to do but try them all? You know... for science.

Pina Colada

One last note: A few sources say that the original at the Caribe Hilton was shaken, but otherwise a blender is always involved. Unlike the Margarita or the Daiquiri, which pre-date blenders, the Pina Colada was invented well after they came around, so it seems they were meant to be blended.

1. "Original" Pina Colada - Caribe Hilton
     2 oz. white rum
     1 oz. coconut cream
     1 oz. heavy cream
     6 oz. pineapple juice
     1/2 cup crushed ice

The heavy cream in this one gave it an extremely creamy texture. If I let it sit for more than a couple of moments, it would separate and the cream would collect on top. Flavor-wise, it's missing something. The cream muffles the taste of the other ingredients. Plus, it makes an already bad-for-you drink into a true calorie bomb. Not worth it, in my opinion.

2. "Original" Pina Colada - Jose L. Diaz de Villegas
     1 1/2 oz. rum (type not specified, so I went half and half)
     3 oz. coconut cream
     6 oz. pineapple juice
     crushed ice (no amount specified, so I used about 3/4 cup)

Yum. This is my winner. It's the perfect combination of ingredients. I taste the rum, but it's not overpowering. It's the perfect ratio of coconut to pineapple, and the flavor is big and central. Love it.

3. Pina Colada - Esquire/David Wondrich
     2 1/2 oz. golden rum
     1 oz. coconut cream
     3 oz. pineapple juice
     1 cup crushed ice or 5-6 ice cubes

Notably higher in alcohol content than the others, this one tasted too boozy. I have no objection to strong drinks if they're well-balanced, but I really want to taste the pineapple and coconut in this one. I think the ice contributed to it as well. If it sat for a while, it got watered down. It also separated as quickly as the Caribe Hilton recipe.

4. Pina Colada - Liquor.com
     1 1/2 oz. light or gold rum (I used half and half)
     2 oz. coconut cream
     2 oz. pineapple juice
     Ice (no amount specified; I used 3/4 cup)

This one is also good, especially if you like a higher ratio of coconut to pineapple. For me, it was just a bit too sweet and coconuty. I'd happily drink it if you gave me one, but when I compare it to the recipe by Diaz de Villegas, it lacks the nice tang of pineapple. Just a note: I had to increase the recipe by 50% to reach the volume of the others.

So here is the winner. You're welcome.

Pina Colada

1 1/2 oz. white or golden rum (or half and half)
3 oz. coconut cream
6 oz. pineapple juice
~3/4 cup ice

Combine ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Garnish with a slice of pineapple and a cherry. Don't be ashamed - it's delicious.

Recipe from Wikipedia, probably taken from Puerto Rico: La Gran Cocina del Caribe.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Means of Preservation

Means of Preservation

This lovely cocktail has a truly unusual taste, and it comes primarily from celery bitters. I don't know what brand John Gertsen, the drink's inventor, used, but my Fee Brothers celery bitters ($8) gave it a savory, spicy flavor with a lot of pepper on the nose. And this article comparing the various brands of celery bitters calls Fee's one of the milder of the bunch! Don't let the St. Germain fool you; this is not a sweet drink. The St. Germain just perfectly balances out the celery for this harmonious flavor that's layered on top of a gin martini. The grapefruit twist, another unexpected addition, adds another aromatic note to the mix.

Fee's is definitely on the cheaper end of the bitters spectrum, and maybe I should start splurging on Bittermen's, Scrappy's, or The Bitter Truth, but the low price tag makes it so easy to try a variety, and that's what I'm about right now. There will be time to test drive the various types when I have a better palate for it.

Celery Bitters

History: The Means of Preservation is a revamp of another cocktail called the Ephemeral, which was concocted by David Shenaut at the Teardrop Lounge in Portland. It has the same ingredients as the Means of Preservation except that it calls for Old Tom gin, which (as you know), is sweeter than the London Dry we commonly use today. The proportions of the other ingredients reflect that. Luckily for those of us who don't have a bottle of Old Tom on hand, John Gertsen of Boston's Drink developed the Means of Preservation, which alters the recipe for London Dry.

Means of Preservation

Means of Preservation

2 oz. gin (Beefeater recommended; I used Tanqueray)
1/2 oz. St. Germain
1/2 oz. dry vermouth (Dolin recommended; I used Martini)
2 dashes celery bitters

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and mix until well chilled. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a grapefruit twist.

Recipe from cocktail virgin slut.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015



I love champagne cocktails, but I understand that many of them can seem a little girly. If you're looking for a recipe for New Year's or a wedding that even the manliest men in your life will enjoy, the Seelbach is a perfect choice. This mixture of bourbon, orange liqueur, and lots of bitters should please whiskey and champagne drinkers alike.

History: The Seelbach was invented in 1917 at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. The hotel was frequented by characters such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who used it as the setting for Tom and Daisy's wedding in The Great Gatsby, and Al Capone, who had secret passageways leading to and from his favorite room. The cocktail was supposedly created when the bartender used a Manhattan to catch the overflow from a champagne bottle.


1 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. Cointreau or triple sec
7 dashes Angostura bitters
7 dashes Peychaud's bitters
Orange peel, for garnish

Combine bourbon, Cointreau or triple sec, and bitters in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a champagne flute or coupe and top with champagne. Garnish with the orange peel. Toast like this.

Recipe from Punch.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Tito's Cucumber Martini

Tito's Cucumber Martini

Just about everybody is going to be talking about tequila cocktails today, but I've got an alternative that still tastes appropriate for your Cinco de Mayo festivities, made with vodka.

I'm generally not really a big fan of vodka. I find it an underwhelming spirit that doesn't add much but alcohol content to cocktails. But every now and then you get a cocktail with so many great flavors in it that you almost don't want to corrupt it too much with anything but a clean, smooth vodka. I think that's what Tito's had in mind when they developed this cocktail.

Green Tabasco Sauce

Most vodka drinkers I know agree that Tito's Vodka is a spectacular quality for the price, so I happily made it my vodka of choice. This recipe is right off their website, and it's a favorite of mine. Calling it a "cucumber martini" isn't inaccurate, but it kind of misses the best things about this drink. While the cucumber in this recipe is great, it's the cilantro and the green Tabasco that really make it. You could serve a perfectly good cucumber martini with just the vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup, and muddled cucumber, but the cilantro adds depth and the Tabasco sauce this hint of savor and spice that move this concoction out of the realm of "perfectly good" and into surprisingly sophisticated territory.

Double Strain

One instruction that is important in this cocktail and in most others that involve muddling anything: double-strain. You're still going to get lots of little pieces of cucumber and cilantro through the shaker, and you don't want those floating around in the finished product. You should also double strain if, like me, you tend to get citrus pulp in your lime and lemon juice.

Speaking of lemon juice, the original recipe for this cocktail violated GarnishGirl's First Rule of Mixology (never have more simple syrup than citrus juice in a cocktail), so I reduced the sweetener to make it more to my taste.

Tito's Cucumber Martini

Tito's Cucumber Martini

2 oz. Tito's vodka
3/4 oz. lemon juice
3/4 oz. simple syrup
3 slices cucumber (plus one for garnish)
Handful of fresh cilantro
3 drops green Tabasco sauce

Muddle cucumber and cilantro in a shaker. Add vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup, and ice. Shake until well chilled. Double-strain into a cocktail glass. Add three drops of Tabasco on top.

Recipe adapted from Tito's Handmade Vodka.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bar School: Tequila


Oh, tequila. While gin and bourbon evoke thoughts of complex cocktails and subtle taste variations, tequila tends to be relegated to the realm of "Hey, let's do shots!" Until recently, I only knew that it came in clear and not-clear varieties. But a few trips to Mexico also alerted me to the fact that the attitude towards tequila in the United States is very different from that in Mexico, where it is treated more like bourbon: served straight up and slowly sipped. Certainly tequila's unique flavor adds a lot to a cocktail. And since just about everybody will be sipping it tomorrow in honor of Cinco de Mayo, I wanted to know more about its history and the different varieties.

Tequila is a distilled spirit made from blue agave (Agave tequiliana). It's named for the town of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico, where much of it is made. Legally, it can only be produced in Jalisco and in limited parts of a few other Mexican states. The volcanic soil of these regions makes them perfect for growing agave. The plants take up to 12 years to mature enough to be harvested. The leaves and thorns are stripped away, leaving the massive heart of the plant. This is roasted and crushed to collect its juice, which is fermented, distilled, and aged in bourbon casks. Like wine, tequila is affected by the soil and climate in which the agave is grown and also by the length and conditions of the aging process.

The Aztecs made their own alcoholic beverage from fermented agave, so when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century and ran out of their own booze, they started distilling agave to produce something like modern tequila. The first tequila factory was started in 1600 by a Spanish nobleman, Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle, in Jalisco. But it wasn't until the late 1800's that Don Cenobia Sauza of Sauza tequila brought the spirit to the United States - a surprisingly long time for a beverage that had been made for centuries.

There are four main types of tequila, as well as some other varieties to be on the lookout for:

Tequila Blanco or Plata: This is the clear stuff. It is aged for less than two months. Blanco has a higher alcohol content than Plata. "Silver" can refer to either of these varieties. They have a clean flavor and strong agave taste, and are often used for mixing cocktails.

Tequila Reposado: This tequila is aged from two months to one year, and has a faint golden color. It begins to take on the smoky, vanilla taste of an aged tequila.

Tequila Anejo: Anejo is aged from one to three years, and looks more like whiskey in color. The taste is more intense than reposado. Anejo is often sipped like bourbon or scotch, though is occasionally used in cocktails. It can be significantly more expensive than blanco or reposado.

Tequila Extra-Anejo: This category was recognized in 2006. It refers to tequila that has been aged more than three years.

Mezcal: Mezcal describes any spirit made from agave, so it is not tequila; rather, tequila is a type of mezcal. I'm going to talk more about this in an upcoming post (and there is a lot to say), but to keep it short: mezcal is made through the same process as tequila, but from another species of agave called Maguey (Agave americana). It has a much more intense, smoky flavor than tequila even when it hasn't been aged.

In Mexico, you may also see "Tequila Mixto" on a label, which means that what's in the bottle is not 100% agave. The rest is usually sugar-based alcohol. In the United States, tequila only has to be 51% agave to earn its name, so you should look for "100% agave" on the bottle (this is true of mezcal too). This Forbes article points out that the pervasiveness of this cheaper mixed tequila in the US is what has given it a reputation for causing bad hangovers. Also watch out for "gold" tequila, which has had caramel coloring added to give it the look of reposado.

My tequila flight: from left to right, blanco, reposado, and anejo.

After doing the research for this post, I really wanted to compare the different tequilas side by side, and just happened to end up at Sunset Cantina on Commonwealth Avenue the next day. They do what they call "B.A.R. flights" (blanco, anejo, reposado) of various brands of tequila. The waiter recommended Cabo Wabo, and I was impressed by how smooth it was. It was also really eye-opening to compare the smell and taste of the three levels of aging. The blanco was very herbal and bright. The reposado had a richer vanilla quality. And the anejo had tons of it. It was surprising how much it reminded me of bourbon without losing that tequila taste. I could definitely sip on a whole glass of it.

So, there you have it: tequila. Salud!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Air Mail

Air Mail

Do I dare call the Air Mail my favorite cocktail? I don't think I've ever encountered another drink so perfectly to my taste. I love sparkling wine cocktails, but I find most of them too simple. The Air Mail, however, is complex: sweet, citrusy, and bubbly, the perfect balance of textures and flavors. The first time I tried one was at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, which is one of a trio of incredible bars in Kenmore Square managed by Jackson Cannon.

History: The first mention of this cocktail appears in Esquire’s 1941 Handbook for Hosts, and that's about all I can find. You can think of it as a version of a Daiquiri (rum, lime juice, simple syrup) or maybe a French 75 (gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, sparkling wine). Either way, it's delicious.

Air Mail

1 1/2 oz. rum
3/4 oz. lime juice
3/4 oz. honey simple syrup*

Garnish with a lemon twist or, if you’re feeling fancy, a mint leaf with a few drops of Angostura bitters on top.

*To make honey simple syrup, simmer equal parts honey and water in a saucepan until honey is dissolved. Let cool before using.

Recipe adapted from Imbibe.