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By Ron Fisher

Brandy has an image problem. When you think of brandy, you see an older gentleman sitting in a paneled library after dinner sipping from a snifter. When you think of whiskey, on the other hand, you picture a cowboy walking into a saloon, grabbing a shot, throwing it back in one gulp and saying, “Thanks, I needed that.” Given a choice, most of us would rather be the cowboy, and therein lies the problem with brandy.

The brandy folks could really use a lesson in marketing, because it is much more than an after-dinner drink. While it is well-known in several drinks already – the Sidecar, which we will delve into later, and the Brandy Alexander, a hangover-in-waiting which we will avoid — brandy is a seldom-used yet very versatile spirit, and you can substitute it for other liquors in almost any cocktail: for rye in a Manhattan, for bourbon in an Old Fashioned, or for gin in a French 75.

But first, let’s clear up some of the confusion surrounding this liquor. Brandy is any spirit distilled from fruit, rather than from grains (whiskies) or sugar (rums). A good way to think of brandy is: liquor made from grapes. Cognac is by far the best known and can only come from the Cognac region of southeastern France. Armagnac is another brandy from France, while grappa comes from Italy, and pisco from Peru. California produces brandy, as well.

One would think that the French invented brandy, but it was actually clever Dutch traders in the 16th century who had the idea of boiling out the water from wine (distilling) to make shipping easier, with the intention of adding the water back at the destination. That process didn’t work, but the flavor imparted by the wooden casks it was transported in turned out to be pretty good by itself, and the Dutch gave the product the name <brandewijn>, or ‘burnt wine.’

To be thorough, brandy does not have to start with grapes. There is brandy from apples (calvados, applejack), cherries (kirsch), and plums (slivovitz). Schnapps from Germany is a brandy, but schnapps made in the U.S. is not – it is a cordial or a liqueur – sweetened, flavored hard liquor. Just so you know.

Which brandy to buy can be tough to figure out, and here brandy makers do themselves a disservice. As with many other spirits, brandy requires aging (in wood) to bring out the qualities and mellow the flavor, but rather than just tell you how old it is, the Cognac and Armagnac labels use a series of letters to spell it out. The most common are: VS – Very Special, or sometimes “three star”, minimum two years old; VO – Very Old, minimum four years; VSOP – Very Special Old Pale, sometimes “five star”, five to six years; and, XO – Extra Old, eight to ten years. Brandy makers use a few other codes, but these four will get you through the maze.

Our purposes are to use brandy in cocktails, so buying too good a bottle would be a misallocation of resources. A decent variety from California, or a VS or VO from France, can be had for around $20, and will work quite well in a cocktail. If you want to do double-duty – have a brandy that can be mixed or consumed straight – you can find a VSOP in the low $20s. You can venture up from there (Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier), but save that one for your paneled library. In a well-stoppered bottle, brandy keeps indefinitely.

The Sidecar is one of my favorite drinks – it is easy to make and it never disappoints. A typical reaction to the first sip is a quizzical look, a smile, and a “Wow, that’s good!” The Sidecar’s provenance is World War I Paris, and this basic sour cocktail uses four ingredients: brandy, lemon juice, Cointreau, and a sweetener. The combination of the brandy and the orange liqueur give it a very mellow flavor, which is offset by the sharpness of the lemon juice. 

<<<The Sidecar>>

2 oz. brandy

1 oz. lemon juice

¾ oz. Cointreau/Curaçao

Simple syrup/agave nectar to taste

Put all the liquids in a shaker. Add ice, shake, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with orange peel.

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

The Volstead Act — the 18th Amendment — was passed in late 1919, and from 1920-1933, the Noble Experiment of Prohibition ruled the land. No one could have imagined the changes that would ensue.

The era is frequently thought of as the heyday of the cocktail, but that image is far from the truth. Hard liquor did replace beer and wine, but overall, alcohol was harder to come by and became more expensive, and was frequently of lower quality. Gin arose as a liquor of convenience. It could be made quickly and was ready for consumption as soon as it was finished. But, a Prohibition cocktail usually required some type of flavoring to cover the taste of bad liquor. What worked? Juices, bitters, tonics, or even a lemon twist sprayed on the surface. For those with the wherewithal, imported whiskies and wines could still be had. For the rest, it was locally produced hooch that had to be dressed up.

Prohibition transformed societal norms, as well. Before Prohibition, only men were allowed in saloons, but since now no one was supposed to drink, <anyone> could drink, and women were welcomed as bar patrons. Where previously races had been segregated, in many places they mixed. Prohibition also brought organized crime — there was a lot of money to be made in the transport and sale of liquor, and an underworld industry rose to fill the vacuum. And, high-end bars were transformed into nightclubs, with jazz musicians and dancing, neither of which had existed beforehand. If you think of flappers with short dresses and risqué make-up <lindying> the night away, you’re probably not far off.

These years also brought new expressions to the language. Unlicensed drinking establishments were called ‘speakeasies’, as one was supposed to speak quietly about the place in public or while at the bar to avoid drawing suspicion. A ‘bootlegger’ originally was a fellow who would carry a flask of liquor in his boot, and sell drinks individually on the street. Ultimately, a bootlegger was anyone involved in the illegal liquor trade. And, there was ‘bathtub gin’. You can’t make gin in a bathtub, you have to have a still. But, when you were watering down bottles filled with ethyl alcohol and other additives, the only tap that the bottle would fit under was in the bathtub.

The end of Prohibition came in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression, when it became clear that enforcing the law was futile, and the Government needed the tax revenue that was lost to illegal booze. It is also likely that, under the circumstances, folks needed a drink.

The Bronx Cocktail, along with the Martini and the Manhattan, were absolute standards in every bar during and immediately after Prohibition. How popular were these three? In the 1934 film “The Thin Man”, William Powell discussed needing rhythm when shaking a cocktail. “A Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, and a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.” We all have heard of the Martini and the Manhattan, but the Bronx has been completely forgotten. What happened?

A Bronx cocktail is made with gin, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth and orange juice. I think it was the orange juice that did the Bronx in. After so many years of the flavorings that were used in Prohibition cocktails, people had had enough. That is why Manhattans and Martinis, which are basically straight booze, are still mainstays, but the Bronx is gone. The attitude was ‘why mess around when you can get decent quality spirits that don’t need additives?’ Still, I have made the Bronx on many occasions, and it is a light and refreshing drink that people really enjoy.

<The Bronx Cocktail>

2 oz. gin *

¼ oz. sweet vermouth

¼ oz. dry vermouth

½ oz. orange juice (fresh squeezed makes it amazingly good)

Shake or stir with lots of ice and serve straight up in a cocktail glass.

* Many individuals recoil at the thought of drinking gin, and will want to replace it with vodka. Please don’t. Unless gin makes you break out in hives, causes hair loss or results in unexplainable mood swings, the subtle mix of gin’s juniper flavors with the two vermouths and the orange juice cannot be replaced by vodka.

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.

RYE ON THE ROCKS

 

 

By Ron Fisher

 

The great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874 started as a practical joke and then went viral in several cities in the U.S. As the story goes, one man would tell another that a fellow named Tom Collins was running around the local watering holes saying awful things about him. With matters of slander considered to be a serious offense in those days, the insulted fellow would set out to find this guy Collins and give him <what for>. As the joke spread, so many people ran into the bars in search of Tom Collins that it didn’t take long for an enterprising bartender to concoct a drink by that name to give to the poor soul looking for a “Tom Collins”.

 

Creating the Tom Collins cocktail that we know — gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda water – did not take much imagination, as it was just an adaptation of an existing drink called the John Collins, which used bourbon instead of gin, but was otherwise the same. Variations along a theme happen all the time in the cocktail world, especially with drinks in the Sour category, to which both Collinses belong, as well as Daiquiris, Margaritas, Cosmos, and a host of others.

 

Sours should be part of every cocktail mixer’s repertoire – they are easy to make, very versatile and always a crowd pleaser. A Sour is simply a combination of citrus juice (lemon or lime), sugar or another sweetener, and a base liquor. Frequently, the other sweetener is a fruit-flavored liqueur. As we will see, an orange liqueur —Curaçao, Cointreau, or Triple Sec – figures in to quite a few popular cocktails, and I would recommend having a bottle on hand. I prefer the first two liqueurs, as I think they have a richer flavor, but any of them will do.

 

Recipes for Sours are quite straightforward, but a couple of guideposts will help out. Lime juice tends to go with ‘white’ liquors – rum, gin, and vodka – while lemon juice fares better with ‘brown’ goods – whiskeys and brandy. Proportions depend upon the taste of the individual drinker, but the base liquor should always predominate, supported by the other flavors. So, go easy on the juices and other flavorings. Also, as I have said many times, err on the side of too dry rather than too sweet. You can always sweeten a cocktail if it is too tart, but it’s tough to fix a drink that is too sweet.

 

How versatile are Sours? A Gimlet is gin (or vodka), lime juice, and simple syrup. Replace the gin with rum and you have a Daiquiri. A Gimlet with lemon juice instead of lime is a Lemon Drop. Use bourbon with lemon juice and simple syrup, and it’s a Whiskey Sour. Coming full circle, add soda water to the Lemon Drop, and you’ve found Tom Collins.

 

Now, let’s replace the simple syrup with our orange liqueur. Vodka, the orange liqueur, and lime juice is a Kamikaze. Add cranberry to that mixture and you’ve got a Cosmo. Gin, orange liqueur, and lime juice (with a shot of bitters) is a Pegu Club, which we discussed in the last ROTR. Tequila, the liqueur, and lime juice is a Margarita, and rounding things out, brandy, our liqueur, and lemon juice is a Sidecar. 

 

Lastly, there’s one I can’t resist: the Sloe Gin Fizz. A Sloe Gin Fizz is a Tom Collins with Sloe Gin replacing the regular gin. Sloe Gin, from Great Britain, is a mixture of gin and the sloe berry, reportedly an unpleasant-tasting fruit, until it is soaked in booze. I have never had a Sloe Gin Fizz, nor do I think I ever will, for one of those odd, circumstances-in-life reasons. Once upon a time, some friends and I were trying to be served at a bar before we were legally able to do so, and we all had the sense to keep it very simple and order a beer. Except for one guy, who asked for a Sloe Gin Fizz, and we were thereupon thrown out. Standing on the street outside, someone looked at him and said, “Only an idiot would order a Sloe Gin Fizz!”

 

 

<<A Whiskey Sour>>

 

2 oz. bourbon

¾ oz. lemon juice

¾ oz. simple syrup

 

This is the basic recipe for any Sour, substituting as we have above. A Sour is designed to be shaken and served straight up in a cocktail (martini) glass, although it can also be had on the rocks.

 

<<The Tom Collins>>

 

2 oz. gin

¾ oz. lemon juice

¾ oz. simple syrup

2-4 oz. soda water

 

It would be inappropriate not to include the Tom Collins recipe. The drink is served on the rocks in, what else, a Collins glass (tall and thin).

 

 

 

 

 

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

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