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By Ron Fisher

<Dear ROTR,

I love reading about all the drinks I can make if I want to mess up my kitchen, but aren’t there any mixes I can buy that you simply pour and stir?>

Dear Simplify,

The answer is yes. I understand that not everyone needs to do things the hard way, even if I view making a mess as part of the process. That said, Whole Foods has a terrific collection of cocktail mixes, bitters and simple syrups. As with anything you buy prepared, you need to read the list of ingredients on the label. If it includes things that you would reasonably have in your drawer at home, you’re on solid ground. If there is lots of salt, sorbic acid, or other stuff you can’t identify, stay away. I have the Ginger Spice and Spiced Old Fashioned mixes, and I think they’re wonderful.

Here’s a serving suggestion when you’re having people over: pour the mix from the jar into a small pitcher and put a spoon into the pitcher, with the handle leaning against the pitcher’s rim. A bottle of the appropriate spirit is standing alongside. When it comes time to mix a cocktail, say, “Here’s something you might enjoy,” give the spoon a quick twirl through the liquid, and prepare according to the instructions on the jar. As your guests take a sip, give them an inquisitive look; they say, “Wow, that’s good;” and you smile knowingly, opining, “It’s one of my faves.”

<Dear ROTR,

I want to make some cocktails, but I don’t have the bar equipment that I need. What should I buy?>

Dear Gearhead,

Here are the basics you should have, although I will warn you, as a gearhead myself, there are more accoutrements in the cocktail world than you would imagine.

The first thing I would recommend is a Cobbler shaker.

It comes with a cap (that can be used as a 2 oz. jigger) and the top has a strainer.

You will need another jigger, as well, which measures smaller amounts. Buy a Japanese jigger that measures ½ ounce and ¾ ounce. It’s easy enough to figure what is half of a 2-ounce jigger, which is what comes with your shaker, but smaller than that is tough to measure.

You will also need a swizzle spoon. There are numerous occasions when a cocktail must be stirred – recall that not every martini is shaken – and an iced-tea spoon just doesn’t cut it.

Lastly, I would recommend having a citrus press. They’re quick, efficient, and they are cleaner than any other means of squeezing lemons and limes.

If you really want to kit out your bar with equipment, you can find everything you could ever imagine at www.cocktailkingdom.com.

<Dear ROTR,

I am a recently divorced man in my late-forties, re-entering the dating scene after many years. I enjoy cooking, and find that preparing dinner at my house is fun for both my date and me. It would be nice to have a cocktail to add to the presentation. Any thoughts?>

Dear Re-entrant,

Great question! Plunking down a bottle of bourbon on the counter and asking, “Straight up or on the rocks?” is not going to win many hearts. She might like a Cosmo, but it’s not exactly a guy’s drink, and you want something that you can enjoy together. Let me suggest a Pegu Club Cocktail, a tasty drink that is easy to make that you both will enjoy. Originally a warm-weather cocktail, the Pegu Club is good any time of year. That it comes with a story is an added plus.

As you are mixing the drink, here is the story you can tell: The Pegu Club was an opulent, Victorian-style Gentlemen's club in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar), named after the Pegu, a Burmese river. The club was built in the 1880s to serve British army officers and civilian administrators. In its day, it was one of the most famous clubs in Southeast Asia. The recipe appeared in the Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930, and there is now a trendy bar in Manhattan called the Pegu Club.

<<The Pegu Club Cocktail>>

2 oz. gin (or vodka, if you must)

¾ oz. curacao or Cointreau

¾ oz. lime juice

A dash of bitters

Sweeten with simple syrup to taste

Shake with lots of ice and serve straight up in a martini glass. For those really in the know, you will realize that a Pegu Club is basically a Cosmo without the cranberry juice. However, keep this to yourself when telling the story.

 

By Ron Fisher

If Dale Carnegie had known how to make a Mai Tai, he could have saved himself all the time and work writing “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. This cocktail will make you popular. Make no mistake — the Mai Tai is no <frou-frou> tiki drink – it’s a delicious and sophisticated cocktail, and it can really wow a crowd.

“Trader Vic” Bergeron claims to have invented the Mai Tai in 1944 at his restaurant in Oakland, California. When he offered his creation to friends from Tahiti, they took one sip and said, “Mai tai roa ae.” In Tahitian this means, “Out of this world, the best.” With that, and some (shameless) self-promotion on Vic’s part, a legend was born.

Those of an age will remember Trader Vic’s at one of two locations in New York. The restaurant originally opened in 1958 at the swank Savoy-Plaza Hotel (now the GM Building), and in 1965 it migrated with its Samoan Fog Cutters, Zombie Cocktails, and faux Polynesian décor across the street to a basement room in the Plaza on Central Park South. When the Plaza changed hands in the late 1980s, the new owner deemed Trader Vic’s “tacky” and closed it down. Who was the new owner? Donald Trump. Once upon a time there were more than twenty Trader Vic’s in the U.S., but today, there are just two – Atlanta and the Bay Area – as well as a few spots in Europe and the Far East, and a number of restaurants in the Middle East.

The Mai Tai has a fairly standard bill of ingredients, but for one. There is the base, rum; a modifier, lime juice; a flavoring; Cointreau or Curaçao; and a sweetener, orgeat syrup, which is almond-based. It’s the orgeat (pron: or’ zhah) that makes the Mai Tai special. The bad news is that orgeat is expensive, hard to find, and, as far as I know, only used in a Mai Tai. The good news is that you can make your own quite easily using almond extract.

The almond flavor in a Mai Tai is subtle — it lurks in the background and is hard to identify by taste. It complements the orange-y essence of the Cointreau, but neither of them dominates. It offsets the tartness of the lime, but not completely. Most people take a few sips, develop a quizzical look on their face, and ask, “What <is> that flavor?” And then they’re hooked! Do beware if any of your drinkers have nut allergies – you will not win any friends serving them a Mai Tai.

To make an orgeat substitute, mix almond extract with a sweetener. You can use simple syrup, but my go-to cocktail sweetener is agave nectar. It has a richer flavor than simple syrup, and is perfect for any recipe that calls for brown sugar, honey, or a heartier-flavored sweetener. Only in cases in which you want a clear or brightly colored drink – mojitos and daiquiris, for example – will simple syrup be the sweetener to use. Another advantage with agave is that there is no mixing involved. Agave nectar is available in the cooking-ingredients aisle at the grocery store, it’s not expensive and a bottle will last for ages.

<<The Mai Tai>>

2 oz. dark rum, or preferably 1 oz. light and 1 oz. dark

¾ oz. fresh lime juice

¾ oz. simple-syrup orgeat substitute or ¼-½ oz. agave substitute (see below), to taste

¼ oz. Cointreau or Curaçao

Mix all ingredients in a rock’s glass and add ice. If you like a sweeter cocktail, add a little more orgeat substitute. Note: 1 tbsp. = ½ oz., which is good to remember when mixing. Wondering if you got it right? If the cocktail is subtly sweet, subtly sour, and subtly almond, you got it right.

<Orgeat Substitute>

½ tsp. almond extract

1 oz. of simple syrup, or ½ oz. agave nectar.

Mix ingredients together. Agave should be warmed.

1 oz. of simple syrup is 1 tbsp. of sugar dissolved in 1 tbsp. of water. Agave nectar is twice as sweet as simple syrup, so you need half as much. Either recipe will make two cocktails, depending on desired sweetness.

Rye on the Rocks

Frozen!

By Ron Fisher

The mixology world tends to look askance at frozen drinks. After all, how much craft and art can go into a drink that is blended in a machine? Be that as it may, these concoctions are pleasing to look at, tasty and refreshing to drink, easy to make, and incredibly popular, so to avoid a blender for aesthetic reasons is a bit presumptuous. Even cocktail connoisseur Charles Baker (“The Gentleman’s Companion – Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask”, 1939) appreciated a frozen tipple. He wrote, “Of course, most cold drinks may be mixed or shaken by hand. Underground tunnels may be dug by hand, but modern machinery saves hours of wasted time and effort.” He concluded by saying that some drinks “simply cannot be shaped by hand at all.” Touché – a frozen cocktail is a different class of drink, and is worthy of as much attention as any other.

Surprisingly, there is some interesting history to frozen cocktails. In 1936, an inventor approached Fred Waring, who with his swing orchestra, the Pennsylvanians, was a very popular entertainer of that era, hoping that he would provide financial backing for a new electric mixer that would “revolutionize people’s eating habits.” Waring agreed to back the product, and even provided some engineering expertise when the prototype failed to work (Waring had studied engineering at Penn State). In 1937, Waring introduced the Miracle Mixer at the National Restaurant Show and renamed the product The Waring Blender in 1938.

Originally Waring wanted to use the mixer to make health drinks, but found fairly quickly that preparing cocktails offered a much better sales proposition. He promoted his Blender on the radio and while touring, and pretty soon the machine became a fixture in restaurants and bars. Sales took off in the 1950s, as the Blender developed into a consumer appliance. Reportedly, Jonas Salk used a Waring machine while working on the polio vaccine in 1954. One can still buy a Waring Blender, but for our purposes, any good-quality machine will do.

There are two things to keep in mind while preparing a frozen drink. In a cocktail that is served on the rocks, there will typically be ice left in the glass after the drink has been consumed. Not so with a blended drink, which means that dilution is a big concern. Thus, the proportions of the ingredients should be a bit greater than called for in a drink on the rocks.

The other consideration is the ice. The drink should have a uniform, smooth texture, with the appropriate thickness – not so thin that it sloshes around, not so thick that it won’t pour easily. You can’t throw in big ice cubes and expect the cocktail to come out smooth. Crushed ice, cracked cubes, or small chunks work best. And, you want to put the ice in last.

How much ice to use? Roughly ¾ to 1 cup per drink, although there is a certain amount of feel, either by sight and sound. Put in all of the ingredients and add ice until you see the contents flow smoothly around the blender with an open central vortex. Audibly, you want to go from <whir, clunk> to <whoosh, swirl>. If you get to <gluppeta, gluppeta>, and it’s a semi-frozen blob, you’ll have to thin it out a bit (a splash or two of the liquor should get the job done).

The Frozen Daiquiri

2 oz. light rum

1½ oz. lime juice

¾ oz. simple syrup

½ oz. Cointreau or Curaçao

¾-1 cup of crushed or cracked ice

½ cup of a fruit of choice, if desired, preferably frozen.

Put all ingredients into the blender, then add ice and blend until smooth, as discussed above. Almost any fruit can be combined with this recipe, but a classic daiquiri, without any additional flavors, has a tantalizing flavor. Freezing your fruit addition means you’ll need that much less ice.

For a frozen Margarita, substitute tequila for rum.

By Ron Fisher

We all associate the mint julep with the Kentucky Derby, which sells thousands of them every year, but the cocktail existed well before its adoption by Churchill Downs. There are references to the drink that date to the late 1700s (many citing it as a remedy for stomach ailments). In fact, it wasn’t until 1938 that the Derby took ownership of the mint julep, largely as a way to promote Kentucky’s bourbon in the years after Prohibition.

For such a simple concoction – bourbon, mint, sugar, and ice – the fussing and nitpicking over how to make one “correctly” rivals anything I have seen with other traditional cocktails. Handling the mint, the consistency of the ice, the type of cup (silver or glass), whether to include a fruit garnish, and even the length of the straw and how to insert it into the glass are all subjects of deep scrutiny. You think I’m kidding? In his 1939 opus, “The Gentleman’s Companion”, Charles Baker writes, “A julep is more than a mere chilled liquid; it is a tradition which is to be respected…No man can rough and tumble his julep-making and expect that luck must always be on his side, that a lovely arctic frosted thing shall always reward his careless ignorance.”

It’s all so complicated. Thinking about this, I am reminded of a previous life, when I worked in a banking group in which we had an in-house lawyer. Before going out to negotiate a transaction, he would tell me, “Here are the three things you need to get – A, B, & C. Everything else is brownie points.” Off I would go on this odious task, listening to the lawyers go back and forth about this and that, but when A, B, & C came up, I put my nose down, my fist on the table, and I always went back with what I was told to get.

In that spirit, there are three things you need to know about making a mint julep: the mint in the drink, the ice, and the mint as a garnish. Everything else is, well, brownie points.

When building the cocktail, you need to infuse a mint flavor into the liquid. There are two ways to do this: gently muddling six to eight mint leaves in the bottom of a glass with simple syrup, or steeping the mint with the simple syrup (which you need to do if you are making in bulk, discussed below). If you are mixing the juleps individually and muddling, you want the leaves to remain intact, so the muddle is more of a series of taps. Alternatively, fifteen or so aggressive stirs will achieve the same result.

Next, we have the ice. Every recipe in the world calls for crushed ice, so far be it from me to disagree. If your refrigerator has an ice crusher, you’re in business. Otherwise, get out your blender, fill it with ice, and hit the switch.

Lastly, the mint garnish. When we made juleps in the <ROTR> test kitchen, we tasted the drinks before and after we garnished with mint. After only muddling, we got a flavor of mint. With the muddled mint and a garnish on the top of the glass, it was a symphony of mint. The difference was astounding. Try it and you’ll see what I mean.

As for the other <accoutrements>, if you have silver cups, by all means, use them. They look great, they keep the drinks cold, and the condensation that forms on the outside adds to the allure. You want to garnish with fruit? Fine, just don’t overpower the mint. And, if you want to serve the cocktails with a straw, cut them short so that your nose will be that much closer to the mint at the top.

<<<The Mint Julep>>>

3 oz. bourbon

1½ oz. simple syrup

6-8 fresh mint leaves (without stems)

4-5 stems of fresh mint, for garnish

Crushed ice

In the bottom of a julep cup or a medium-sized glass, add the simple syrup and the mint leaves. Muddle lightly or stir aggressively. Add the bourbon and some crushed ice, and stir. Then, add enough ice to fill the glass and insert the mint garnish, so that the mint protrudes well above the surface of the ice. If you want to be fancy, use a chopstick to make a hole in the ice and insert a straw that rises two inches above the top of the glass.

If you are making many juleps at one time, or muddling isn’t your thing, you can substitute the simple syrup and mint leaves with minted simple syrup. <It does not replace the mint garnish>, which is a must.

<Minted Simple Syrup>

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

8 stems of fresh mint leaves, destemmed

Combine the ingredients in a saucepan. Stir frequently until it reaches a simmer, then cover and remove from heat. Allow to cool, remove the mint leaves. Use same proportion as above.

By Ron Fisher

Wimbledon begins in a week or so, and the crowds on hand will be drinking plenty of Pimm’s Cups. What the Mint Julep is to the Kentucky Derby, Pimm’s Cup is to Wimbledon, as well as the Henley Regatta, polo matches, and summer garden parties across the UK. Somehow, Pimm’s has never gained the same recognition in the U.S., which is a shame, because it’s a tasty and refreshing summer drink that’s easy to make.

Pimm’s holds its own among classic drinks. James Pimm owned an oyster bar in the City of London, near the Bank of England, in the 1820s. Pimm realized that customers stayed longer if they sipped, rather than slugged, their gin, so he created a gin-based tonic with secret herbs and liqueurs, and served it in a tankard known as a #1 Cup. Pimm was on to something, and his business grew throughout the mid-1800s. By the time he sold out in the 1850s, he had five restaurants, but it was the liquor that the acquirers were after. As time passed, there were six varieties of Pimm’s, each with a different spirit as its base (#2, scotch; #3, brandy; #4, rum; #5, rye whiskey; and, #6, vodka). Today, only #1 is regularly available, with Pimm’s Winter Cup (formerly #3), sold seasonally. All the others have been phased out.

One doesn’t drink Pimm’s by itself, and there is much discussion about what mixer to use in a Pimm’s Cup. The British recipes call for lemonade, but their lemonade is not the same as the summertime thirst quencher that we think of in the U.S. The closest comparable we have to British lemonade is 7-Up or Sprite, yet these are probably sweeter and less tart than what they have in England. The <ROTR> test kitchen tried several additives, and we found that ginger ale works best. Even so, the drink still needed a kick, and a small amount of lemon or lime juice gets the job done. We also found that while most recipes call for one part Pimm’s to two parts mixer, a 1:1 mix was better.

Pimm’s is 25% alcohol from the bottle, and equal parts of spirit and ginger ale makes the drink half of that. Thus, Pimm’s is great for those who want something with the strength of a glass of wine, and not too potent for those who want to have more than one. And, what makes Pimm’s especially delicious is the fruit that one throws in. While there are lots of variations, cucumber seems to be a must, as are a few sprigs of mint sticking out of the top. After that, it depends upon what you have on hand (anything goes: apple, orange, pineapple, pear, strawberries).

Typically, you will be making Pimm’s Cups in anticipation of serving them at a summer party. Here’s the procedure: a day before your event, pour a bottle of Pimm’s into a pitcher and add the fruit, cut into pieces that will fit a tall glass. In each pitcher, make sure that you include a quartered lemon or lime. There is a wonderful symbiosis that occurs between fruit and booze when they co-exist – the fruit absorbs the liquor and the liquor takes on the flavor of the fruit. Letting it all sit together in the fridge for a day gets the job done quite well.

When it comes time to serve, pour the liquid into a glass, including some of the fruit and maybe some ice, then pour the ginger ale in similar proportion to the Pimm’s and add the mint.

<<Pimm’s #1 Cup>> (by the glass)

2 oz. Pimm’s #1

2 oz. ginger ale

One lemon or lime wedge, squeezed and thrown in

A meaningful slice of cucumber, cut lengthwise

Several sprigs of mint

Other fruits (strawberry, apple, orange) selon arrivage

By Ron Fisher

You’re having guests for dinner and you remember that one is pregnant, or one does not drink for some reason or another, or, because of the distance to be travelled, one has opted to be a designated driver. Don’t these folks deserve something better than a ginger ale or a seltzer with a twist of lime?

Enter the mocktail, a rather sheepish name for an interesting drink, albeit one without booze. Better to call it a ‘Cocktail Without’.

When you build most cocktails, you typically have a spirit, a modifier and something else to enhance the flavor. For example, in a Manhattan, there is rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. The spirit does a lot of heavy lifting in a traditional cocktail, but a non-alcoholic drink can’t rely on that, so you need some sharp flavors to pick up the slack. It also has to be attractive, quite frankly, if only to show off a bit.

Google ‘mocktail’ and you will find a variety of interesting concoctions. In many cases, the recipes are very complicated, introducing a range of flavors and mixtures (lychee-passion fruit purée) to make up for the lack of alcohol. Tasty, to be sure, but not very practical. <ROTR> found some recipes that don’t require any advance preparation and which have ingredients that are fairly easy to come by. Making them involves muddling – mashing up the ingredients in a glass – which is more work than just pouring liquids, but these drinks look good, taste great, and are well worth the effort.

Cucumber Lemon Cooler

6-8 slices of cucumber, cut into small pieces

1½ oz. lemon juice

1½ tsp. light brown-sugar syrup (dissolve sugar in an equivalent amount of water)

6 oz. club soda

The trick with this drink is to get as much juice out of the cucumber as possible. If you have a juicer, or some type of press, it’s easy – juice the cucumber. If not, you’ll have to muddle the cucumber in the bottom of a thick-walled, tall glass. A muddler looks like a small baseball bat, and instead of holding the knob, you grab the barrel and use the knob to do the mashing. If you don’t have a muddler, you can use the handle of a large wooden spoon, or any other blunt instrument that you can safely hold. Muddle the cucumber to a soupy pulp and strain the juice into a separate tall glass. Add the lemon juice and sugar syrup and stir. Fill the glass with ice and club soda, and garnish with a cucumber wheel. This is a light and very refreshing drink.

Virgin Ginger Rogers

¼-½ tsp. light brown sugar

10-12 mint leaves

1 piece of ginger, ¼ in. thick and the diameter of a quarter

¾ oz. lime juice

6 oz. ginger ale

This time, we are muddling mint, trying to get the flavor out of the leaves. Put the sugar into the bottom of a tall glass, then the mint leaves, and muddle, using the sugar as grist to scrape the mint. When the mint leaves just start to fall apart, add the ginger and lime juice, and muddle until the ginger begins to crumble. Strain the liquid into a tall glass, add ice, and then fill with soda water. Garnish with a sprig of mint or a lime wedge. This drink has great color and the sprig of mint really gives it pizazz.

Nola Mule

5 oz. ginger beer

2 oz. pineapple juice

1 oz. lime juice

2 tsp. simple syrup

Here’s one you can just mix and serve. It comes from the bar at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix (a wonderful place to enjoy a cocktail, either inside or out). Make sure that you use ginger beer, which has a much stronger kick than ginger ale.

Lastly, as a cocktail writer — an advocate of drinking — I would like to make a brief comment about those folks who have decided to step away from alcohol. It is perhaps the most important decision they have ever made, it was not done easily, and anything we can do to help is a small task indeed. If it means taking a minute or two to muddle some mint or a cucumber so that they can feel part of the crowd, it is time well spent.

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