Friday, February 29, 2008

Bitter Me This: Grapefruit Bitters

Bitters is for cocktails, as salt is for soup.

~ Robert “DrinkBoy” Hess

A short post today, as I’m getting ready to roll out of town for a roadtrip to Los Angeles. Pics to come later.

Bitters is a decidedly old school cocktail ingredient enjoying a renaissance these days. Well, among some bartenders, anyway. It’s a pity how often I order a Manhattan and still need to specify “with bitters” because younger barkeeps don't know. But a lot of professional bartenders and home enthusiasts are getting into the game, not only using commercial examples such as Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth, and Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, but also by making their own “house” bitters.

Why bother with bitters? Well, because they make cocktails taste great, that’s why. Intensely gaggy, puckering and, well, bitter on their own, cocktail bitters don’t make a pleasant tipple. But they do make a tipple pleasant and often smell great. Just a few dashes can make the difference between an “eh” experience and a flat-out “wow.” As the man says, they are as salt for soup. I've been known to dash some into cupcake frosting. Yes, on purpose.

Taking cues from Chuck Taggart over at the Gumbo Pages, John Deragon, and Jeffery Morgenthal, I made a batch of grapefruit bitters not long ago and am pleased with the results.

Grapefruit Bitters
(adapted from The Gumbo Pages)

I’ve included a dose of Bacardi 151 here for two main reasons: (1) I needed to pour some out of a bottle of 151 to make room for a bunch of allspice berries while trying out a homemade version of pimento dram and (2) I used some big honkin’ grapefruits—local oro blancos—so I needed more high-proof spirits than Chuck’s recipe called for to cover the ingredients.

750ml Wray & Nephew Overproof White Rum (126 proof)
4 oz (120ml) ml Bacardi 151
2 large grapefruits
2 tablespoons whole coriander seed
2 oz fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
¼ cup roasted unsalted almonds

6 tablespoon sugar
3 (45ml) tablespoons water

Peel the grapefruits and finely chop the whole peel, including (and especially) the white pith that makes these bitters bitter. Put the pieces with the ginger and rums in a large glass jar with a silicon or rubber gasket seal.

Heat a dry skillet over a medium flame. Toast the coriander seeds until they are slightly darkened (brown is what we’re going for here, not anything even close to black). Put the seeds into a mortar and lightly crush them. Alternately, spread the toasted seeds on a cutting board and use the flat of a 8-10” kitchen knife to push against them to lightly crush them. You’re only looking to break the seeds into 2-5 pieces for greater flavor extraction, not pulverize them.

Roughly chop the almonds and toast them lightly in the dry skillet. Add to the jar. Seal, swirl it about, and store for one week. Give it a gentle shake whenever you pass by to remind it who’s boss.

After a week, strain everything through a fine sieve lined with a cotton strainer, several layers of cheesecloth, or a coffee filter. Using a funnel, pour it into an empty liter bottle.

Finish your bitters by adding caramelized sugar syrup -- place the sugar in a small, heavy pan (unlined copper if you’ve got it) and heat over medium heat until the sugar melts and turns light-to-medium brown. Sugar turns quickly, and burns readily. Watch the pot carefully and remove it from the heat as soon as it gets almost to the color you want. Remove from the heat and carefully add the water. Stir and/or swirl until all the sugar has dissolved. Add the caramel syrup to the bitters and let stand until it's clear, then decant into small bottles.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Trojanka Bitters

...Applying bloodroot to the skin may destroy tissue and lead to the formation of
a large scab, called an eschar.
In spite of supposed curative properties...
internal use is inadvisable.

~ wikipedia

In my ongoing research on historic bitters, I came across a recipe (and sporadic references) to trojanka, a stomach bitters attributed to Swedes, Poles, and Lithuanians.

The recipe to the left comes from The Druggists Circular Formula Book (1915). I included the quote on blood root above (Sanguinaria canadensis) as a reminder that many of the old tonics and bitters include ingredients, such as tonka bean and snake root, that are no longer considered safe for human consumption. Nux vomica, for instance, is the tree from which strychnine is derived. This recipe, like any old bitters recipe I might write about, is purely for historic interest.

And that is about all I know (so far). I'd love to hear if anyone knows more about the history, uses, and geographic distribution of the bitters.

The Penn Herb Company sells a trojanka bitters mix (as well as a stomach bitters mix) which contains “Angelica Root; Anise Star; Bay Laurel Berries; Blood Root; Canada Snake Root; Saw Palmetto Berries; Caraway Seed; Cardamom; Roman Chamomile; Cinchona Bark; Cloves; Elecampane; Galangal; Gentian; Juniper Berries; Licorice Root; Mace; Bitter Orange Peels; Sweet Orange Peels.”

The company isn't far from Port Richmond, a Philadelphia neighborhood with a strong historic Polish constituency, so it doesn't stretch credulity to think that this living liquid fossil might yet enjoy some currency thereabouts. Which makes me think Chicago might be another place to start poking around for examples...

Apparently, the proprietors intend for this to be made into tea. We know better. It cries for liquor. In fact, Maryanne Laukaitis writes in the Lithuania-L archives (way back in 1999 when listserves were all the rage) that she found an old bottle of trojanka stomach bitters — “weird herbs and seeds in the pantry (I can identify nutmeg, cloves and allspice)” that was intended to be macerated in whiskey or sherry.

Anybody got leads on where/how trojanka is used and if commercial examples are available in the US?

Goes well with


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Scoffin' the Law

I want to be a scofflaw
And with the scofflaws stand;
A brand upon my forehead
A handcuff on my hand.
I want to be a scofflaw,
For since I went to school,
I hate to mind an order,
I hate to keep a rule.

~ anonymous poet C.W.
in Franklin P. Adams’ column
New York World, Jan 16, 1924

Delcevare King was a staunch prohibitionist and big mahoff with the Anti-Saloon League during Prohibition. His story is old hat to linguists and cocktail mavens, but the rest of us could use an introduction for his contribution to the drinking arts. In October 1923, he wrote a letter to the Harvard Alumni Bulletin (he was class of 1895) protesting the Harvard Glee Club’s singing of Johnny Harvard, the “most drinking of drinking songs…that comes pretty near to scoffing at the prohibition law.”

Even prohibitionists sometimes can have a point. Given some of the song’s lyrics, a reasonable person might conclude that alcohol—illegal for beverage purposes at the time—might figure subtly into undergraduate life at the university:

Yes, drink.

King took umbrage and launched a national contest to come up with a new word describing those who flaunted their disregard of laws banning beverage alcohol. A $200 award was to be dispensed for the word “which best expresses the idea of lawless drinker, menace, scoffer, bad citizen, or whatnot, with the biting power of ‘scab’ or slacker.’”

There were something like 25,000 entries. Also-rans, according to the Boston Herald, include; vatt, still, scut, sluf, curd, canker, scrub, scuttier, dreg, drag, dipsic, boozlaac, alcolog, barnacle, slime-slopper, ell-shiner, still-whacker, sluch-licker, sink, smooth, lawless-ite, bottle-yegger, crimer, alcoloom, hooch-sniper, cellar-sifter, rum-rough, high-boozer, and law-loose-liquor-lover.

Whew. Lawless-ite ranks up there with deadites from the Evil Dead movies for words that hurt my ears, but I quite like bottle-yegger and even scuttier has a ring to it. Next time I'm giving someone the high hat, I might have to use that. I wonder—is there still a stash of submission letters somewhere? Some Boston-area archives?

Of the 25,000 entries, two contestants came up with the same term: scofflaw. The prize was split between Henry Irving Dale and Kate L. Butler. Within days, Harry’s Bar in Paris was offering a “Scoff-Law Cocktail.” The cocktail faded for a while, but the word stuck. A shame about the fading drink, though: it really does deserve a spot in your repertoire.

The Scofflaw Cocktail

1.5 oz rye
1 oz dry vermouth
3/4 oz lemon juice (freshly squeezed, please)
3/4 oz grenadine*

Shake with ice in a shaker for a slow count to ten, then strain into a cocktail glass and, if you like, add a lemon twist.

Yes, drink.

* Lagniappe: Make Your Own Grenadine

The cocktail crowd over at eGullet has an ongoing discussion of how best to make one's own grenadine from fresh pomegranate juice rather than relying on the scarlet corn syrup we knew growing up. If you want that bright Shirley-Temple-Cocktail red, then a brand such as Rose's would turn the trick. But it's worth experimenting with sugar and pomegranate juice to come up with your own house version. Here's what I do:

1 cup POM pomegranate juice
1 cup white table sugar
3-4 dashes of orange flower water

Put all the juice and sugar into the container in which you will store it—a plastic squeeze jar, a repurposed vermouth bottle, or even the POM bottle itself after using half the contents—and shake the hell out of it. Once the sugar goes into solution, add the orange flower water, give it a few swirls, and store in the refrigerator.

Note that this version, while red(ish), is much more dark and even slightly muddy-looking. The taste it great, but it's emphatically not the stuff of Kiddie Cocktails.

Goes well with


Monday, February 25, 2008

Prohibition Schooners

A Boston doctor issued a pamphlet
explaining how an innocent jug of molasses

could be turned into a vile jug of rum
with nothing more than a copper coil.
In a few days there was not a length of copper to be had

in the entire city.
Kellner, Esther (1971) Moonshine: Its History and Folklore.
Weathervane Books, New York.

That a certain segment of American society took Prohibition with grain of salt is apparent even still. Otherwise law-abiding citizens regularly circumvented statutes forbidding beverage alcohol by purchasing bootleg liquor from Canada, ersatz gin, and so-called Scotch (which may never have been anywhere near Scotland). Evading the law became a national pastime. Those wealthy enough to afford it traveled abroad to get their drink on. Many turned to home-brewing their own beer and wine. Some turned to small stills for their own use while others began moonshining on a massive scale.

The Scofflaw Cocktail, a rye and vermouth concoction, dates from this era. It followed hard on the heels of a national contest sponsored by wealthy prohibitionist Delcevare King (Harvard, class of 1895) to come up with a name for those who drank against the law. The scofflaws promptly named a cocktail after themselves.

But even candy makers and soda jerks got in on the hijinks. In Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher (13th edition, 1920), confectioner W. O. Rigby offers this thumb to the nose of the Anti-Saloon League:

Prohibition “Schooners”

In a glass stein or beer glass, prepare the dessert form of gelatine and run this in the stein or glass up to about 1 inch from the brim. This gelatine run into the glass should be a light amber color and flavored to suit. After running it in the glass or glasses, allow it to congeal. Whip up a certain amount of acidulated gelatine which has been dissolved over a steam bath. Just before it sets place it in the steins or glasses, and allow it to froth over the top. The result is an accurate imitation of the way a stein of beer “would look.” This is a novelty that takes exceedingly well as a burlesque on prohibition.

A word on schooners: In Kansas City, as late as the early 1990's, one could order a schooner of beer (especially the local and delicious Boulevard beers) from taps in old-school joints. The schooners there were massive goblets holding almost half a liter. If things got dicey, they could also be used to subdue troublemakers. Not that I ever saw this, of course. But I did see a few schooners bounce off wooden floors where other glasses would have shattered.

CocktailDB shows a more delicate (though still substantial) mug than what we called schooners. What I had in mind when I read this was more like this. See, also, Mindy Flacks showing how it's done at Louise's Downtown in Lawrence, Kansas. Attagirl, Mindy.

Goes well with


Friday, February 22, 2008

The Depth of a Drink

A bar I used to frequent served $3 martinis at happy hour. Blessedly, happy hour was two hours long. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it came around again at 9pm. Woe to those who soldiered through both. Now, the martinis weren’t very good. In fact, they were little more than well spirits colored with fruit juice and synthetic flavors; cosmopolitans, sour apples, chocolate who's-its. Hell, they weren't even martinis. But the crowd was always a blast, so we came back for more. Gimme a break. You never drank anything you regretted? On Mondays, the steaks were buy-one/get-one, so for $20 a head, you could get full and buzzed while still tipping well.

The bartenders, though, poured drinks to the brim of the glass. Drinking in Amsterdam, I’m all for a small glass that holds enough chilled genever or korenwijn that it bulges over the lip. There, you’ve got a more leisurely pace that allows you to take a sip before even moving the glass. But in a loud, bustling bar that’s packed elbow-to-elbow, you’re asking to wear your drink.

So I smiled in appreciation when I came across George Ade’s reminiscences on pre-prohibition saloons from over eighty years ago.

Regarding the glass into which the slug was decanted, there were certain unwritten rules of etiquette meant to regulate the pouring, but these rules were not always observed. What was known as a “gentleman’s drink” never approached the rim. Probably an ounce and half of dynamite in solution represented the portion which would not cause the clerk to give the buyer a hard look or gently inquire, “Will you need a towel?” The implication being that preparations were under way for the taking of a bath.
George Ade (1931) The Old-Time Saloon:
Not Wet—Not Dry—Just History
Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc. New York.

Let’s all hear it for gentlemen’s drinks in smaller servings bigger glasses.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Modern Drunk History

You know that vodka is tasteless going down,
but memorable coming up.

~ Modern Drunkard

I like me some Modern Drunkard Magazine. It is at turns sophomoric, insightful, sad, and wickedly funny. I like it better online because remembering to take a copy home at the end of the night…ah, sometimes just getting in the cab is task enough. Yet, oddly, I do have a fair number of back issues at home. They’re coming from somewhere. Maybe just breeding in my vertical files.

The vodka quote above is from their column “You Know You’re a Drunkard When…” —little more than a list of signs that, well, you’re a drunk. Now, some of my very best buddies are drunks and readily admit it. When we get together, we play beer pong, guzzle beer on the stoop, and Edward Fortyhands somehow doesn’t seem like a bad idea. There's even been backyard oil wrestling after someone's wife forbade it ("I'm telling you, Mommy says no!"), then went to the kitchen for that bottle of Wesson. Some warning signs got me smiling:
  • Future generations will call you an urban legend [I’m thinking of our dear friend Gabriel who lives in Philadelphia, but about whom even a California bartender exclaimed “You mean Doctor Gabriel?”]
  • M.A.D.D. has a budget line with your name on it.
  • You measure time by drinks, as in: "Hold on a shot, the movie doesn't start for another four bourbons."
  • You wonder why they call it Southern Comfort when they know damn well there is nothing comfortable about being handcuffed in the back of a squad car.
  • Think box wine is great; eagerly awaiting box whiskey.
  • The bartender is in the weeds and you’re the only person in the bar.
Now, that last one I can identify with, but mostly because I’ve been known to bring my own bitters to bars and instruct tyro barkeeps how to make old fashioned cocktails and sidecars.

But that first quote up top immediately reminded me of Derek Waters’ drunken takes on historic American events. In particular, of volume two that features Eric Falconer after downing eight Cape Codders, reciting the tale of Benjamin Franklin (Jack Black) discovering electricity, and then, um, undrinking them.

Drunk History Vol 2

Goes well with


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Watermelon Pickles

Jessica Harris has written more cookbooks than I own pairs of shoes, testament as much to her literary output as my somewhat limited sense of fashion. Yet I was happy to oblige when she asked me a while back for recipes to include in a book she was working on concerning side dishes and accompaniments. The piquillo ketchup, a killer recipe I adapted from an early canning manual, made the cut, and I’ll post images and notes when I make my next batch.

The watermelon pickle recipe she included, though, lends itself more readily to cocktails, so we’ll start with that (and get to the cocktails in a later post). Watermelon pickles, or preserves, using just the rind are a Southern standard, if maybe just a hair old-fashioned these days. I still whip up an occasional batch to accompany sandwiches, roast pork, and other savories that could use a little pep. More recently, I’ve been playing with them in drinks. Hey, those who don’t mind less gin in their martini do the same thing with olives, so no grief on that front, please.

Start with a 6-7 pound melon. Make your life easier by peeling it with a slingshot vegetable peeler before you make your first cut. Some recipes tell you to scrape off all the red flesh as well as the peel. The peel needs to go, but leave a little red on the rind. It certainly doesn’t hurt the flavor and it gives a fancy rose collar to the pickles. These make a slightly softer pickle than older recipes that call for impregnating the rind with lye or alum. You could take that route, but…meh. Too much hassle for minimal return.

8 cups of watermelon rind, cut into ½” squares
q.s. kosher salt
4 (770 g) cups sugar
2 cups (470 ml) cider vinegar
12 whole cloves
1 tsp (2.5 g) ground cinnamon
2 small lemons, either untreated or scrubbed, sliced into very thin rounds
2 oz/60g (about a finger’s length) of ginger, sliced into very thin coins

Generously salt the chunks of rind, place in a colander, and set inside a stainless steel or glass bowl overnight. They’ll throw off a bunch of brine. Rinse, drain, and throw out the brine. Place rinds in a non-reactive pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Boil for ten minutes. Drain in a colander, but do not rinse. Add the sugar, vinegar, and the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Add the drained chunks, return to a boil and boil gently for ten minutes.

Ladle into sterilized canning jars and process for long-term storage or allow the whole mass to cool in the syrup and ladle into plastic quart tubs for short-term fridge storage.

Goes well with

Lagniappe: Watermelon Aqua Fresca

Occasionally, you’ll get a dud melon with flat-tasting flesh, even if the rind is perfectly usable. If you’re the hog-keeping type, I suppose the flesh'd make good slop. Compost it if you’re so inclined. I feed mine to the Disposall. When the flesh is firm, ripe, and dripping, there’s no better way to enjoy it than sitting on the porch and spitting seeds as far as you can. Your neighbor’s yard, for instance.

But when you’ve got something in between—or just an overabundance of fantastic flesh—treat yourself to a fruit cooler the Mexicans call agua fresca. These aguas frescas (or “fresh waters”) are generally fruits or vegetables reduced with a blender to chunky liquids, bolstered with water and some sweetener such as honey or sugar, then served maybe with bigger slices of the fruits floating. In Mexico and northern Mexico (e.g. San Diego, where I live), you’ll see tables at markets loaded with huge jars called jarras of maybe 3-4 gallon capacity partially filled with cucumber, tamarind, strawberry, jamaica, mango, kiwi, and other flavors. In absence of any tequila, mezcal, or gin, you can even drink them straight.

4 cups chunked watermelon flesh
3 cups cool water
½ cup 2:1 simple syrup
q.s. salt (up to ½ tsp)

Don’t bother seeding the flesh. We’re taking the easy train on this one. Put all the flesh into a large blender with enough water (up to three cups) to fill it to ¾ capacity. Cover and blend. The seeds—some worse for the wear—will float to the top. Just skim them off. Strain into a pitcher, top off with any remaining water, and stir in the syrup and salt. Stir to dissolve. Add some chunks of watermelon flesh either to the pitcher or to individual glasses, depending on how you plan to serve it.

Pour over ice. If you plan to use it as a mixer, ease off the water (using maybe only two cups) and fortify with your spirit of choice.

Goes well with


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Satan's Bloody Whiskers

I've an educated taste in whisky and women,
waistcoats, and bills of fare.
Though I've had few chances to exercise it lately.
'Cause them that govern
spend all their time making up new laws
to stop men like you and me getting any.

~ Peachy Carnehan

Michael Caine made an indelible impression on me when I was a kid—not as just any character, but as ex-Army scalawag P.T. "Peachy" Carnehan in John Huston’s 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King. In their doomed scheme to become kings of remote Kafiristan during the time of the British Raj, Peachy and his compatriot Danny Dravot come across what they think are “blokes, twice as big as us” in the snow. He blurts out to Sean Connery’s Dravot “God’s holy trousers!” The phrase stuck and rattled around in my mind for decades.

It came back to me tonight. For the past few days, I’ve been hankering for a Satan’s Whiskers cocktail. The classic old gin drink has enjoyed an all-too limited renaissance lately among liquor geeks like me, in no small part to Dr. Cocktail’s take on it. It actually comes in two versions—straight and curled. No worries if you’ve never heard of it or its variants. The only difference between them is that straight calls for orange curaƧao and curled calls for Grand Marnier (think of them as tricked out gins & juice).

There’s orange all over this thing; plain ol’ juice, plus orange liqueur and orange bitters. Squeeze the juice yourself and you also get orange oil expressed from the peel for a four-knuckled citrus whammy. Now, I like both versions, and fresh orange juice really does make a difference, so try it curled or straight; unless gin just skeeves you, you’re bound to like one of ‘em. But it’s the height of blood orange season in San Diego and, as I looked at a bowl of blushing little Moros on the counter, I could almost hear Peachy Carnehan’s staccato voice exclaiming “Satan’s Bloody Whiskers!”

Swapping out blood for navel or Valencia oranges gives the finished shaken cocktail a devilish crimson hue, but the ephemeral berry taste of blood orange juice comes on stronger as the drink slowly loses its chill. Moros are the variety you want, not just for their taste, but because they are often much smaller than navels and fit in a citrus squeezer nicely. Make these with regular orange juice and you've got a plain ol' Satan's Whiskers. Give it a shot either way.

Satan’s Bloody Whiskers (straight)

1 oz blood orange juice
1 oz gin
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz dry vermouth
4 tsp (20ml) Cointreau (just under ½ oz)*
1-2 tsp (5-10ml) orange bitters**

Shake over ice , strain into a large cocktail glass.

* for the curled version, substitute Grand Marnier.

** The Savoy Cocktail Book calls for mere dashes of bitters while Dr. Cocktail calls for a healthier dose. You could lay off the bitters some, but don't leave them out entirely. The most readily available in the US are Fee Brothers and Regan's. LeNell's keeps a great selection and may be able to hook you up with even more brands.

Goes well with