Item No. 04 of my 2016 Cooking Challenge
This time around, I’m taking a little diversion from my usual set of recipes to learn some mixology. When it comes to alcohol, I’ve never been the biggest consumer of mixed drinks. 90% of the time I’m happy with either a wine or beer, or if I do go into the realm of other liquors, it’s something in pure form, usually whiskey or tequila so I can taste its uninterrupted flavor. That’s all well and good, but mixology is still an art form, one related to tastes, flavors, and textures, and therefore, it’s worth learning.
I decided to start my self-taught mixology classes with some whiskey being my base liquor. Why? Well, whiskey is my favorite liquor, and at the same time, it presents a decent challenge. Vodka, rum, gin, and, tequila all star in lead roles for many popular cocktails. Whiskey is more typically enjoyed on its own, by white-bearded men in wingback chairs. And that’s typically how I like it. On it’s own, that is. I can’t really grow a white beard, and I couldn’t care less about wingback chairs.
Also, while I was in Tennessee a couple months back, I happened to pick up a handle of George Dickel, straight from the distillery after taking a tour. I had to put it to good use, in addition to a bottle of Scotch I also happen to own.
The absolute best primer I’ve gotten in the art of mixed drinks happens to come from an episode of Good Eats. No surprise there. It’s an episode entitled “Raising the Bar,” and it happens to be one of the few on Netflix. Alton Brown uses the concept of musical chords to explain how the main components of mixed drinks usually pair together, and it’s extremely fascinating and interesting how he teaches it.
Here’s the best part of what I learned: You can generally think of a cocktail as a three note chord, featuring a base, a modifier, and an accent. The base is the spirit that the drink is built around, in my case, whiskey. The modifier is anything used to carry the spirit and let it resonate, like vermouth, syrup, cola, or juice. Accents are a third item that allows bartenders to really get creative with the most potent ingredients, like liquers, bitters, olives, etc.
There are a ton of facts I could go on and on about related to whiskey. It’s such an interesting craft that’s been honed in parts of the world as worlds-apart as Kentucky and Scotland.
Thing I Learned #1– Whiskey is one of the world’s most heavily regulated industries, and every major producing country seems to enforce its own strict rules regarding what can be called whiskey. Irish whisky undergoes a triple distillation process. American whiskey can be made from a number of cereal grains, including rye, barley, wheat, and corn. Canadian whisky benefitted the most from American prohibition, as many bourbon producers moved across the border and leading to the rise of their industry. Scotland, despite being a small country, has the most developed whisky-related geography, with each of its regions correlating to distinct processes and flavors. Interestingly, the biggest consumer of whiskey worldwide is actually India.
I decided to try to attempt three whiskey based cocktails. Two that would be popular staples at any given bar, and one that might be a little bit more of my own invention.
1 1/2 shots of whiskey
2 shots of seltzer water
2 shots of simple syrup
1 Maraschino Cherry
A shot pourer
Long toothpicks or short skewers
A blender, juicer or food processor
Thing I Learned #2– Are those whiskey stones a good idea? You know the ones I’m talking about. You’ve probably seen them at fancy-cooking tool stores. The idea is that they bring down drink temperatures the way an ice cube does, but because they retain their form as a solid and don’t melt, you don’t risk having taste diluted by water. I’d say this is great for whiskey “on the rocks” but when it comes to mixed drinks, the melt-off from the ice can help blend the flavors a little bit further.
A Whiskey Sour is kind of an interesting concept. When I think of whiskey related flavors I imagine cereals, woods, and rich smoky tastes. I don’t tend to think of fruits and juices. But a whiskey sour goes the opposite direction… towards citrus. This recipe is definitely the maximum effort called for by a whiskey sour, one can easily buy a simple sour mix and syrup ready to go, but I like the hands on process.
1) Make a syrup
A simple syrup is just equal parts water and sugar heated until the sugar is dissolved. It’s surprisingly easy to make in a saucepan and the results can be used for everything from mixed drinks to lattes. Let this chill once you’re done and make sure it is no longer hot so it doesn’t overheat your drink. This is why I prefer to make mine far ahead of time and to just keep it on hand.
2) Make a sour mix
Here’s the way I’d like to do it. You could use a juicer, but I don’t own one or plan to own one anytime soon. Chop the peel off the lemon and lime and throw it into a blender. That’ll get a nice juice going, albeit full of pulp and extra membranes. Pour some seltzer water into a cup and then use a strainer to filter the juice going in.
3) Mix it Up
Fill a cup a third of the way with the sour mix, and the next third with whiskey. Then add the homemade syrup.
4) And a cherry on top
Skewer the maraschino cherry and garnish away. There you have it.
City of Gold
1 1/2 shots of whiskey
1 1/2 shots of Salted Caramel syrup – made from the items in parentheses
(1 cup sugar)
(3/4 cup of water)
(1 teaspoon of sea salt)
(1 teaspoon of honey)
(1 teaspoon of vanilla extract)
1/3 cup of milk
1 1/2 shots of amarula
A shot pourer
I said I wanted to invent a cocktail, so here’s one inspired by a country that’s captured my heart– South Africa. Specifically, Johannesburg, which happens to be nicknamed the City of Gold. Since liquers could be used as an accent, I decided to go with nothing other than South Africa’s signature liquer, Amarula. A creamy liquer made from the Marula plant. I have no idea what the marula plant actually is independent from Amarula, so that context isn’t very useful.
I really wanted to get some ginger beer in this recipe somehow, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. Ginger beer is really popular in South Africa, and it seems to lend itself well to whiskey. Unfortunately, ginger beer and Amarula don’t mix. The two will simply curdle any way. So if I had to pick one over another, I went with the Amarula as an accent, and use milk as a modifier, almost like a warmer, southern hemisphere version of a White Russian.
1) Make Salted Caramel
This syrup is super useful, so much so that I’ll include more details on this recipe when I work on a flat white. It can be used in coffee drinks, desserts, and cocktails of course. You’ll start by combining the honey, sugar, and 1/4 cup water in a saucepan and wait until the sugar has dissolved. Then stir vigorously until the liquid turns light amber. Mix in the rest of the water, the vanilla, and salt. Let it cool for a while, and this will keep for months in the fridge.
2) Mix Away
You’ll mix it all up, so there aren’t many rules about order, but toss in the whiskey, caramel, milk, and Amarula. Then give it a good stir. You’re all set, then!
One of the things that you can most readily associate with a summer in the south is a classic mint julep.
Thing I Learned #3– Two American states dominate the domestic whiskey market, and it’s probably pretty easy to guess which ones. Kentucky and Tennessee. Kentucky is the producer of 95% of bourbons, barrel aged whiskeys distilled from corn mash. Tennessee Whisky is very similar, and they’re even labeled as bourbons under NAFTA. The distinguishing feature is that Tennessee Whisky undergoes a charcoal distillation process. There’s kind of a Lord of the Rings situation going on with Tennessee Whisky, too. Only four bottlers are allowed to use the method.
10-12 Mint Leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons of fine sugar
1 1/2 shots of whiskey
1) Muddle Things Up
Start with the ten mint leaves at the bottom of the glass and pour in the sugar. Muddle them by pressing firmly against them, as if almost trying to grind them. Get the mint to release a bit of moisture the sticks to the sugar.
2) Get Fizzy With It
In goes the seltzer water, a little under halfway. In goes the ice. Then the whisky. Then more seltzer until you’ve got a full cup.
3) Minty Fresh
Garnish with a mint leaf.
Serving this Sucker
We did not have an Oscars party this year, but if we did, I imagine that would have been a good night for cocktails. As you might go imagine, they’d go well with cheeses, a charcuterie board, or they’re fine all by themselves.
In the Future
I’m ready for more cocktail inventing. I love the challenge of trying to match certain names, cities, themes, or concepts. Yeah… I’d like to try some more of that.