December 28, 2015

∴ The Lemon Drop

Here’s a cocktail that’s both lemony-refreshing for summer, and satisfyingly rich for colder months.

Absolut Citron vodka

There are four components in this Lemon Drop: vodka, orange liqueur, lemon juice, and sweetener. The quality of each ingredient affects the finished product, so I’ve recommended what I use as a starting point.

Before you begin, chill your cocktail glasses with a handful of cracked ice each, and water. They’ll be nice and cold by the time you mix up your ingredients.

First, we’ll reach slightly lower on the store shelf for flavored vodka. I use Absolut’s Citron. Readily available, and flavorful yet not cloyingly so, it’s a good all-around choice. A pricier pick is Hangar One’s Buddha’s Hand Citron. Other brands produce a lemon product, so pick your favorite.

Whichever product you choose, its lemon flavor shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a shot glass-full neat. It’s a good test of palatability.

No-one’s expecting this vodka to stand up on its own, but in keeping with the theme that good ingredients make for good drinks it shouldn’t leave you feeling under-served, either.

Keep in mind that there are three more ingredients in this drink, one very pungent, so an expensive pick isn’t going to stand out in proportion to its price. Save your money here, just don’t go cheap.

One measure of lemon vodka goes into the mixing glass.

Cointreau liqueur

The second ingredient in our Lemon Drop is crucial wherever it’s called for, but often overlooked by casual drinkers: Cointreau. This aperitif bears a pungent orange flavor similar to other Triple Secs and Curacaos. Its original name was “CuraƧao Blanco Triple Sec,” even. Made from bitter orange peels steeped in pure, sugar beet alcohol, the critical difference between it and other Triple Secs isn’t so much the method of production, but rather its flavor on your palate.

Try a head-to-head taste-off to divine the better product. You probably have a bottle of Triple Sec in your bar. Pick up a small bottle of Cointreau and pour a half-ounce into a shot glass, and another half-ounce of your usual Triple Sec into a second. Try the Cointreau first.

Use the money you save on top-priced vodka and spend it on Cointreau. It’s easily quadruple the price of garden-variety Triple Secs, but you can use it anywhere Triple Sec or Curacao is called for. It’s even tasty over ice on a hot day.

One measure of Cointreau, into the mixing glass.


Our third ingredient lends the drink its name: lemon juice, freshly squeezed from fresh lemons.

I’ve used week-old lemons for this drink with mixed results. Those who favor a more tart version won’t mind; they might actually prefer it. Everyone else will make the face.

You know the face. It’s the eyes-averted, this-drink-is-harsh look. You’ll know you’ve goofed. Squeeze the lemons while your friends watch, and you’ll never see that look.

A sharp paring knife and a two-handled lemon press make quick work of it.

One measure of freshly squeezed lemon juice goes into the mixing glass.

Among vodka, Cointreau, and lemon juice, a sweetener is called for. It’s our last ingredient.

Avoid granular sugar. It won’t dissolve enough unless you stir it into hot water - and that’s choice number one: simple syrup. Equal parts very hot water and sugar allowed to cool, it’s a staple behind the bar. I recommend making a few Lemon Drops with simple syrup to get the recipe down pat.

Using simple syrup, one measure goes into the mixing glass.

Dark agave syrup

Or try something that will set your cocktail apart: pure agave nectar. Available from most grocery stores in light and dark versions, I go for the dark. They’re equally sweet, but the dark bears a richer, earthy flavor. Avoid anything containing corn syrup or other ingredients.

Agave is both a secret to keep in your bag of tricks and a pain to work with. A secret, because most home barkeeps don’t know of it. Agave will set your cocktail apart from others with its rich flavor.

It’s also a pain in the neck to work with, because there’s a very fine line between just right and too much. Shy on the mild side with agave syrup.

No special effort (see: dry shaking) is required to dissolve or emulsify agave nectar; it blends in like any other syrup. If you go too far in your measured addition, add a wee bit more lemon juice to adjust your drink before shaking.

Using dark agave nectar, one-third (just one-third) measure goes into the mixing glass.

Pile the mixing glass high with cracked ice, add the shaker tin with a tap and shake with an easy, Martini-like rhythm until your hand feels frost-bitten on the tin. Shaking introduces melt water into the drink, toning down any sharp flavors.

Three Lemon Drops

Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve with a twisted lemon peel garnish, or hold the fruit and sip away.

(The examples at right show how dark agave nectar makes a normally pale yellow cocktail into a more inviting, darker version.)

I’ve heard of an alternative to agave nectar that you might try. Look for demerara or turbinado sugar, and incorporate one into your Lemon Drop as a syrup. Mix 2:1 sugar to hot water, and let cool. Go easy on it in the mixing glass, working your way up from ½ measure until you find balance. Successful experimentation here leads to your own signature cocktail.

You can further experiment with how long you shake the mixture, or try stirring over a handful of cracked ice for thirty seconds, instead. Stirring introduces less melt water and therefore, a stronger cocktail. Find the balance between too-hot, alcohol-forward and nicely mellowed.

Lemon Drops can be bulk-assembled ahead of a party in the right proportion, 1-1-1-1 with simple syrup or 1-1-1-⅓ with agave nectar, and chilled down in a pitcher. Stir the pitcher before lightly shaking a couple of servings at a time and the result will put drinks in your friends’ hands quickly, without much effort.

You’ll empty a vodka bottle getting this one just the way you like it, but repetition is the pleasure of mixing well-made cocktails, right?

October 16, 2015

∴ Finding Empathy

There exists the notion of fostering empathy for dealing with intolerable people. Whom you find intolerable and why is subjective, so finding common ground can be a first step at ending enmity. It helps if you realize that you are also part of the problem, because you still have buttons that can be pushed.

While I talk a good game about disliking people in general, in truth I tend to like, or at least have no trouble maneuvering around, others. But there’s this one person …

Empathy is not just “putting yourself in someone’s shoes,” (that’s sympathy) it’s bringing to mind those circumstances in their life that you’ve experienced for yourself, and forming a more accepting attitude as a result. It’s “been there, done that, I know how they feel” rather than an intellectual exercise in imagining someone’s pain.

The trouble, and it pretty much precludes adopting an empathetic attitude here, is that I share so little in common with this person, and I’m effectively shut out from enjoying what few things we do have in common. I’ve never experienced the life events that have brought this person so much suffering. It’s not a visible suffering. You’d never guess what this person is going through, or has gone through.

So on the surface it appears empathy is out for me, which is a shame.

This person displays an over-exercised sense of self-promotion, an utter unwillingness toward long term planning, appearing devoid of contemplative behavior, lacking of self-awareness, and possesses an insatiable need to be in control. Combined with past personal history this person’s life is a figurative train wreck. Failure to think through decisions and their effect on other people is one of this person’s most infuriating traits. Yet all of these directly or indirectly increase this person’s suffering, and make this person more annoying to others at the same time.

Fostering sympathy hasn’t been effective, either. I can know a thing to be true, but not having lived it or seen it first hand makes it difficult to translate that knowledge to a more neutral attitude. There’s just too much ongoing chaos, disregard and self aggrandizement for me to make that leap. Call it a failing, or a lack of understanding, but the sympathy thing just isn’t happening. So I minimize my time and interaction with this person and hope change intervenes.

Therein lies the solution. The notion of impermanence, that nothing remains the same for even a few moments, or that karma happens within one lifetime and often within a small portion of one will likely resolve the near constant state of unease I have with this person.

I’m reminded of this by a series of Buddhist retreats I attended 15 years ago, where the subject was “lovingkindness,” or exchanging self for others. It was an exercise in finding empathy from within.

The moment of awakening came, for me, after several months of guided meditations. In each session we were to first bring to mind one’s self, seated for meditation, and note what feelings arose. After a few minutes we were guided to shift focus to those for whom we had positive feelings, again noting what feelings arose. Shifting focus again, we noted feelings that arose for those with whom we had no particular relationship, the “neutrals.” Finally, we shifted focus to those with whom we had difficult relations, and noted the response arising within our minds. The point was to recognize the commonalities between these groups, and focus more intently upon that.

Over the course of ten months some of the individuals in each list had “moved.” Some who had begun on my shit list had become neutral, even positive, while others had moved the other way. Those who had begun neutral, such as others in the retreat group, had in some cases moved to the positive group as I got to casually know them. Not that any of these people had done anything to cause movement; it was happening in my mind. My apprehension of reality and of the impermanence of that reality were the key realizations I came away with, as well as a means of finding empathy. The people I focused on were all sharing the same changing thinking-and-feeling about their experiences, even if they were unaware.

It’s a work in progress with this person. I keep that awakening moment fifteen years ago in mind, and minimize my exposure when I can’t take it anymore. I’ll get there, or some circumstance will intercede, and this period of my life will end. That’ll be a good thing. Swallowing bile is a pain in the throat, as well as the ass.

(Please forgive my repetitive use of the phrase “this person” and lack of personal pronouns. For very good reason this person remains nameless. If you’re reading this I can almost guarantee this person is not you. And if you see yourself in this writing, it’s still not you, you just have something to think about.)

It’s helpful to write about a problem when it towers like a wall to beat my head against. It reminds me that the wall is my self.

July 8, 2015

Film Projection, Explained

Check out this exceptionally well-written ten-minute documentary about how film projection works, by EngineerGuy:

Hammack reveals how pre-digital cameras were designed to deceive our brains, tricking the eyes into seeing a moving picture. High-speed photography and illustrations dive into a delightfully retro-colored Bell And Howell 1580 16mm projector from 1979 to see how the illusion of movement is paired with an optical soundtrack.

June 15, 2015

∴ Bitters, For Better Cocktails

I’m laid up recovering from surgery. What better time to think and write about bitters?

Angostura bitters

Many cocktail recipes include a dash or two of this enigmatic product. For most people that amounts to a couple drops of Angostura bitters, sold everywhere in a small bottle with an iconic, oversized label. Nearly everyone has a bottle of this otherwise undrinkable substance tucked away, gathering dust. And yet it remains one of the least explored parts of drink-making.

If we agree that a cocktail, if made at all, should be made well, it stands to reason that we should know why we’re including bitters, and why leaving the well-trod road of Angostura for less well-traveled paths is a good idea.

In a nutshell, bitters are a combination of organic matter and alcohol, usually aromatic or savory botanicals. Typically very concentrated in flavor, bitters are measured in dashes or drops. Some were originally marketed as digestifs for relief from upset stomach and other maladies.

Packing so much flavor into so small a volume gives bitters their name. Some are downright awful taken on their own.

A bitters-like product popular in the San Francisco area of late, Fernet Branca is occasionally sold by the shot, and had mainly on a dare. It’s nasty stuff. Yet despite its harshness, a drop or two added to a Manhattan recipe gives that cocktail a lovely mint aftertaste, which kicks in just as the whiskey flavor fades.

Not all bitters are terribly harsh on their own, however. Orange bitters, and particularly vanilla bitters are quite nicely sweet, though one would still be hard-pressed to drink even a mouthful neat.

So why use a cocktail ingredient that’s so powerfully flavored and, on it’s own, so often harsh? In a word, depth. Bitters adds depth to the flavor of just about any cocktail. Since we’re hand-crafting the flavor of our drink when mixing a cocktail, not simply slapping together booze, mixer and ice, the individual flavors matter. Enhancing a cocktail with bitters makes its flavor deeper, richer.

It’s important to note that I mix my cocktails by parts. My basic part, or measure, varies from ¾- to one-and-one-half-ounce, resulting in a cocktail of 3- to 4-ounces. I don’t keep large cocktail glasses at home, and I don’t mind sending one off the bar half-filled when using someone else’s glassware. Better to make two and enjoy each cold in turn than to make one big sloppy drink that finishes unpleasantly warm.

In my size drink, one or two drops of bitters suffice. If you’re mixing larger drinks you’ll use a larger base measure, so up your bitters component accordingly.

Bittercube bitters

I’ve had one of those “forever” bottles of Angostura bitters in my liquor cabinet for ages. It hasn’t gotten any lighter lately, because Kelly gifted me a collection of six bitters from Bittercube, a boutique bitters manufacturer in Milwaukee, this past Christmas. Bittercube produces their own unique formulations for orange, “cherry bark” vanilla, blackstrap molasses, two variety of Jamaican and one they call “Bolivar.” The last bears a lovely floral aroma, and enhances cocktails as much by its scent as its flavor, I’ve found.

This six-bottle variety pack includes one-ounce bottles each topped with a dropper cap, allowing for simple measurement experimentation. Bittercube also sells each bitters product in a full 5-ounce bottle with a “dash” top, as well as each 1-ounce sample bottle individually. They thoughtfully include suggested uses for each of these unique flavor enhancers packaged with the set, giving mixologists a starting point.

There’e really no wrong way to use these products. I’d add one guideline that’s always wisely applied: use them sparingly. A dash is a drop. Two drops is usually enough, and I’ve never found it useful combining more than three bitters in a single cocktail. I have, though, found the right three to be quite entertaining in cocktails otherwise largely devoid of flavor, say, a dry vodka Martini.

Therein lies the joy of mixology: experimentation. For example, orange bitters are often suggested as an accompaniment to whiskey-based cocktails. While I’ve found Bittercube’s suggestions useful, it’s when I’ve plunged headlong off that path that I’ve obtained the most interesting results.

My go-to Manhattan recipe includes two drops orange bitters, and one drop vanilla. The vanilla obtains a sweeter expression of the aromatized sweet vermouth I use, while the orange deepens the whiskey barrel flavor of my favorite rye. With just a few drops of otherwise unremarkable liquid this simple cocktail becomes a sublime expression of the classic drink, and a welcome end-of-the-week reward.

Another interesting result is obtained by adding Bolivar bitters to the classic Vesper recipe. The mild citrus and bitter tang of Lillet Blanc, or better, Kina L’Aero D’Or is enhanced with the fine floral essence imparted by just one drop of this bitters.

I’ve found a simple gin Martini, mixed to my taste at about a six-to-one gin/vermouth ratio, takes on a very satisfying depth and uniqueness of flavor with the addition of two drops black strap molasses bitters. It’s an odd combination, but I think the flavor interest springs from the contrast between gin’s botanicals and the black strap’s rich, almost burnt sugar flavor. It’s an enjoyable variation on one of my favorite cocktails when I’m looking for something different to sip.

Using a light hand with the bitters keeps their flavor contribution a pleasant accompaniment. They shine through the finished cocktail as but a third or fourth component. Sometimes the bitters flavor shines only as a remnant, an echo of the cocktail. The aforementioned Fernet Branca in a Manhattan is one example.

I know I’ve hit the right combination when I get a pleased smile and hear “oh!” a few seconds after the first mouthful of drink is consumed.

As you can see, the possibilities are many. Take your favorite cocktail preparation, add a few drops of well-crafted bitters and see where it takes you. Then change it up and try a different path. You might find that your “favorite” cocktail has multiple expressions!

June 9, 2015

∴ Thoughts on 2015 WWDC

I watched Apple’s live stream of their 2015 Worldwide Developer’s Conference keynote presentation at home yesterday, while recuperating from surgery. While my thoughts on what I heard and saw are my own, they’re intermediated by a significant dose of pain medication. Maybe they’re flat-out wrong, so take this with a grain of salt.

I wasn’t all that impressed. Not like in past years, when new features were debuted for iOS and OS X that extended those operating systems’ capabilities and ease of use. Worse, the debut this year of Apple Music was pretty much the fulfillment of what I dreaded about Apple’s acquisition of Beats: the introduction of schlock culture into Apple’s mainline product offerings. I half-expected to see “turntablist” extraordinaire Dr. Dre slide out on a platform for a live performance.

Several tech writers in the audience actively wondered whether the presentation was still going on. It had a distinct “after dark” feel to it, if you know that podcasting term.

And I still have no idea why I should pay for Apple Music.

Other sites, such as Federico Viticci’s MacStories, are recounting highlights of what was presented. Still others will dig deeper over the next few days. I’ll read through those with a known thoughtful track record. I have an idea about the event, though.

Perhaps what threw me was not so much a lack of content, but rather the implication that Apple will spend the next cycle of OS X and iOS production partly in a “Snow Leopard pause.” I hope this is the case.

Let me explain that phrase. At each step of my recent medical work the doctor, nurse or team that was about to lay hands on me paused and asked for my full name, date of birth and description of what we were doing. I had to give a positive, correct answer before work continued. That professional pause made sure the medical team was all on the same page, taking the same thoughtful, concerted action.

When Apple announced in 2009 that Snow Leopard, their 10.6 version of OS X, had no new customer-facing features, what they were really doing was taking a professional pause to repair, improve and update what they already had in place. There was a lot of under-the-hood change involved. The result was a tighter, less buggy and more functional operating system.

It doesn’t wow the crowds to do this. It doesn’t impress shareholders. It would, however, please and impress those of us who’ve been saddened to watch the quality of OS X and iOS slide as new features and UI design were brought to market over the past two years.

Again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I was simply drug-addled yesterday, and what Apple announced was amazeballs. I hope that’s not the case, though. I hope yesterday’s underwhelming roll-out was a simple return to modest updates rolled out alongside significantly more effort going to features and software consumers will never directly see. An under-the-hood code review, reboot, tweaking, call-it-what-you-will.

Apple product users have only to gain if that’s so.

May 31, 2015

∴ A Gin-off

The Botanist gin and Broker's gin

I’m always looking to improve my cocktails’ ingredients and their results. Today’s liquor taste-off follows an identical try from last evening, but with an important change. This time the tasting is blind.

I’m taste-testing two gins, weighing which will remain or become my go-to ingredient for the Vesper. Ian Fleming fans will recall the Vesper as three parts gin, one part vodka, and a half-part Kina Lillet, so the gin carries a lot of this cocktail’s flavor. And since there’s no mixer or fill in the Vesper recipe, there’s nothing to hide a bad choice.

Putting Hendrick’s, my favorite Martini gin, aside for the moment, today’s tasting is between Broker’s and The Botanist. Brokers enters as the gin I’ve come back to from each excursion into something new.

The Botanist was recommended in an article by Aaron Tubbs, wherein he discussed how to build a better Vesper.

Broker’s, a London dry gin distilled in England and bottled at 94-proof, has a distinct aroma of juniper and pine. No surprise there. It also goes down a little harsh neat, likely (I thought) due to its elevated alcohol content. Enjoyable in a mixed drink, even one composed only of liquors, this gin makes for an affordable house bottle at around $22 for the 750 ml size.

The Botanist, a not quite dry gin distilled in Scotland by the Bruichladdich whisky distillery, clocks in at 92-proof. Surprisingly, it lacked the strong aroma found in so many gins. On the nose it comes forward sweeter than Broker’s. Its flavor is similar to, but milder than Broker’s, and finishes cleanly. The Botanist rings up at about $37 for a 750 ml bottle.

In both the self-poured and blind tests, the differences between these two were apparent. I had forgotten which had the nose-full of scent from my self-poured test and began the blind test with what turned out to be The Botanist, on the assumption that the less aromatic sample would be less flavorful. This was a false assumption. Both gins gave a good accounting of themselves on the tongue, but the nod goes to The Botanist for its more refined, and yes, even a wee bit sweeter finish. A gin aficionado could enjoy The Botanist neat. I don’t believe the same true of Broker’s.

Two Vespers, one each made with The Botanist and Broker's gin

At nearly double the price of Broker’s, though, The Botanist presents a choice. I prefer my Martinis made with Hendrick’s and a good dry vermouth. But Hendrick’s renowned mild cucumber infusion makes it wrong for a Vesper. That leaves these two from among the several I’ve sampled. And, at three parts gin per cocktail, a bottle disappears quicker than any other in my bar. The Botanist makes for a pricey Vesper.

On solo taste alone, The Botanist finishes a head above Broker’s. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the inclusion of vodka in the Vesper recipe masks Broker’s harsher edge and brings them even in that cocktail. Add a bit of Kina and the difference should vanish altogether. Not so. Broker’s harsh finish shines through in the poured cocktail, though not as evident as when taken neat. The Botanist is the better gin, both neat and in a strong liquor mix such as the Vesper.

But let me be clear: Broker’s is not an unpleasant gin, having survived many a taste test. You’ll enjoy its strong gin flavor in any cocktail that calls for London’s renowned spirit. You may even prefer its boldness in the Vesper. Simply, there is no wrong answer between these two.

I’ve found liquors whose price belied their quality. Rittenhouse rye whiskey comes to mind. With a price in the twenties it sits head AND shoulders above bottles twice the price. These two gins don’t present such a choice. The Botanist is an easy favorite, but Broker’s, even with its harsher finish, is not unpleasant and provides more enjoyable drink per penny. Either is a good choice mixed. Go with The Botanist neat, however.

January 11, 2015

American Politics Then, Now

I’ve slowly been wading my way through Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative over the past year, with a break between the first and second volumes and another break coming up shortly, before the third. One thing that’s struck me, among many, is the similarity between the politics of the pre-Civil War era and today. We’re accustomed to acrimony and uncivil behavior between the “left” the “right” these days. It’s the water we swim in. It’s also the water Americans swam in back then.

A thought: what if the American Century, such as it was, was an aberration? What if the Archduke hadn’t been murdered, or the United States hadn’t entered what became World War I? What if the victorious allies hadn’t imposed overly severe reparations upon Weimar Germany, which inexorably lead to World War II, the attack upon American soil and the rise of the American war machine? What if what we are today, politically, is what we would have been all along in the absence of those post-American Civiil War influences, and where we’re going includes change to our government, our culture and how we see our republic similar to what was wrought by that earlier domestic conflict?

I plan to re-read the initial chapters of Foote’s work, wherein he describes the politics of 1860-61, after I’ve finished the second volume, and write about it here. It’s a departure from my usual Apple-centric technology interest, which is covered elsewhere far better than I have attention for. But what the hell, why not pick a niche and explore? Who knows what I’ll find.