Mince Pie Sazerac

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The final Advent Sunday cocktail is a sazerac with a twist – the dried fruit flavour of our Mince Pie Cognac and sweet sherry:

  1. Fill an old fashioned glass with crushed ice, add 10ml of absinthe and stir.  Set aside.
  2. Crush a sugar cube and four dashes of Peychaud’s bitters in a mixing glass until dissolved.
  3. Add 50ml Mince Pie Cognac, 15ml sweet sherry, and cubed ice and stir for thirty seconds.
  4. Discard the ice and absinthe from the old fashioned glass and strain the finished drink into the glass.
  5. Finish with a spritz of absinthe.

La Tour Eiffel

Photo courtesy of marcia.taylor, some rights reserved.

Today is Bastille Day, the annual French commemoration of the day that the gleeful decapitations of the upper classes began in 1789. As a result it may seem a little disingenuous to celebrate this uprising with a somewhat bourgeoise cocktail of brandy and absinthe, and of course the tower itself wasn’t created until some hundred years after the revolution, but it’s a great recipe with a French name, so bear with me.

1. Rinse a chilled champagne flute with absinthe and tilt until the inside is coated. Add a few ice cubes and set aside.
2. Add two and a half measures of XO cognac, half a measure of Cointreau and half a measure of Suze to a mixing glass.
3. Fill the mixing glass with ice and stir well.
4. Discard the ice and excess absinthe and strain the drink into flute. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

My Favourite Cocktail: The Sazerac

This post originally appeared as part of Social and Cocktail’s ‘My Favourite Cocktail’ series.

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It may seem strange, coming from a Scotch whisky enthusiast who writes under the name of House of Bourbon, that my favourite cocktail is commonly made with rye whiskey, and before that even used grain-less cognac as a base. But we dipsologists can be a contrary bunch, and as it is best to approach tipular fixing with an open-mind, I feel no compunction in announcing that my favourite cocktail is the Sazerac.

Now the Sazerac isn’t the sort of brightly coloured drink you see fooling around with sparklers and fancy fruit embellishments. In fact, in its purest form it should be served without any garnish at all. And that is the first limb of its charm. Before serving your Sazerac straight up in an unmarked glass the bartender will pause to sell you the dummy of a twist of lemon peel. After expressing the oil he will whisk it away, with suitable distain, and allow the rich flavour of the rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe to have untrammelled control of your senses.

The second charm of the Sazerac is the ritual by which it is prepared. You cannot simply toss everything into a shaker, rattle to a count of thirty and strain. A Sazerac is built from the bottom up and then inverted into a pre-chilled, pre-rinsed glass (or in my preference, goblet).

Thirdly, the Sazerac has appeal because it is a survivor. It has faced some tough times in the 150 years or so of its life. First came the phylloxera epidemic that devastated northern Europe’s wine crops in the 1870s (so cognac became rye). Then, in 1912, came the US ban on absinthe (so absinthe became Herbsaint). Then came Prohibition (and the drink withered, or at least all the ingredients apart from the sugar cube and the lemon peel were likely made in an old bathtub). Finally, after the blessed relief of the 21st Amendment, Sazerac aficionados noticed with despair that most of the USA’s rye distilleries had not survived the great drought and so the rye became bourbon.

After a history as complicated as this, it is no small miracle that the complex Sazerac, now back to its purest 1850 recipe has survived, nay flourished, and that can be put down to the fourth inherent and most profound joy of the drink: the combination of the butch, spiced notes of rye tempered with the sweet, cinnamon of the absinthe and bitters. A bracing, complex marriage enhanced by the markedly apparent suggestion of fresh lemon, all contained in the mysteriously rich red-brown tipular.

Fix the House of Bourbon Sazerac as follows:

  1. Fill an old fashioned glass with ice and leave it to stand.
  2. In a second old fashioned glass muddle a sugar cube and five dashes of Peychaud’s bitters.
  3. Add a large measure of rye whiskey and a handful of ice cubes to the sugar and bitters solution and stir well.
  4. Discard the ice in the first glass and rinse it with a teaspoon or so of absinthe until the inside is coated.
  5. Strain the whiskey, sugar and bitters into the absinthe-rinsed glass.
  6. Garnish with the oil from a twist of lemon and discard the peel.

Absinthe Foam

Photo by Jared Zimmerman, some rights reserved.

And so to foam.  Having come all this way (48 posts and counting) without touching on the trend for ‘molecular mixology’ seems remiss, so let’s correct that right now.

Having been warned off the use of dry ice after recent horror stories in the UK, and not having any scientific background or interest in what is really just a gimmick, cocktail foam is about the only element of molecular mixology that can be easily and relatively safely approached by the amateur.  While the use of a rotovap or calcium bath does appeal (the former more than the latter), the costs are somewhat prohibitive at this stage, and so we stick to foam.

There are a number of ways to create cocktail foam, and recipes differ on whether you should use egg white and elbow grease (or Aerolatte), or gelatine and N2O or a combination of the lot.

Your choice will most likely be influenced by the resources and ingredients you have to hand, but my preference is for a hybrid recipe:

  1. Dissolve half a packet of gelatine in warm water and add 30g of sugar until it dissolves.
  2. Allow the mixture to cool.
  3. Add one egg white and your flavouring – in this case I used a large measure of absinthe.
  4. Pour the mixture into your soda siphon/cream whipper and charge with two capsules of N2O (leave the second one in)
  5. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

To dispense the foam, shake the siphon until no movement can be felt inside and slowly layer the foam on top.  Keep the siphon in the fridge when you’re not using it.

Absinthe Rinse

Photo courtesy of veo_, some rights reserved.

The absinthe rinse is a useful bar technique, and a key step in the creation of a good SazeracVieux Carré or Absinthe Martini.  Of course the rinse technique isn’t restricted to absinthe and can be used with scotch whisky to create an Islay Martini or a peat-infused Manhattan.

The rinse exists to provide a subtle hint of a usually strong-flavoured ingredient, and can be an alternative to the floated dash, where a teaspoon is layered on top of the finished drink, or a spritz from an atomiser.  As a result, a rinse provides a great opportunity for experimentation with unusual or complementary flavours.

To rinse a glass:

  1. Add a couple of ice cubes and a teaspoon of your rinse ingredient to the serving glass.
  2. Stir a few times, liberally splashing the sides of the glass.
  3. Tilt the glass so the rinse reaches the rim and turn slowly to coat the entire glass.
  4. Discard the ice and the excess rinse.
  5. Prepare your drink.

Vieux Carré

Photo courtesy of directorebeccer, some rights reserved.

The Vieux Carré, literally “old square”, is named after the French district of New Orleans where it was invented, by barman Walter Bergeron, in 1938.  Bergeron was working at the Hotel Monteleone, a spectacular Beaux-Arts style hotel, now famous for its rotating Carousel Bar.  Although the Vieux Carré pre-dates the revolving bar, something about its name or story always puts me in mind of the fun fair.

A close cousin of both the Sazerac and the Manhattan, the Vieux Carré is naturally one of my favourites and one of the few times you will see me reaching for a bottle of brandy.  The cocktail uses Benedictine as a sweet base, then combines rye whiskey and cognac, and can be served with an absinthe rinse to create a Louisiane.

To make your Vieux Carré:

  1. Take an old fashioned glass and add half a teaspoon of Benedictine, a dash of Peychaud’s, Angostura and any other bitters that takes your fancy.
  2. Add equal parts rye, cognac and sweet vermouth.
  3. Add ice and stir.
  4. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Variations include the use of dry vermouth instead of sweet, the aforementioned absinthe rinse, and alterations to the balance of rye, cognac and vermouth.

Death in the Afternoon

Photo courtesy of Kenn Wilson, some rights reserved.

Today is National Absinthe Day (in the US at least), and what better way to celebrate than with a quick post about one of literature’s great cocktails.  Ian Fleming may have given us the Vesper, but Ernest Hemingway went a few steps further down the road to decadence when he created Death in the Afternoon.

The cocktail, named after Hemingway’s book about the history and practice of bull-fighting, was created in 1935 for So Red the Nose, Or Breath in the Afternoona collection of new cocktail recipes proposed by famous authors of the time.  Hemingway’s instructions were as follows:

“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

The great author was credited with the creation of a number of other cocktails, but it was Death in the Afternoon which was said to be his favourite after he developed a taste for the bohemian concoction whilst living in Paris.

Variants of the recipe also include the addition of sugar and bitters (we can’t stray too far from our original bittered sling after all, and what better decadent replacement for water than champagne?), lemon juice, or a garnishing rose petal.

Sazerac

I must confess I was a late convert to the Sazerac.  Another cocktail that has claims to being the oldest recorded, its delightful combination of whiskey and anise is rapidly becoming my new favourite cocktail (although claiming to have a favourite cocktail is a lot like claiming to have one favourite song – no drink will work for you all the time).

The Sazerac was the original New Orleans variation of the bittered sling.  Down in the Deep South, just whiskey, bitters, sugar and water was not enough; the drinks required the added frisson of a touch of la fée verte.  Born in the Sazerac Coffee House, New Orleans some time in 1850, the Sazerac was named for the imported Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac which was originally its main ingredient.  Some time between 1875 and 1879 while the great French vineyards were being decimated by cheeky wee aphids, causing production of cognac to fall by two-thirds, the cognac was replaced (out of necessity) with whiskey.  The fine clientele of the Sazerac Coffee House never looked back.

The essence of the Sazerac depends on the inclusion of Peychaud’s bitters, and some records would have you believe that Mr Antoine Amadie Peychaud created the Sazerac to show off his family’s old aromatic bitters.  Legend has it that Mr Peychaud used to serve his Sazeracs in a large egg cup.  We prefer ours in a chilled metal goblet (or a rocks glass will do):

  1. Add a 1/4 teaspoon of absinthe to a rocks glass and spin the glass until it is coated with the absinthe.
  2. Add 1/2 a lump of sugar, five dashes of Peychaud’s and water to cover.
  3. Muddle well.
  4. Add a large measure of whiskey and some ice.
  5. Stir well and garnish with a twist of lemon peel (purists say this should be squeezed over the glass and discarded, mine fell off the rim just as I took the shot, so I decided to leave it in).

Of course if you want to add a touch of flair to your Sazerac making sessions, follow the two-glass method:

  1. Fill a rocks glass with ice and set aside.
  2. Take a second rocks glass and muddle the sugar and water.
  3. Add ice, whiskey and Peychaud’s to the sugar solution.
  4. Empty the iced glass and roll a wee sploosh of absinthe inside until coated.
  5. Strain the drink from the second glass into the first.
  6. Finish with a twist of lemon peel (discarded).

Good luck managing step five without pouring most of the drink over the nearest flat surface – it takes a little practice!

The Bitter Truth

Technically a cocktail isn’t a cocktail without a dash of bitters.  Without the bitters, your bittered sling is just, well, a sling.  Bitters emerged from the apothecary shops of Venezuela and New Orleans, originally conceived as a cure for stomach maladies and other ailments and it wasn’t long til the fine men of the Royal Navy were adding a dash of bitters to their gin to produce the medicinal Pink Gin.

Now a dash of bitters is a pre-requisite of nearly every drink you’d care to mention.  So if every barman needs a bottle of bitters to hand, where to begin?

Angostura is the best-known brand, and you’ll find a bottle of this curiously mis-labelled concoction on the back bar of every drinking establishment you enter.  Named for the town of Angostura in Venezuela, these are the original cocktail bitters and as good a starting point as any. Originally made as an antimalarial for the independence fighters of 1821, Angostura’s main notes are of cinnamon and cloves and it works well in almost any cocktail, and also, allegedly as a cure for hiccups.

Beyond Angostura, Peychaud’s bitters emerged from New Orleans in around 1840.  This blend is lighter and sweeter than its Venezuelan cousin, and was originally mixed with brandy to act as a stomach tonic.  Now it is more famous for its crucial involvement in the Sazerac.  Its nutty vanilla and anise flavour means it is ideally crafted to bring out the liquorice flavour of absinthe.

Further along the scale we begin to enter the wonderful world of flavoured bitters.  These form the rank and file of tiny apothecarial bottles you find on the shelves of the finest cocktail bars.  Many are home-made, but many more come from a number of resurgent bitters manufacturers.  The third most important bitters style is orange, useful for any citrus based drink.  Other flavours for greater experimentation include rhubarb, cherry, peach, lemon, creole, chocolate, celery and dandelion & burdock.

You will find these and more at Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth and Dr Adam Elmegirab.

Harking back to the golden age when travel was a luxury and every air passenger had access to a well-stocked all inclusive bar, young bitter upstarts, The Bitter Truth have also packaged up a marvelous taster tin of their fine aromatic delights.

Of course, let’s not pretend there’s any chance of getting a tin of these wee beauties past airport security these days, but still, let’s close our eyes and transport ourselves back to the magical era of transport for just a few minutes.

The tin contains 20ml bottles of the Celery, Orange, Creole, Old Time Aromatic and Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters along with a recipe card which gives a little background and a recommendation for each brew.

Old Time Aromatic Bitters – A strong combination of cinnamon and gingerbread gives way to a hint of aniseed, and is recommended for the Manhattan.

Orange Bitters – A bitter orange and nutmeg concoction which the fine gents at The Bitter Truth recommend for your Dry Martini.

Creole Bitters – The classic Peychaud’s nose of bitter sweet aniseed emenates from this bottle, and the recommendation is that you add it to the Improved Brandy cocktail (Brandy, Absinthe, bitters and sugar).

Celery Bitters – Powerful celery and ginger notes dominate this brew, and the suggestion is that this should replace celery salt in your next Bloody Mary.

Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters – The closest match to Angostura, these have a rich fruity nose with an air of cinnamon.  A fine tribute to the legend, Jerry Thomas, and ideal for your Old Fashioned.

A grand addition to any home bar, these wee gems open up a world of possibility for your cocktail concoctions.  Travel the world of fine drinking without leaving your sofa.

Absinthe

The traditional absinthe spoon with the less than traditional website address engraved thereon

Even before Baz Luhrmann introduced the myth of la fée verte to a new generation of filmgoers, absinthe had a reputation for decadence, creativity and the bohemian.  While in reality the anise-flavoured spirit is simply a highly-alcoholic drink which is now freely available in most parts of the world, the myths and suggestions that it is a depraved, highly addictive, psychoactive drug persist.

Absinthe was originally a Swiss invention, and we can see how easily it sits in the shop windows of the Geneva tourist traps alongside cuckoo clocks and chocolate to this day.  Ok, not really, but only because it was the bohemian scene of 1880s Paris that really brought the mysterious spirit to a wider audience.  Originally prescribed to French troops as an antimalarial in the 1840s, by 1860 an early happy hour – l’heur verte – was taking the bars of Paris by storm, and by 1880, a massive surge in production meant absinthe was available to all.

The bars, bistros, cabarets (and yes, the brothels) of Paris were alive with the smell of anise, and Hemingway, Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde and Vincent Van Gogh were among those who passed their evenings to the sound of the slow drip of water as it permeated the sugar cube and brought about the magical louche.  This was not to last however, as the temperance movement that swept the western world around the time of WWI had the green fairy in its sights.  They (may have) screamed from the rooftops of red windmills across the city that:

Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.

Stories abounded of those driven mad by absinthe, the Swiss farmer who murdered his family and then himself, and the addicts – sodden epileptics, incoherent and bursting with murderous intent.

By 1914 absinthe was banned in France having already fallen foul of regulators in Switzerland (1910), the USA (1912) and much of the rest of Europe.

But Britain never banned absinthe, mainly because it never really had the same hold on London as it did Paris, and besides, London had seen it all before with Gin Lane and Beer Alley.  So when an enterprising (although not that sharp) importer realised this, absinthe saw a resurgence.

In 2000, La Fée became the first (legal) absinthe to be produced in Paris since the 1914 ban, and society conspicuously failed to collapse (although the 35 hour week was introduced the same year – coincidence? Mais non!).

Absinthe is traditionally prepared through the addition of sugar and iced water:

  1. Pour a measure of absinthe into a rocks glass.
  2. Place a cube of sugar on a slotted spoon, and rest this on the glass.
  3. Slowly pour four to six parts iced water over the sugar cube until it has dissolved.

Once the sugar has dissolved, the liquid will louche (turn milky green) and is ready to be consumed.

The ‘bohemian method’ of serving involves a slightly more theatrical approach:

  1. Pour a measure of absinthe into a rocks glass.
  2. Soak a sugar cube in the absinthe and then place it on a slotted spoon.  Rest this on the glass.
  3. Light the sugar cube and allow it to caramelize and drip into the glass.
  4. Pour iced water over the sugar cube until it has dissolved.

Absinthe also belongs in the traditional Absinthe Cocktail (effectively an absinthe Old Fashioned), the Absinthe Sour, the Sazerac and Ernest Hemingway’s infamous Death in the Afternoon.