Christmas Tincture

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For me, nothing evokes the joy of Christmas like the smell of a Christmas tree (that and the smell of the Christmas box that stores my parents’ decorations for eleven months of the year, though I haven’t worked out how to bottle that yet).

The easiest way to capture aroma in a drink is to create a tincture – an alcoholic extract of a plant, or an intense and high (80-100% proof) alcohol infusion.

So once we’d purchased our Christmas tree this year I relieved it of one good size branch and then:

  1. Combine 60ml vodka in a small jar and add a handful of Christmas tree needle branches.
  2. Leave to infuse for 3-4 days.
  3. Remove the branches and bottle the tincture in a diffuser.

The finished tincture can be used to rinse glasses or glass stems or as a light spritz over the top of a finished drink – don’t over do it though, too much pine can be poisonous.

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Stocking Your Bar

Casa de Bourbons (already out of date). Note the Mad Men index cards stuck to the back wall.

I’m often asked (well ok, it’s happened once, but starting the post like this makes me sound authoritative…) how a budding dipsologist should set about stocking his or her own home bar.

In truth, there is no simple, all-encompassing answer to this question as it all depends on your personal tastes, style and circumstances.

In attempting to answer the question, I am going to address two broad categories:

  • The Specialist
  • The Generalist

The Specialist is someone with a passion for one drink.  They love this drink, they order it all the time, and can rank every bar within a fifty mile radius based solely on how they prepare this drink.  The Specialist is keen to perfect this drink for themselves and then branch out to explore common, less common and then bespoke varieties of this drink.

The Generalist is a bon viveur, an experimenter and a fantastic host (or aspires to be).  They want to be able to make whatever their guests desire, do it competently and maybe recommend a related alternative drink for when that first glass is empty.  They want to be able to call on surface level knowledge of a large number of drinks, and have the wherewithal to make them all.

Despite their differences, the starting point is always the same:

Pick a drink.  Any drink.  Preferably your favourite, or at least one you’d like to get to know.  Then look it up and see what goes in it.  Take this list of ingredients to your nearest boozemonger and buy the best version of each ingredient that you can afford.  I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of not skimping on ingredients and even if you’re a Generalist, you should have one go-to signature drink that you make perfectly.

Where you go from here is really rather up to you.

A specialist’s selection of vermouth?
Photo courtesy of rockdoggydog, some rights reserved.

The Specialist

I was once a specialist, and in many ways I still am.  My first dipsological adventure was based upon the Manhattan, and this blog still has a primary focus on drinks based around whiskey and sweet vermouth.  I tried different recipes and different styles using the same bottle of bourbon and Martini Rosso, and then one day I stumped up for a new ingredient.  This is how the Specialist begins.

My first non-standard Manhattan ingredient was Maraschino.  I’d read the recipe for a Red Hook somewhere, and decided to inflict it on my guests one New Year’s Eve.  After that I compiled a great long list of Manhattan variants from Affinity to Van Brunt and ranked the ingredients in order of which appeared in the most drinks.  This list is still the basis for the #midweekmanhattan feature and I’m always on the look out for other additions.

The rules for the Specialist:

  1. Pick your drink and buy the key ingredients.
  2. Branch out.  Try it with a different base spirit, a different mixer, different bitters.
  3. Change the fruit juice, the garnish, and/or the quantities of each.
  4. Read up on popular, obscure and unusual variants.
  5. Engage your brain, speak to bartenders and ask around.
  6. Always stay on the look out for a new bottle that might provide just the kick you are looking for.
Eventually you’ll get so far into this that when someone turns up at your door and asks for a Manhattan, you’ll tell them that you can make them a Sweet Rye Martini, and ask if they want Abbotts or Bokers in that.

The Generalist

Before I was a Specialist I was a Generalist.  I had a fifties themed birthday party and set about it by stocking up for every drink mentioned in the first couple of series of Mad Men.  I felt I needed to be prepared for the Gimlets, the Collinses, the Old Fashioned and the Brandy Alexander (nb no one really needs to be prepared for the Brandy Alexander).  I broke my own first rule and skimped a little on the ingredients.  I figured it didn’t matter too much as I was going to be sticking reproduction 1950s labels on the bottles anyway, but it kinda did, not least because I felt a little ashamed trying to make a Vesper with Asda SmartPrice vermouth.

The best way to kick start the habit of the Generalist is to plan for a party, ideally around a loose theme (1920s, 1950s, 1980s all provide good cocktail options) or just in line with what you know your pals will drink.  Come up with a menu that fits.  Then, as with the Specialist, expand.

The Generalist will:

  1. Pick a dozen or so drinks that will appeal to a broad audience (see The 12 Basic Drinks at Home Bar Basics or the Twenty Five Most Influential Cocktails).
  2. Rank the ingredients in order of occurrence, and by the most versatile (or most frequently used).
  3. Buy these ingredients (gradually and as your budget allows).
  4. Remember (easier said than done) which drinks were successful (and any requested that you couldn’t provide).
  5. Set yourself a buying plan (i.e. one bottle a month) and keep buying in order of versatility.
  6. Keep versaility as your watch word and keep thinking about what can serve as a replacement, or do the job of two ingredients.
  7. Keep a healthy supply of bitters, mixers and garnishes.

Of course the reality is that we all want to be a little bit of both and I picture the two categories as extremes on a spectrum.  Ultimately wouldn’t it be great to come full circle and be a General Specialist who has a house full of every conceivable ingredient and a brain full of every conceivable idea?  Well yes, but then you’d never get any work done.

Cocktailising

A few steps nearer on the road to General Specialist is the role of Cocktailiser.  Actually it’s quite a long way from General Specialist.  The Cocktailiser is the (pompous/pretentious/snobbish) gent who turns his nose up at a pint of IPA or a rum and coke and expects every bar to be able to provide a top notch Old Fashioned.  Unfortunately this just isn’t going to happen, so the Cocktailiser provides for himself.

Key to the Cocktailiser philosophy is that at its heart every classic cocktail is just a bittered sling (spirit, sugar, water bitters).  Knowing that even the worst bar should be able to provide the first three, the Cocktailiser is always equipped with the fourth.

I’ve spoken before of the Bitter Truth Travel Bitters set, and this really is the essential weapon in the armoury of the Cocktailiser.  With this selection in hand, a straight whiskey becomes a tolerable Old Fashioned, a scotch and Drambuie a Rusty Nail, and a vodka and cranberry juice a passable (just) Cosmopolitan.

Of course in this age of travel paranoia the Travel Bitters set isn’t a companion you would like to explain to security at Heathrow, but if you want to be the suave gent sipping an Old Fashioned on the dancefloor at Skanky McSkankerson’s Niteclub next weekend, it might just be the way to go.

Not that I could possibly endorse it of course…

Bar Technique

Photo courtesy of poul.iversen, some rights reserved.

Mixing drinks should always be a relaxed, sociable affair.  It is a chance to show off your knowledge and exquisite taste (much of which can be cribbed from this very site).  But amongst all of this, it is important to exude an air of quiet confidence, and to do this you need to know what you’re doing.

Glassware

You don’t need a wide-range of glasses of all different shapes and sizes.  If you want to aim for tradition and accuracy you will need eight different types of glass, but the vast majority of drinks are best served in one of the first three:

  • Martini glass – the classic v-shaped cocktail glass used for drinks that are served ‘straight up’ i.e. without ice.
  • Rocks glass – a short, sturdy tumbler used for drinks that are served ‘on the rocks’ or over ice.
  • Collins glass – a tall, straight glass used for long drinks that are served with ice and ‘lengthened’ with soda or juice.
  • Liqueur glass – a small, stemmed glass used for sniffing and then sipping a straight liqueur.
  • Sour glass – a smaller version of the martini glass used for serving sours.
  • Absinthe glass – an elegant goblet with or without a bulb used in the traditional preparation of Absinthe.
  • Coupette glass – a bulbous version of the martini glass most famously used for Margaritas.
  • Champagne flute – the traditional long, thin, stemmed glass used for champagne cocktails.
Whichever glass you use, do your best to ensure it is clean, dry and chilled.  If you have room in your fridge or freezer store a few glasses there.  If not, fill with ice and water before making your drink.  Either way, never pour a cold drink into a warm glass.  Colder is always better.

Ingredients

Buy the best you can afford.  There is no substitute for quality, and please do not think that it doesn’t matter if you use value gin as you’re going to be mixing it with three other ingredients.  The finished drink will hang on the quality of the worst ingredient, and no amount of Lillet Blanc will save a Martini made with value range gin.

Stick as closely to the recipe as possible.  Traditional recipes call for certain ingredients because they a proven to work.  Having said that, don’t be afraid to experiment.  Juice should be freshly squeezed where possible, and be aware that lower-strength ingredients will not keep as long as spirits.

Measuring

Use a measure.  Your favourite barman might impress his guests by free-pouring all the ingredients, but he has a lot more experience than you do, he knows how it should look in the mixing glass, and he knows how the drink should taste.  Using a measure will also help you keep track of your consumption as a 25ml shot of a standard spirit is roughly one unit of alcohol. Where I refer to ‘measures’ on this site I mean approx 30ml or 1 fluid ounce (with a large measure meaning double), but you can use what ever you like as long as you keep the proportions the same.  Once you have mastered the recipe, feel free to experiment.

Ice

Ice is vitally important.  It is easy to underestimate just how important ice is, but you must use fresh, clean ice for every drink.  Add ice to the mixing glass last to prevent it melting as you add the ingredients, and always fill the mixing glass or shaker to about 2/3 full.  This ensures the ice will not melt too quickly as you shake/stir, which means that you will not dilute the drink.  If you can use an ice machine that’s great, otherwise buy pre-bagged ice and use it liberally.

Photo courtesy of RLHyde, some rights reserved.

Shaking

Knowing when to shake and when to stir is one of the tricks you can use to impress your guests (although if they’re philistines they may be disappointed that you don’t shake every drink – it’s more fun, right?).  Shaking is reserved for drinks that include fruit juice, egg white, or thick, viscous ingredients such as conserves, and never those with carbonated ingredients (unless they’re added after)!

When shaking with a Boston Shaker (the two part glass and tin) pour the ingredients into the glass (for show) and then place the tin on top.  Ensure you have a tight seal between the two parts by giving the bottom of the tin a couple of sharp taps and then flip the whole lot over so the tin is on the bottom (a barman does this so that any spill goes over him and away from his customer).

Shake vigorously – to wake the drink up – for a slow count to twenty.  If your drink contains egg white follow this with a further ten second ‘dry shake’ (without ice) to ensure proper breakdown of the protein in the egg white and an improved texture/mouthfeel.  If you shake for longer, you’ll end up watering down the drink – a properly shaken drink should be no more than 25% melted ice.

To separate the shaker, place it tin down on the counter and hold it steady.  Rotate it so the join where the tin meets the glass is towards you and then hit this point on the tin with the heel of your hand.  If this doesn’t work, rotate a quarter turn and try again.  Keep rotating and hitting until the parts separate, but whatever you do, do not resort to whacking the shaker against the counter – that is not a good look, especially if it causes the glass to shatter.

Stirring

The stir is the correct procedure for most traditional cocktails, or at least the all-booze Manhattan, Martini types that don’t use anything lumpy like fruit juice or gloopy like egg white.  If you’re stirring a drink I would recommend pouring into the glass from your Boston shaker or a dedicated mixing glass as it gives your audience something to watch and marvel at.

If you’re using a traditional bar spoon, remember that the twisted shaft is to help the stir.  With that in mind, hold the spoon between your thumb and forefinger and slide it down the inside of the glass to the bottom.  When you stir, the bowl of the spoon should rotate around the bottom of the glass, with the stem pushing the ice ahead.

Experiment with the most comfortable way to hold the spoon.  The most effective is to use a pull-push technique where the thumb and forefinger pull the spoon most of the way round the glass and the second finger pushes it the final stretch to complete a full rotation.  This will take a bit of practice, but helps ensure the drink glides slowly round the glass in a composed and elegant manner.  This is why you are stirring after all.  If you wanted to agitate the drink you would have opted to shake.

If you stir too fast you will likely lose booze and ice out of the glass, and add air bubbles to the mix.  This is the antithesis of the silky texture a stirred drink should have.

If you’re using large dense ice cubes (like a professional bar would have) then stir fifty times.  If your cubes aren’t that good (small, wet, melting) then stir thirty times to avoid too much dilution.

Photo courtesy of eltpics, some rights reserved.

Straining

Once you’ve shaken or stirred your drink to perfection you will need to artfully and yet nonchalantly transport it from the mixing glass to the serving glass.  To do this you will need to find a way to propel the drink into a clean cold glass but retain the ice as even drinks served ‘on the rocks’ should be served with fresh ice.  The hawthorne strainer is the ideal tool for this eventuality and will work with a mixing tin or glass (despite what an American bartender will mutter about julep strainers).

To use the strainer, place it springs down over the mixing glass and hold it in place with your first and second finger either side of the short handle.  Pour the drink in a slow and controlled manner, and consider a slight swirling motion for drinks served ‘up’ in a martini glass.  Finish with an exaggerated snap of the wrist as you pull the glass up and away from the serving glass and make confident eye contact with the drinker.

If your drink contains a lot of fruit you should consider double straining.  This involves using the hawthorne strainer as above, and pouring through a second fine strainer into the serving glass.  A tea strainer works great as the fine strainer and will pick up any pips, seeds or small pieces of ice.

Muddling

The muddler is a great tool which serves a number of uses from crushing ice, to rapping the knuckles of those punters who are reticent when it comes to settling their tab.

You should purchase a muddler of at least six inches, and choose one that is not stained or varnished as the paint will often chip off and end up in your mojitos.

When muddling consider what you are trying to achieve.  With citrus, the aim is to extract juice from the flesh and oil from the skin, so don’t hold back.  With mint and leaves you are looking to bruise and provoke the stems into releasing some of their flavour, so go gently.

Garnish

A proper garnish should be much more than a bedraggled afterthought used to distract your drinker from the haphazard manner in which you have made his drink.  The right garnish makes all the difference to the style, appearance, smell and taste of the drink, so plays a vital role in almost every part of the whole sensory experience (maybe not touch, unless you use a great long stem of mint and aim for the eye).

Twists are the optimal cocktail garnish as they provide an opportunity to show off and draw attention to the drink (or yourself), a great hit of intense flavour, a delicate swirl or pattern on the drink and a chance to chat at great length about all of these elements.  The idea behind a twist is to extract the oil from the skin of the fruit and leave it to linger on top of the drink to greet the nose of the drinker with a clean, crisp citrus smell that announces that the drink is fresh and delicious.  The citrus twist method is explained in an earlier post.

Olives for your Martinis should be small, cold and pitted.  Keep them in the fridge and add three to a Martini either on a stick or loose in the glass.

Cherries are commonly found in Manhattans and should really be home made as shop bought maraschino or glacé varieties do nothing for your drink.  Your homemade cherries should be stewed in a liqueur of your choice with some vanilla, spice and citrus peel.

Lemon and lime wedges aren’t used a great deal in cocktails, but should always be cut from tip to tip and into no more than six pieces.  After cutting, use the knife to flick off any pips.

Mint sprigs should be cut from the top two inches of the plant as these provide the youngest most attractive leaves.  The leaves on the three to four inches below are the ones that should be muddled in your drink.  Don’t skimp on a mint garnish, it should be bushy, and will benefit from a light slap on the back of your hand to flatten the leaves and entice out the fragrance for which it is being used.