Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Sazerac and Cocktail Basics

Last exam of 1L tomorrow, which means a new blog post today.  Before I start throwing out a bunch of different recipes for drinks, I figure I should probably explain the basic components of a drink and techniques involved just so we're all on the same page.  But this is about cocktails, so first a classic drink, and then the other stuff.

The Sazerac.  It's my favorite cocktail.  It's (arguably) the original.  It's the official drink of New Orleans.  Everyone should try this drink.

The Sazerac has evolved a bit over the years.  It used to consist of brandy, Peychauds bitters, and sugar.  Then grapes became rare because of blight and people started using rye whiskey.  Somewhere along the way, absinthe was added.  Then absinthe was banned so people started using Herbsaint or other substitutes.  But now absinthe is legal again, so it's reclaimed its place as component of the drink in some bars.  Brandy, however, has not.  A number of bars will serve both, though, including the birthplace of the drink, the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans.  I was fortunate enough to visit said bar over Spring Break this year with some good friends.  It was a pilgrimage and it was glorious.

Now, for making the drink:

2 oz Rye Whiskey (I'm using High West Rendezvous Rye, which is utterly incredible in a Sazerac)
3 dashes Peychauds bitters
1 dash absinthe (Vieux Carre seemed an appropriate brand with the Sazerac's NOLA origins)
1 sugar cube
1 dash water
Lemon twist

The Sazerac is traditionally made in two cocktail glasses.  Fill one with ice and make the drink in the other.  Start by putting the sugar cube, bitters, and water into the un-iced glass.  Muddle until all the sugar is involved.  You can also use simply syrup instead of the sugar cube and water; it's much faster.  I prefer the traditional sugar cube, though.  Next, take some of the ice from the iced glass and add it to the bitters glass.  4 or 5 pieces.  Add the rye.  Stir.  Different traditions on this.  Doesn't matter as much as a lot of people say as long as it's thorough but not overdone.  Regardless, I go with Charlotte Voisey and stir 20 to the right, 20 to the left.

Then, remove the ice from the iced glass.  Spray/rinse it was a dash of absinthe (check the definitions below).  Basically, you want a thin layer of the absinthe all over the inside of the glass.  Make sure there is no excess absinthe in the glass.  Strain the bitter glass into this glass.

Finally, cut a long slice of lemon peel.  Bend it in half over the glass to express the oils.  Wipe the bright yellow side on the inside and outside of the rim of the glass, all the way around.  Twist strongly and add to the drink (some people like it on the side, but I'm an all-in kind of person).  Some use a channel knife for a smaller garnish, which is perfectly acceptable, as well.  If you use that method, cut the lemon over the glass so the oils are expressed in a similar way (though they likely won't cover the glass as thoroughly.

The Sazerac is served.

Now for the informational stuff.


The Cocktail: Traditionally Spirit, sugar, water, bitters.  Now used as a term for basically anything that isn't a single glass of straight alcohol.  A good rule of thumb for a cocktail is that it is only as good as the worst ingredient.  Using cheap vermouth will bring a martini down, even if you're using Bombay Sapphire gin.  Maraschino and St. Germaine can only do so much to help out Jim Beam.

Spirits:  The meat of a cocktail.  Whisk(e)y, Gin, Vodka, Tequila/Mezcal, etc... Fun fact/pedantry, you generally use the extra "e"in whiskey when it's from a country that has an "e" in it (United States, Ireland) and you leave it out when the whisky is from a country without any "e" in it (Scotland, Canada, Japan).  Also, the difference between Tequila and Mezcal is stricter regulation on the former than the latter.  I think of it like Single Malt v. Blended Scotch.  At lower prices, Mezcal like blended Scotch, can be scary.  But at higher prices, the distiller has more room to play around and can create some really unique stuff.  Neither good Mezcal and good blended Scotch should be overlooked.

Liqueurs/Cordials/Vermouths:  The sauce of the drink.  Liqueurs are made with spices, herbs, etc... and sugar.  Think Amaretto.  Cordials are made with fruit and sugar, think Midori (though they call it a liqueur.  Vermouths are wine spiced or flavored with various things.  Sometimes aperitifs that act like vermouth in a drink are used instead, such as Lillet Blanc or Lillet Rouge, like in the Corpse Reviver #2.  All three of theses can do wonderful things to a drink, but can also be very overpowering if used in excess.  Moderation is key.  Jamie Boudreau uses what he calls "The Golden Ratio" for cocktails as a benchmark.  1.5 oz spirit, .75 oz vermouth, .25 liqueur/cordial.  It's fantastic when you're just messing around with various ingredients.

Bitters:  The spice of the cocktail.  Often overlooked as an ingredient, cocktail bitters were once a vital part of the mixology game.  Only two survived the Prohibition/Dark Ages (Angostura and Peychauds) and have made it to modernity.  However, in the last decade there has been a huge resurgence of popularity for bitters.  Gary Regan catalyzed that by the release of his famous orange bitters.  Soon after, a slew of bitter brands sprung up with flavors ranging from celery to chocolate mole.  Then people realized how easy they were to make and started home brewing.  Damn hipsters.  *cough*  Use a few dashes of bitters to accent a flavor inherent to your drink.  Swapping bitter flavors and types of syrups (see below) can do marvelous things to cocktails, like The Old Fashioned and the Manhattan. A big chunk of modern drinks are a twist on one of these two classics by doing just that.

Syrups:  The sugar you add to a drink.  Usually simple syrup (sugar and water), but there is a growing trend of flavored syrups.  Personally, I'm a big fan of tea syrups and cinnamon syrup.  I'll take about these more in detail when I get to them. 

Ice:  Frozen water.  Revolutionary, I know.  That being said, the use of ice is vital to making a drink.  Too much or the wrong kind can make for a watered down mess.  When you make a mojito or a mint julep, you should used crushed ice, not something from your ice cube tray.  Adding an ice sphere to your drink instead of a few dinky cubes from the freezer adds a lot of class and strength (less dilution) to your drink.  This will be a continual topic of conversation.

Garnish:  The thing that makes your drink pretty.  BUT IT'S SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT.  The scent of the garnish can do so much for a drink.  The essential oils released from stuff like lemon rind makes a Sazerac a Sazerac.  Do not underestimate the importance of this.  Also, having a little sword to poke your neighbor with after you finish your drink is half the fun of drinking, after all.

Glassware:  People get really snooty about a lot of things in the world of cocktails.  Some of it is very much deserved.  Some of it... not so much.  Glassware straddles that line, in my opinion.  Presentation is a big deal in anything, be it food, drink, or business.  A Tom Collins served in a solo cup just doesn't quite looks as nice as in a Collins Glass.  Additionally, a lot of drinks are served in a specific glass for a reason.  Champagne based cocktails are served in a narrow flute because you want less oxidization in white wine (as opposed to red, where you want more oxidization and thus a wider glass) and with a long stem to hold so your hand doesn't heat up the drink.  The trick is figuring out which glasses are made the way are with a purpose in mind and which glasses are just made that way to get you to buy another type of glass and spend more money.  I'll talk about different types of glasses as we get to them.


Stir: This is for those of you that haven't seen the "Stirred" episode of The West Wing.  You should always stir a martini.  In fact, you should always stir any drink that is without egg white or fruit juice.  Using the bartender spoon doesn't chip the ice and water down the drink.  You can also "bruise" the spirit by shaking it.  Fill a mixing glass about half way with ice, typically.

Shake: Do this when you have fruit juice or an egg white.  The fruit juice needs to be mixed in more than other ingredients and the egg white needs to do some crazy science stuff that requires shaking.  Or something.  Generally speaking, fill a Boston shaker all the way with ice before shaking.  If you're shaking with an egg white, dry shake (no ice) first, then add ice (how much depends on the drink.

Strain: You only need your basic strainer (Hawthorne) when you're doing stirred drinks (for the most part).  However, when you start messing with fruit juice and herbs, you should use a mesh strainer (in addition to the Hawthorne) and a julep strainer, respectively.  This keeps the little bits of whatever from getting in your drink and making it look like there's wee beasties swimming around in there.

Muddle: Mashing stuff.  Sugar cubes and bitters to make a simple syrup, herbs for a mojito, fruit for a rum old fashioned, etc... Do it strong, don't do it in an easily breakable glass, and don't use a cheap muddler that will leave residue in your drink.  Don't muddle the fruit in the final glass of an old fashioned or you will surely die.

Emulsification: There are multiple ways to do this, but the main one is using an egg white.  Yes, a raw egg white.  Use fresh eggs, then shake the bejeezus out of it.  Bartenders have been doing this since long before you were born (see the Ramos Gin Fizz).  You can also use a milk frother if you're lazy, like Jamie Boudreau and myself.  This makes a drink thicker and can really do wonders.  Don't bash it until you've tried it. 

Foam: Fancy pants stuff.  Using something like an isi Whipper to inject NOS into a mixture of egg whites, lemon juice, gelatin (sometimes), water (sometimes) and a liqueur.  Makes a cocktail foam to top or accent your drink.  It's really cool.  

Mist: Using an atomizer or oliver oil mister to evenly spray a spirit/bitters/whatever over your drink or to coat the inside of your glass.  Great for vermouth in a martini, absinthe in a Sazerac, or surprising your mom with an alcoholic salad when she visits.

Rinse:  Same purpose as misting a glass.  You want to get a thin coating of something on your glass before you add your drink to it.  Does a lot for scent and accent.  If you don't have a mister, you just add a dash of whatever, say absinthe, to the glass and twirl it around, making sure to coat the entire inside, and then pouring out the excess.  You can also be all fancy and spin the glass up in the air to rinse the inside.  While it looks cool and is impressive, it's not as effective as carefully coating the inside or misting the inside.

Torch: Another use for misting is to gratify the inner pyromaniac in you.  If you're using a high proof alcohol, like Chartreuse or Angostura bitters, you can set it on fire as you mist it, creating a fantastic scent and taste to cover your drink.  Also does wonder for creme brulee, but that's another topic.  You can also torch essential oils from fruit.  You traditionally see this done with the oil from an orange rind when making an Old Fashioned.  The addition of a little smoke can be fantastic so long as you don't overdo it. 

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