February 23, 2016

∴ Pandora Finally Earns a Place

I played around with Pandora years ago, but I couldn’t create a channel that didn’t lose my interest within a few hours. Terrific resource for someone, someone not me.

Toying with the Pandora app on my Comcast DVR last weekend, I was about to listen to the Arcade Fire channel I’d created last year, when I stopped short. I had a thought to create a new channel based on a group whose music and vocals I’ve loved for a quarter-century. (I’m 50, I get to reference time spans in centuries. Perks of the game.)

Enter the Cocteau Twins channel. And a door opened to the music of my younger self:
New Order
Roxy Music
Tears For Fears
Mazzy Star
The Cure
Cocteau Twins (duh)
A Flock of Seagulls
OMD
Simple Minds
Psych Furs
Eurythmics (Annie Lennox is among the top three female vocalists of the late 20th)
Siouxsie and The Banshees (yeah, wow)
The Smiths
Cindy Lauper
Naked Eyes

This is the first time I’ve built a channel that’s consistently entertaining. Pandora is worth something to me now.

If you’ve not yet found a use for Pandora, try creating a channel based on some obscure musician or group whom you never told anyone about. You’ll know it when you’ve found it.

February 13, 2016

∴ Quick Take: Rittenhouse 100 Rye Whiskey vs. Bulleit Rye Whiskey

Bulleit and Rittenhouse rye whiskeys

We paid a quick visit to our local Virginia ABC shop this afternoon. A group of friends is gathering to plan our upcoming vacation tomorrow, and our hostess is making cocktails to go with lunch. We’re to bring one of the ingredients. I’ll say only that when the drinks are of the frozen type, it matters not what hue the Triple Sec imbues.

Anyhow, my bar is running low on rye whiskey, so I perused the whiskey aisle while Kelly went in search of tomorrow’s ingredient.

I’m partial to Rittenhouse 100 Rye for my Manhattans, but our state ABC appears to have lost interest in carrying it. That’s a shame, because its bottled-in-bond stamp ensures a sturdy, well-aged product, and Heaven Hill, distiller of Rittenhouse, steps squarely to the plate and knocks this whiskey out of the park. Rich, flavorful for its high ABV, and bargain priced in the high twenties, Rittenhouse is a smart buy. But not today. It’s a mail order item anymore.

I’ve enjoyed a Manhattan made with Bulleit Rye at one of our better local restaurants, though, and every liquor store seems to stock it. Hmm. With a third of a bottle of the Rittenhouse left, I could wait, or i could bring home the Bulleit and do a head-to-head tasting.

Cutting to the chase: both exhibit a rich, spicy rye flavor. There’s a bit of sweetness to both, almost a bourbon-like corn flavor, though there’s no corn in the Bulleit product. Rittenhouse’s new formula includes 37% corn in the mash bill, while Bulleit’s MGP pedigree includes 95% rye, 5% barley - no corn at all. I was hard-pressed to taste a difference, though, aside from the 10% ABV difference in alcohol content.

If you’re a Rittenhouse fan and have a hard time finding it, or want to branch out to something new without straying to far afield, Bulleit is a good choice. I’ll be using it in my Manhattans for a while, and for a new cocktail I’ll be playing with: the Black Manhattan. The Virginia ABC stocks Averna amaro, so this cocktail is next on my experimentation list.

Enjoy!

February 8, 2016

∴ The Forgotten Ingredient

One of the three classic cocktail styles, the sour, includes an ingredient added almost as an afterthought: sweetener. Acting as a balance to lemon, lime or other sour flavoring, this component is most often simple syrup, a 1:1 mix of water and granular table sugar, or sucrose.

But “simple” can be a wee too neutral. I used to employ simple in my Lemon Drop cocktails, but changed sweeteners to agave syrup because it imparts a strong richness amid its sweetness. That richness stands up well to the Lemon Drop’s Cointreau and lemon juice components, adding depth to the drink. No small task against pungent flavors.

This weekend, though, I began experimenting with a classic cocktail, the Daiquiri. The original version (which involves no ice outside of a shaker tin) was around long before Hemingway made it his drink of choice. Simply made of two parts white rum, one part fresh-squeezed lime juice, and three-quarters part sweetener (more on this to follow), this cocktail is said to demonstrate much about a bartender’s skills.

  • Measurement of all ingredients is the key to a well-made cocktail, and there are not only three to this drink, but one is measured from a fruit press. Whether you use a two-handled model or a tried-and-true countertop twist-style, you’re not pouring from a bottle for this one.
  • Fruit preparation is important here. Either style press will give you proper juice, but giving your limes a roll on the cutting block while pressing down with moderate force will begin breaking down the pulp structure, helping release more juice. One medium lime should provide an ounce of juice, maybe a little more. Measure it to be sure.
  • Too much leverage on a one- or two-handled press will release oil from the rind, resulting in an overly sour drink. Knowing when to stop squeezing is make-or-break.
  • Shaking technique is all about combining ingredients while chilling to the right temperature, and diluting the ingredients with just enough melt water. It’s said that 20% of a properly made cocktail is water from the shake or stir. The more practice made at getting that dilution, the easier it is to know when it’s reached. For this drink, shaken, the ice should just begin to sound soft. You’ll know it when you hear it.

These are the details that make for a fine cocktail. Attending to them, out pours one of the simplest cocktails in the book. But not so fast: I found ¾ part simple syrup left the drink a bit sharp on first sip. A guest might pull up short on such a sip - removing that hesitation is why I switched my Lemon Drops to agave syrup. But agave is far too rich for the delicate flavor of a fine white rum. Something else is needed.

The Daiquiri calls for cane sugar syrup. Made by stirring two parts evaporated cane juice sugar into one part water warming on the stove, this sweetener adds a depth of flavor absent in simple syrup, yet less imposing than that of agave syrup. It preserves the delicate flavors of white rum while taking the edge off fresh lime juice. It is the perfect correction to that sharp first sip.

I performed a direct comparison between two sweeteners today, shaking two Daiquiris identical in composition save for the syrups. Into one tin went ¾ part simple syrup, and into the other went ½ part cane sugar syrup. I tried the simple syrup-laced cocktail first, noting the sharpness of the lime juice first, which then gave way to the rum flavors. The sugar cane syrup-laced drink blended, where no one flavor overshadowed the others. The sweetener, so minor a player in this ensemble of ingredients, turned out to be a key player.

(Take a sip of the cane sugar syrup-laced version first if you try this for yourself. The initial tartness of the simple syrup-laced version threw off my palate, and it wasn’t until I walked away from the two for a few minutes and came back to a slightly warmer, and more flavorful-for-it drink that I noticed the difference.)

The beauty of cane sugar syrup is that it may be used anywhere simple syrup is called for, and will provide an additional dimension to your cocktail. Though its sweetness is the same as table sugar, in my view, go a little lighter when subbing in for simple syrup. Cane’s depth of flavor, though subtle, adds to its sweetness. Use ½ part cane sugar syrup for ¾ part simple in a Daiquiri, for example. Play with it to find your “sweet spot.”

So what’s the difference between common table sugar and cane sugar? Table sugar is fully refined from raw, brownish, milled sugarcane. I’ve never given it much thought; I’ve just grabbed the bag from my wife’s baking supply and mixed in an equal part to make simple syrup. Evaporated cane juice is made by removing moisture from milled, pressed sugar cane; it’s partially refined, and that leaves in enough molasses to enhance its flavor.

Finding evaporated cane juice sugar is not a straightforward task. Skip the baking aisle of your local grocery and go instead to the organics section. I found a number of sweeteners there, including two labeled “organic cane sugar.” Only one listed evaporated cane juice as its sole ingredient. Caveat emptor, and have a good look at the nutrition label before buying.

I titled this article The Forgotten Ingredient, because few think about the sweetener when building a cocktail. It’s usually last into the shaker, and one’s mind is on buttoning up and shaking - but don’t be hasty in your preparation: the right sweetener can make all the difference.

* I found this interesting passage in the Wikipedia entry for sugar:

Sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history in many ways, influencing the formation of colonies, the perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the migration of peoples, wars between sugar-trade–controlling nations in the 19th century, and the ethnic composition and political structure of the New World.

All that for (by?) a simple, organic compound. Wow.