Gingerbread Old Fashioned

20131220-142158.jpg

A short #FridayOldFashioned post for the Friday before Christmas – traditionally a day when carnage is wreaked up and down the High Streets of Britain as office workers go wild with stick-on antlers and snowman deeley-boppers.

Personally I’d rather be at home in the warm in a reserved Christmas jumper enjoying a warming whiskey cocktail than out in an overly chintzy decorated chain pub downing lager or ‘draft’ mulled wine by the bucketload, so here’s a simple recipe if you’re of a similar mind:

  1. Combine a barspoon of gingerbread syrup*, two ounces of whiskey and a sploosh of bitters in a mixing glass.
  2. Add ice and stir well for sixty seconds.
  3. Strain into a chilled old fashioned glass, over ice.
  4. Garnish with an amaretto cherry (Christmas tincture optional).

* You can make your own by adding ginger and cinnamon to a basic simple syrup recipe (follow Nigella’s recipe here) or use the pre-mixed Starbucks or Monin versions that are reasonably easy to find in the shops at this time of year.

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.

Return of the Mad Men

Photo created at http://www.MadMenYourself.com, all rights reserved.

A post tonight to celebrate the upcoming return of Mad Men to our TV screens after a break of over a year.  This American drama, set in a New York advertising agency in the 1960s has been credited with sparking a sixties revival in fashion, and as part of that, in drinking fashion.  As a result, here is a quick rundown of some of the characters’ favourite drinks, as told to your host, on his internship at Sterling Cooper (pictured above handing Mr Draper his morning paper and Old Fashioned).

Vodka Gimlet

The Gimlet is attributed to the Royal Navy who added gin to their scurvy-avoidance rations of gin to help it go down.  The vodka alternative became more popular in the 1960s, and Betty Draper is partial to the occasional Vodka Gimlet whilst conducting extra-marital affairs.

  1. Add a large measure of vodka and the juice of one lime to a shaker of ice.
  2. Shake well and strain into a martini glass.
  3. Garnish with a wedge of lime.

Tom Collins

The Collins family were raised in New York in the 1870s.  Tom always drank his with gin, while John preferred bourbon, and cousin Juan preferred tequila.  These may not be a favourite of Sally Draper (we hope) but she’s been mixing them for her parents and their friends from a young age.

  1. Add a large measure of gin, the juice of half a lemon and a teaspoon of simple syrup to a shaker of ice.
  2. Shake well and strain into a highball.
  3. Top up with soda water, add ice and garnish with a wedge of lemon, orange and cherry.

Stinger

A classic drink of the fifties where Cary Grant and Jayne Mansfield shared them onscreen in Kiss Them For Me, the Stinger is also one of Peggy Olsen’s choices when out on the town.

  1. Add a measure of brandy and a measure of crème de menthe to a shaker of ice.
  2. Shake and strain into a brandy glass.

Old Fashioned

This favourite of Don Draper and yours truly has been covered elsewhere, but let’s just say that like your author, Don Draper can mix these like a pro – and Conrad Hilton can attest to that.

  1. Muddle a sugar cube, two dashes of bitters and a sploosh of water in a rocks glass.
  2. Add ice and a large measure of whiskey. Stir and serve.

Bloody Mary

A breakfast-time classic, and a staple of the Sterling Cooper meeting room.  The Bloody Mary was developed as a hangover cure in 1920s’ Paris.  Use pepper vodka for even more of a kick.

  1. Shake a large measure of vodka, a (slightly) larger measure of tomato juice, the juice of half a lemon, a teaspoon of horseradish, a sploosh of Worcestershire sauce and a sploosh of Tabasco with ice.
  2. Strain into a highball.
  3. Garnish with pepper, a wedge of lime and a stalk of celery.

Brandy Alexander

Another favourite of Peggy Olsen this milkshake-like drink was originally made with gin (an Alexander), which sounds truly horrific.  Try it with brandy instead and it becomes more like a dessert.

  1. Shake a measure of brandy, a measure of crème de cacao and measure of single cream with ice.
  2. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with ground nutmeg.

Gibson Martini

Roger Sterling, a self-confessed fan of only clear drinks, will opt for a Gibson, when a straight Martini just won’t cut it.  Just be careful you don’t have too many with your oyster lunch.

  1. Stir a large measure of gin with a measure of dry vermouth and ice.
  2. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with three or four cocktail onions.

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.

Old Fashioned

Photo by ReeseCLloyd, some rights reserved.

Legend has it that the Old Fashioned was one of the first cocktails ever created. The story is that it was conceived at The Pendennis Club, Louisville, Kentucky in the late nineteenth century, and having been popularised by local bourbon distiller Colonel (of course!) James Pepper, it was taken to New York to be enjoyed by such luminaries as Sterling Cooper’s own Don Draper.

There is much to support the Old Fashioned’s claim to be one of the oldest known cocktails. You will see from my Bittered Slings post that it neatly fits the early criteria of a bittered sling or cocktail, as it contains just the liquor (in this case whiskey), bitters, sugar and water (in this case frozen).

Whatever its vintage, however, the Old Fashioned is a punchy cocktail for those who hold no truck with paper umbrellas and sparklers getting in the way of their imbibement. The exact composition is something that enthusiasts can argue about for days. Does an Old Fashioned require rye or bourbon? A muddled orange? A cherry? The earliest known recipe (dating from 1895 no less) instructs:

Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes bitters, a small piece ice, a piece lemon-peel, one measure whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass. – Kappeler (1895). Modern American Drinks: How to Mix and Serve All Kinds of Cups and Drinks.

Now aside from running the risk of poking your eye out with a bar spoon, this recipe neglects the now expected hint of orange. For that reason, my preferred method is as follows:

  1. Place a sugar cube (or a teaspoon of sugar syrup or sugar), three dashes of bitters and a dash of water in a mixing glass.
  2. Muddle (i.e. mush up) until the sugar dissolves and you are left with a syrupy paste. Don’t scrimp on the muddling, the sugar needs to be fully dissolved before the whiskey is added or it won’t bind properly.
  3. Add a two ice cubes and a measure of whiskey.
  4. Stir gently (thirty times).
  5. Repeat steps three and four.
  6. Strain into a rocks glass (also known as an od fashioned glass) with or without ice (your preference).
  7. Garnish with a twist of orange or lemon peel or a cherry.

Finally, by no means even consider adding soda water or *gasp* lemonade.

What you are left with is a small glass of pure cocktail history: spirits, sugar, water and bitters.

Bittered Slings

In the course of my legal training I was told that you should always start your contract or pleadings by naming the parties (see: About), setting out the recitals (see: Welcome) and then defining your terms. As seven years of legal training is hard to leave behind (the fact that all my correspondence, even emails to my mother, are still in my training firm’s house style is testament to that) this post is an attempt to define some key cocktail concepts.

Let’s start with cocktail itself. The origins of the word are, as you might expect, shrouded in a haze of uncertainty and contention, with early references surfacing in London in 1798 and the USA in 1803. Back in May 1806, however, The Balance and Columbian Repository, an estimable (I assume – I didn’t subscribe) weekly newspaper from Hudson, New York, published the earliest known definition of a cocktail in answer to a reader’s query:

Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.

What qualified the editor of The Balance to make this defining statement is unclear, but there must have been some basis for it as the definition still holds true for some of the classic, and not coincidentally earliest-known cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned (whiskey, sugar, bitters and water), the Sazerac (whiskey, absinthe, sugar and bitters) and the Mint Julep (whiskey, mint, sugar and bitters).

The common modern definition is just any alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit or two mixed with other ingredients and is perhaps as all-encompassing as could be imagined. In keeping with the era of their resurgence (the 1980s) modern cocktails have since became more and more garish in colour, content and decoration, and more and more lewd in their nomenclature.

Turning to each of the constituent parts then, liquor means any distilled spirit, but for the purposes of this post shall mean whiskey to me.

American whiskey (distinguishable by its use of an ‘e’) is to all intents and purposes either bourbon or rye. Bourbon is made from distilled corn and originally hailing from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Bourbon now has a strictly controlled legal definition (it must be made from at least 51% corn mash), but as the most famous American whiskeys are all bourbons, is often used to refer to any American whiskey. Despite this it is important to distinguish it from rye whiskey (at least 51% rye mash) and Canadian whisky (made in Canada and nearly always a blend of different grains).

Bourbon can now be made anywhere in the United States, but the historical link to the south remains, with the main brands, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s all hailing from Kentucky and Tennessee.

Rye whiskey was traditionally distilled in the northeast – Pennsylvania and Maryland in particular, but was badly affected by prohibition. As a result, few rye-only brands survive but many of the bourbon brands (eg Bulleit, Jim Beam and Four Roses) make an equivalent rye.

Throughout this site I will refer to whiskey when I mean bourbon or rye. Tradition or a more educated palate may suggest that one or other is preferred in any given drink, but I maintain that it is broadly a matter of personal taste.

Assuming water and sugar are known to most readers, the final crucial ingredient required for any classic cocktail is bitters.

A bitters is a highly-concentrated alcoholic concoction flavoured with herbs, spices and botanical extracts. The high concentration of often dangerous extracts gives these substances a highly bitter or bittersweet taste which was found to add an intriguing kill or cure kick to early cocktails. Most bitters have an interesting history and many were originally invented as miracle cure alls or medicinal tonics. In fact people still swear today that a drop of bitters in a glass of water is an admirable stomach-settler.

No bar is complete without at least a bottle of Angostura Bitters, the market leader, and any cocktail bar worth its salt will have a fascinating collection of apothecarial bottles stashed away on the back bar. Some even come with droppers, pipettes or rudimentary atomisers attached to bring a suitably Jekyll & Hyde look to your drinking establishment.