Saturday, June 30, 2012

Happy National Mai-Tai Day!

Thanks to Tiare for pointing out that it's National Mai Tai Day today (for a few more hours). 'Cause, you know, we need more reasons to drink the best cocktail in the world.

A quick recap of the history: the Mai Tai paternity battle has raged for decades, but the consensus now seems to be that Trader Vic can be credited with the definitive recipe (even if he may have been trying to copy one of Don the Beachcomber's drinks). The potentially apocryphal story is that Trader Vic invented the cocktail for Tahitian friends in 1944. The name comes from the Tahitian phrase that translates as "the best". Whether or not the story is true, the appellation certainly is.

As I've mentioned before, the Mai Tai is the classic tiki drink. It's a perfect example of how reshaping the basic rum sour recipe with multiple rums, liqueurs, and syrups can create drinks of unimaginable deliciousness. Even better, it's perfectly amenable to use with other base spirits.

However, the rum Mai Tai will always be the best. My current favorite is a combination of Smith & Cross, Appleton V/X, and Rhum J.M. Élevé Sous Bois with homemade orange liqueur and B.G. Reynold's orgeat.

Mai Tai
0.5 oz Smith & Cross
0.5 oz Appleton V/X
1 oz Rhum J.M. gold
0.75 oz lime juice
0.5 oz orange liqueur
0.5 oz orgeat

Combine all ingredients, shake with cracked ice, and pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass with more cracked ice.

While not quite as burley as Tiare's Mai Tai, this version has plenty of heft. Initially the Smith& Cross is a little too dominant, giving the drink a rough edge, but as the cracked ice does its work, the cocktail smoothes out and becomes simply delicious. All of the rums blend together perfectly. But between the S&C and Rhum J.M. you'd better watch out because it'll sneak up on you.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Rum Reviews: Guyana, Pt. II

Following up on two previous reviews of Guyanese rums, I want to take a look at two Demeraras that share a lot of similarities, but still have very distinctive characters.

El Dorado 5 Year

Nose: lightly toasted oak, tropical fruits, prickles of spices, slightly buttery coffee, sugarcane, vanilla. After adding a little bit of water, molasses becomes more prominent

Taste: sweetly fruity up front, with passionfruit and mango coming out, mid palate has light molasses flavors, mild oak, mocha, and a veneer of vanilla riding over everything

Finish: bittersweet molasses, vanilla, a bit of oak and fruit - orange, primarily, with some more mango and passionfruit

El Dorado 5 Year, like all El Dorado rums, is produced by Demerara Distillers Limited from a number of their vast collection of stills. ED5 is made purely from column still rums, though it does contain some rum from DDL's unique wooden Coffey still. While column stills sometimes get a bad rep, I think it was the right choice for this rum. ED5 offers a very balanced profile, somewhere between the lighter, fruitier spirit that one tends to find in white rums and the heavier, more molasses-driven aged rums. My hat goes off to the distillers and blenders of DDL as they have produced what I think is one of the best values in rum and possibly in the entire spirits world. ED5 usually runs between $15 and $20, which is better than a lot of other less flavorful rums. And as per Captain Jimbo's analysis, I think that it even competes well against its elder 12- and 15-year old siblings. The older rums are much more focused on the deep, rich flavors of molasses, chocolate and oak, whereas the 5-year old contains those elements but leavens them with bright, tropical fruits. If you're looking to buy one rum for your home bar, El Dorado 5 Year easily tops the list. While heavier than a white rum, it's light enough to substitute into recipes calling for something unaged without muddying things too much, while at the same time it has enough heft to fit into recipes calling for an aged or dark rum. Truly, a magnificent example of how good rum can be at a price point that puts many other spirits to shame.

Even in a daiquiri, ED5 is still very fruit-forward. The tropical fruits that I found in the neat spirit team up very effectively with the lime to give it a strong tiki feel. There's still an undercurrent of molasses, but it's subservient to the fruit. The vanilla also comes out to give the drink a pleasant smoothness. Lastly, there's just a little bit of lingering bitterness at the end that detracts slightly from the experience, but it's subtle and may just be the result of using insufficiently fresh limes in my drink.

Air Mail
1.5 oz rum
0.75 oz lime juice
0.75 oz honey syrup

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and strain into a glass. Top with sparkling wine.

The nose is dominated by the dry, slightly yeasty elements of sparkling wine, with fruit from the rum and lime as well as sweet notes of honey emerging. The sip is relatively crisp, with the snap of sparkling wine and lime, leavened by the smooth rum and honey.

Everything blends together beautifully in this daiquiri highball. The drink comes from Esquire's 1949 Handbook for Hosts. While further provenance can't be established, Dr. Cocktail suggests that it's simply a nod to what used to be the fastest way to get information from one place to another. And this drink will certainly send you somewhere else in a hurry. The sparkling wine elevates it nicely and makes for a wickedly good summer drink. While the taste is light, it's deceptively potent. The fruitiness of ED5 fits well, but it could easily be swapped out for other rums. Rhum agricole would make it snappier, emphasizing the drier elements, whereas a big vanilla bomb like an aged Ron Matusalem would make it much softer. But no matter how you make it, this is a seriously tasty drink.

Lemon Hart 80 Proof

Nose: blackberries, curry spices - primarily turmeric, toasted oak, underlying hint of molasses, slightly sweet

Taste: relatively dry, some light blackstrap molasses mashed up with toasted oak

Finish: continues the dry flavors of oak and molasses, orange peel

Lemon Hart 80-proof is the lesser sibling of the brand's comparatively well-known and fêted 151-proof rum. While the latter has returned to the U.S., fresh with new, classier packaging, it appears that the 80-proof version will not be coming to our shores. However it has found a new lease of life on the Continent. Personally, I think the current owners would be best served by bringing in a 90-100 proof expression. I had a conversation with (I think) Steve Bennett of Uncommon Caribbean about this and we agreed than a version in the mold of Mt. Gay's recently released 100-proof Eclipse Black Rum would be an excellent fit for the current market. Basically, the way I feel is that if they're going to bring in something besides the current 151-proof, they need a way to differentiate the product from El Dorado 5 Year. As Lemon Hart is generally thought of as the brasher Demerara, a higher bottling proof would be fitting with the image, but it would be cocktail-friendly without having the connotations of a 151-proof rum.

For being a relatively brash, young rum, Lemon Hart 80 actually takes a bit of a back seat in a standard daiquiri. The nose is dominated by sweet lime, with a slightly rummy background. However the taste is much more interesting, with strong blackberry notes and a hint of banana emerging from the rum. It doesn't have the punch of its heftier sibling, but actually makes an extremely refined and pleasant daiquiri. While I'd still give the nod to ED5 over LH80, I can see why the latter has something of minor cult following.

1.5 oz light rum
0.5 oz Demerara rum
0.75 oz ginger liqueur
0.75 oz falernum
0.75 oz lime juice

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime twist.

The nose presents some sharp notes of ginger with clove and allspice from the falernum, backed up by the Lemon Hart rum. The sip leads off with less sweetness than I would have expected given the ratio of liqueurs to lime. The mid-palate contains rich rum flavors from the Demerara and falernum, which then leads into sharper notes of ginger and lime, finishing with just a bit of residual heat.

This variation on the basic daiquiri comes from Jeff "Beach Bum" Berry via Fred of Cocktail Virigin Slut. The drink comes together with excellent balance - the tangy ginger from the liqueur and falernum build a counterpoint to the smoother flavors of the rums. Though Lemon Hart rum is only a small constituent of this drink, I feel like it's still a good showcase for the rum's flavors. The Ron Matusalem Platino I used for the light rum is light indeed and presents a fairly blank canvas for the other elements. I'll admit to cheating a bit because Blair's Dark Falernum includes Lemon Hart 151, which helps to keep the Demerara rum present.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Classic Cocktail: the Rose Marie Cocktail

Sadly I couldn't find any information on the provenance of this drink that I pulled out of the Cocktail Database, but looking at the recipe it's a bit of an odd beast. Amazingly, all of the ingredients pull together beautifully.

Rose Marie Cocktail
1.25 oz gin
0.5 oz dry vermouth
0.25 oz armagnac (sub cognac)
0.25 oz Campari
0.25 oz cherry Heering

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

On the nose, this is the antithesis of a tiki drink - instead of the ingredients blending to form something new, each element is distinct and presents itself in turn. You can smell everything, but somehow they're still separate. The sip begins with cherry notes from the Heering and the orange sweetness of Campari. There's a brief lift of fruit from the brandy, then the Campari does its usual segue into darker, more bitter flavors as the drink moves across the tongue, being joined by the juniper of the gin and dry wine of the vermouth. For being a fairly minor constituent, the Campari almost steals the show, but at the same time it works well with the other ingredients, which layer on top of that base.

While I made this drink somewhat on a whim, it turned out to be pretty tasty. I'm slowly acclimatizing myself to more bitter-centric drinks and this is a fine example of what I would think of as a bittersweet cocktail. Both elements are present and in tension, but neither rides over the other.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Whisky Review: Springbank 15

This is another provisional review, this time from a trip to the Whiskey Soda Lounge here in SE Portland.

Springbank 15 Year

Nose: gentle but rich Oloroso sherry, the characteristic Springbank coastal brine underneath, brown sugar, soapy in a pleasant fashion - kind of like fresh laundry, peat - somewhere in between smokey and vegetal, slightly yeasty, some barbecue notes. After adding a few drops of water, more oak emerges, the brine holds fast, while the peat becomes creamier and more vegetal, some dry cacao, and hints of sherry.

Taste: Brine and malt dominate, a bit of peat near the back, some sugary sweetness up front. After adding water, the taste is initially still sugary sweet up front, then a muddled wave of sherry, brine, and peat all crowd for attention, with just a little bit of TCP at the back of the mouth.

Finish: more brine and malt, oaky tannins come out. After adding water, some drying peat comes out.

Overall I'll have to admit that I was a little bit disappointed by this whisky. The nose is fairly good, though less sherry-influenced that I expected it to be given that the whisky going into this expression is aged entirely in sherry casks. The sherry and peat combo reminded me of Talisker Distiller's Edition, though I found this Springbank to be much less robust. Additionally, while I generally liked the nose, the palate was rather disappointing, tasting little better than the much less expensive Springbank CV. Admittedly, I was trying this whisky under less than ideal conditions, but it wasn't an experience that makes me want to rush out and buy a full bottle (especially at $80+ a pop).

Monday, June 18, 2012

Classic Cocktail: the Champagne Cocktail Variation

This drink is a tweak of the standard Champagne Cocktail. The normal procedure is to soak a sugar cube in bitters, then pour champagne over it. This variation substitutes liqueur for the solid sugar, so the procedure is a little bit different, but the results are even more delicious.

Champagne Cocktail Variation
1-2 tsp orange liqueur
1-2 dashes Angostura bitters

Add liqueur and bitters to a glass of sparkling wine and stir briefly to combine.

The nose carries light orange notes over the dry wine, which come together to produce something akin to peach, inflected with the cinnamon and allspice of the bitters. The sip recapitulates the nose, with elements of orange and bitter dancing around the sparkling wine without overwhelming it.

I really like the way this drink comes together. The liqueur/bitters combo balance each other out, keeping the drink in off-dry territory. Obviously you can change that balance by using more or less of each element. To me it comes off as a more austere Mimosa, with smooth orange flavors but retaining the crispness of dry sparkling wine due to the bitters. Basically, this is a nice way to tweak sparkling wine without losing its essential character.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Whisky Review: Macallan Cask Strength and the Effects of Dilution

After drinking a dram of Macallan Cask Strength back in January, I decided to pick up a full bottle as it was on sale for only $55 in Oregon, roughly the same price as the much weaker Macallan 12 Year. While I think it's a good whisky at full strength, I was also interested to see what could be found if it was diluted down to a more standard proof. Ryan over at Value Whisky and Josh at The Coopered Tot have both run experiments with cask strength whiskies, which found that letting a diluted whisky 'integrate' with water produces a much more enjoyable dram. So I decided to take that path instead of diluting the whisky and drinking it immediately. I made dilutions of Macallan CS to 55%, 50% and 45% ABV and bottled them to let them sit for a few days before tasting them.

45% ABV Dilution

Nose: very nice balance between bourbon-y notes of sweet grain, vanilla and wood, with gentle sherry, jammy raspberries and raisins - very fruit-forward

Taste: slightly sweet and fruity up front, but not particularly rich, sherry is relatively subdued - rides underneath and grows towards the back of the mouth, pepper is still there - comes in strong then fades into mild bitterness

Finish: sweet, bright fruit, slightly bitter wood, noticeable residual alcohol, lingering pepper - still very much a sherried whisky in the end

I think this would be the perfect way to entice a die-hard bourbon or rye drinker into the world of single malts. The nose reminds me very much of a well-aged American whiskey, with strong grain-derived elements and the sherry taking a back seat. Overall I think I would describe this as the most pleasant strength to drink Macallan CS at - not the most interesting, but an easy sipper that should please quite a lot of palates.

50% ABV Dilution

Nose: more wood, dry sherry underneath, some sweeter, round fruit, vanilla, oatmeal

Taste: sugary sweetness up front, then muddled sweet fruits, big pepper, bitter chocolate or mocha near the back

Finish: wood, sweet sherry, chocolate/mocha, lingering pepper.

This is one of my favorite strengths for this whisky. All of the key flavor elements are present and assert themselves very nicely. The nose is strong without being overpowering, the palate is rich without singeing the taste buds, and the finish lingers with delicious bittersweetness. This is essentially what I wanted Macallan 12 Year to be and expect that it could be if the distiller was willing to offer it at a higher bottling strength.

The only downside here is that the relative youth of this whisky starts to manifest itself at this strength, with a bit more heat than I would hope for. I'd be interested to compare the No Age Statement version I have with the 10 year old cask strength Macallan that is sold in other markets. I've heard that the NAS version is made up of whiskies that are roughly 8-12 years old and I think it shows. A greater proportion of older whiskies would help to round it out a bit.

55% ABV Dilution

Nose: alcohol becomes more noticeable, more closed, poorly defined vanilla and sherry, light oatmeal and brown sugar

Taste: less sweet, but sugar remains as an undercurrent, bigger pepper, sherry becomes much stronger further back, bittersweet chocolate near the back

Finish: pepper, sherry, less wood, still distinctly bittersweet

There's nothing particularly wrong with this strength, I just feel like it doesn't offer anything that the 50% version doesn't, but there's also a stronger burn that detracts a bit from the experience. By the same token, it's not as full-throated as the undiluted cask strength whisky, so 55% is just an uncomfortable middle ground.

58.2% ABV - Full Strength

Nose: heavy Oloroso sherry with a hint of PX sweet raisins, bourbon undertones of sweet, malty grain and vanilla, sugar, bittersweet chocolate, general fruitiness, some nice floral notes after airing out

Taste: rich but not too sweet up front, fruit and sherry expand from the tip of the tongue, growing sweeter as the spirit spreads across the mouth, a huge burst of pepper blooms mid-palate and extends into the finish, drying towards the back of the mouth with a healthy dose of wood

Finish: lingering pepper and sherry, a touch of bitter wood and mocha, vanilla

The Real Deal. There's a reason they bottle it at this strength. Completely in your face whisky. Everything is big and it holds nothing back. There's a fairly strong amount of burn, which is somewhat unsurprising given the bottling proof and age, but it's a bit hard to pick out from the big pepper flavors on the palate and finish. As I mentioned above, I think this could be an even better whisky if there were a greater proportion of older malt in this whisky as it could do with just a bit more refinement.

There are comparisons to be made with Arran's Sherry Single Cask, as they both have similar flavor profiles, but the Macallan CS is younger and brasher. The Arran is big and bold with lots of pepper, but feels like a more integrated whole, whereas the Macallan jerks you around a bit. The Macallan also shows a much stronger sherry influence, which I'm guessing comes from first-fill casks. At the moment I'd have to give the nod to Arran as they're the same price here in Oregon, but eleswhere the Macallan would be a slightly better value.

As you can see, there are basically the same elements at each strength, but the manner and degree to which they present themselves can vary significantly. Personally, I'm most fond of the 50% and full strength versions. The 50% is probably the most balanced, with some of the harsher edges rounded out without becoming quite as subdued as the 45% version. However, there are times that the full-blast cask strength is what I want and it offers quite a ride. I'd highly suggest experimenting with dilutions at different strengths when you get a cask strength whisky. There are other perspectives to be found within when it's not running at full bore.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Classic Cocktails: the Lucien Gaudin Cocktail

This riff on the Negroni comes from the priceless Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh. The drink is named after Lucien Gaudin, a three time competitor and two time gold medal winning fencer in the 1920-28 Olympics. Not a bad record and a rather tasty namesake drink:

Lucien Gaudin Cocktail
1 oz gin
0.5 oz orange liqueur
0.5 oz Campari
0.5 oz sweet vermouth

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with orange peel.

The nose is dominated by the orange liqueur and buttressed by the orange notes of the Campari, with a subtle spiciness. The sip is shockingly sweet for a cocktail dominated by bitter ingredients. It begins with almost syrupy sweetness, again from the one-two punch of orange liqueur and Campari. The sweetness fades as the bitterness comes in, providing a lovely transition towards the back of the mouth. The flavors also transition from strong orange notes near the beginning of the mouth to spice notes from the liqueur, gin, and sweet vermouth. The finish is bitter, but not aggressively so, giving it a nice palate cleansing quality.

This is a drink where the ingredients really matter. Everything is present - there's nowhere to hide if something isn't up to snuff. For instance, I chose to make it with Aviation gin, which might have been a mistake. Looking at the recipe, it appears to be a huge bitter fest, but the orange liqueur really holds its own against the other ingredients. A robust London dry gin might be the more appropriate choice. Further, I'd suggest going for a less sweet liqueur if you can find it, as the Campari also lends some sweetness to the opening portion of the sip, and it can easily cross the line into being cloying. Other than the Campari, there's lot of room for experimentation to find the combination of spirits that works best for you.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Brandy + Rum = Best Friends Forever

Some spirits are just meant to be together. Rum and brandy come from distinctly different worlds - rum is derived from the waste products of processing a massively mutated grass, whereas brandy is a highly refined spirit made from carefully tended grapes. And yet when put together they can bring out the best in each other.

Kiss at Midnight
0.75 oz aged Puerto Rican rum
0.75 oz cognac
0.5 oz sweet vermouth
0.25 oz cherry Heering
1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for 15 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The nose is dominated by notes of dried cherries from the Heering, with a juicy spiciness from the  interaction of cognac, vermouth, and bitters that reminds me favorably of the Belle Époque. The brandy peeks up behind all of the other elements. The sip leads off without much fanfare, the flavors slowly building to a crescendo across the tongue. The wine notes of the vermouth come in first, followed closely by the cognac. The rum then sallies forth with gusto, leading into sweet and bitter spices from the Angostura and vermouth, finishing with lingering bittersweet chocolate and cherry notes.

While I pulled this together from instinct, it closely resembles the Vieux Carré in form. I wanted a drink using rum, brandy and sweet vermouth. Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva has some cherry notes in it, which made me think of tempering the bitterness of the vermouth with a bit of cherry Heering. Overall I'm rather pleased with how this drink turned out, as it provides a robust, balanced experience that showcases all of its individual elements very nicely. The finish in particular makes it very more-ish as it melds sweet and bitter flavors exquisitely.

Natural Cocktail (from CocktailDB)
1 oz brandy
0.5 oz light rum
0.25 oz lemon juice
0.25 oz grenadine
0.25 oz orgeat (B.G. Reynolds)

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The nose presents some interesting notes. Out of the melange, I get a rather distinct whiff of apple juice along with some dark fruit, maybe cherry, from the intersection of the grenadine and orgeat, and just a hint of nuttiness. The sip begins smoothly, without a lot of sweetness, leading into a mild touch of rum. This segues into a burst of different flavors coming in rapid succession - brandy, then subdued lemon juice and finally some slightly bitter nuttiness from the orgeat. The finish contains lingering barrel flavors from the brandy with a bit of fruit - both from the pomegranate and a bit of apple from the spirits.

This drink is a peculiar mashup of the Bacardi Cocktail and the Japanese Cocktail. And yet the elements come together in a rather pleasing fashion. The rum and brandy become something other than the sum of their parts. I picked El Dorado 5 Year rum and Hardy VS cognac because they're both rather fruity examples of their respective spirits. The El Dorado brings a lot of great tropical fruits like mango and passionfruit while the Hardy retains a strong tie to its origins with the grape and wine flavors holding fast against the barrel influence. It's surprising that this is not a particularly sweet drink, given the larger measure of syrups over citrus. Somehow everything stays in tension without becoming a jumbled mess.

Molokai Mule (modified from Remixed)
0.75 oz Demerara rum
0.75 oz gold Puerto Rican rum
0.75 oz Cognac
0.5 oz lime juice
1 oz orange juice
0.5 oz orgeat syrup

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass.

The sip begins with the rich rum flavors from Guyana and Nicaragua. The fruit flavors of lime and orange then come in, with a solid finish of Demerara, brandy and orgeat. 

This is one of those drinks that comes very close to the dangerous state of 'muddled flavor profile', but by bumping up the spirits it manages to come together reasonably well. Without that tweak, the drink becomes overwhelmed by the juices. Picking the right spirits is also quite important. I went with Jacques Cardin VSOP brandy as it tends to have fairly strong maple syrup and vanilla flavors, which mesh well with the rums. El Dorado 12 year is my favorite Demerara rum, as it's incredibly rich and will hold its own extremely well in just about any rum-based cocktail. Flor de Caña 7 year is also a rich, well-aged rum that helps to lend the drink some backbone. And most importantly, they all play well together.