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The Martinez Mystery

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In A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes proclaims, “There is nothing like first hand evidence.” Half of the world would agree with that statement. The other half is content to relish the world around them, never considering the need to understand it. This is the dividing line of humanity. Should we seek out the answers, turn over every rock, move every wall in the search for conclusion? Or, are we best served by smelling the rose? Isn’t it by picking it and studying it, dissecting it and destroying it, that we lose the sense of pleasure that caused us to stop in the first place? Life is a mystery, and maybe we have an innate need to solve it, to ponder why. But maybe there is no why, no ultimate purpose, and in that regard would we not be served best by simply letting go and allowing our minds to meld into the milieu?

I think on this a lot, more so as I grow older. I think that’s why I enjoy my job so much. Being around good food and drink on a daily basis allows me access to incredible pleasures with a minimal amount of input. I don’t really have to understand Chicken Carbonara. I mean, I do understand it. It’s not complicated in any way. But I don’t really have to. If I choose to learn the history of the dish, the regional variations, what ingredients can be substituted and which cannot, then I master the meal. If not, I can still enjoy it. It’s a small victory. I can still ponder the very existence of life, the universe, and everything, while choosing to solve little mysteries along the way. I like to have my cake and eat it too.

Cocktails and mixed drinks are little mysteries that don’t really need solving, anyway. Unlike chefs, who tend to codify everything, bartenders are, historically, a bit less focused. This may not be so true today, as every contemporary mixologist fights to get their drink onto the pages of Imbibe, but traditionally bartenders were generally bad at writing things down. That’s why, by the time Jerry Thomas had published the first bartender’s guide in 1862, most of the drinks in it had already been invented. The problem was, no one knew by whom. Flipping through the couple dozen or so rival books to Thomas’ that appeared in the ensuing decades, we see massive differences between cocktails of the same name, sometimes to the point of being different drinks, entirely. Subsequent drinks, popularized by other tomes, didn’t credit Jerry Thomas’ recipes. In fact, few bartenders mentioned contemporaries at all. In this regard, Thomas should not be regarded so much as the father of our trade, but merely as the guide that shown the light on the industry.  There was never a bartending equivalent of Marie Antoine Carême to bring order to this chaos, and, thus, we find ourselves a century and a half later, trying to make sense of what doesn’t make a lot of sense.

As mentioned in my post on the Manhattan, cocktails and mixed drinks follow themes. You can swap out ingredients in a Negroni, or an Old Fashioned, and come up with a wide variety of tasty concoctions. Change the citrus or the sweet component of a Sour or Daisy, and you have an entirely different drink. More times than not, the theme holds. That’s what makes the drink a classic, and why it’s so difficult to develop a new theme, or as we call them—templates.

It’s generally agreed upon, in circles that agree upon such things, that to officially be called a “cocktail” a mixed drink needs bitters. There’s debate as to whether or not a sweetener is needed (i.e. can a Pink Gin, gin and bitters, called a cocktail?), to which I say no, but usually one will be. This may lead you to wonder why the term is used so haphazardly nowadays, and the answer is, per usual, Prohibition, and its ruining of everything good and holy in our business. The same can be said of the Martini, and its descent into its bitter-less, “vodka up” incarnation. But a thorough study of the theme, picking up where the Manhattan leaves off, brings us to the Martinez, a drink with a life so short and fleeting, if you blinked, you would miss it.

As stated previously, the Manhattan began its life as a Vermouth Cocktail with some rye to spice it up. The original proportions, proposed by Jerry Thomas, were 2 parts Italian (sweet) vermouth, 1 part rye, 3 dashes of Boker’s Bitters, and a dash or two of maraschino liqueur or curacao. Cocktails frequently employed the use of liqueurs like maraschino and curacao, as well as syrups like pineapple and grenadine, in place of sugar or simple syrup. Absinthe was frequently added as well. Over time, likely as drier drinks became in vogue, the proportions were changed and the modifier dropped. As a tippling culture, very few of us realize that the original recipe was what it was. But Substitute Old Tom gin for rye, and we have a perfectly made Martinez. How about that? It may even shake you to your core to learn that the Martini followed along this same template as well, early recipes making the use of sweet vermouth, as well as bitters and modifiers. The only difference with the Martini, was that London Dry gin was used instead of Old Tom. As time went on, French (dry) vermouth was substituted for sweet, and a Dry Martini was born. It was called dry because of the type of vermouth, not the lack of it. Now, we’re getting somewhere.

There are competing theories (shocking, I know) as to the origin of the word Martinez. Some say the drink was invented by Thomas, himself, while bartending in San Francisco. According to this legend, Thomas invented the drink for a traveler to nearby Martinez, California. The problem is, the drink wasn’t included in Thomas’ work until after his death, in the 1887 posthumous reprint of his guide. The Modern Bartender’s Guide by O.H. Byron, published in 1884 (three years before the reprint of Thomas’ book,) lists the Martinez as a Manhattan made with gin instead of whiskey. Another story claims the drink was invented in the town of Martinez, itself; while a third gives credit to a man with the last name Martinez. It’s virtually impossible to prove any of these assertions, because there is no evidence. What fables lack in evidence, however, cocktail books make up for.

In the late 1890’s to early 1900’s, the Martinez begins to utilize dry vermouth. Gary Regan, noted bartender and drinks historian, makes a point that in 1906 the drink mysteriously changes its name to the Dry Martini in a book by Louis Muckensturm titled “Louis’ Mixed Drinks with Hints for the Care and Service of Wines.” He postulates that Martini & Rossi, the famous brand of Italian vermouth, marketed a name change for the cocktail in hopes of cornering the market. Seeing as Martini & Rossi was one of the only vermouth brands to not only survive Prohibition, but thrive after its repeal, this assertion is not entirely farfetched, although Regan himself would admit there is no way to prove it. The problem is, the word Martini appears almost twenty years earlier, in Harry Johnson’s 1882 book. Johnson, himself, didn’t mention the Martinez until the 1888 reprint. Not to mention Martini & Rossi didn’t debut in the States until 1900. It is absolutely certain, however that the company would hijack the name in later years.

In Modern American Drinks: How to Mix and Serve All Kinds of Cups and Drinks (1895), George J. Kappeler writes that a Martini Cocktail should be made with “half a mixing-glass full of fine ice, three dashes orange bitters, one-half jigger Tom gin, one-half jigger Italian vermouth, a piece lemon peel. Mix, strain into cocktail-glass. Add a maraschino cherry, if desired by customer.” Sounds like a Martinez to me. 1896 saw a reference to the Martini: The Marguerite Cocktail from Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them by Thomas Stuart: 1 dash of orange bitters, 2/3 Plymouth gin, 1/3 French vermouth. Close, save for the omission of maraschino. And there’s the Turf Club Cocktail, found in George Winter’s How to Mix Drinks: The Bar Keeper’s Handbook (1884) which contains equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, with Peruvian bitters, whatever those are.

All of this can leave a man shaking his head. But as screwy as things were at the turn of the century, they began to be straightened out on the dawn of Prohibition. The Martini Cocktail, bolstered and marketed by the Martini & Rossi Company, capitalized on the public trend towards dry cocktails, and the Dry Martini Cocktail soon reigned supreme. Prohibition saw the end of the trained, qualified bartender, and with him the proper storing of vermouth. Because vermouth oxidizes at room temperature rather quickly, Martini & Rossi that sat on the back bar for months at a time was frowned upon by drinkers for obvious reasons. Soon it became fashionable to order a Martini with the bottle of vermouth “passed over the glass” or “waved in the direction of France.” Of course, the quality of gin surviving Prohibition wasn’t exactly top-notch, either. It didn’t take long for Smirnoff and other vodka producers to capitalize on consumers’ preference for a quick, clean hit of booze. By the 1950’s, vodka was marketed as leaving you “breathless,” meaning your boss would never know you were out to a “Three Martini Lunch.” The era of flavor had ended, and the Dark Ages of the Cocktail were beginning.

So why revive the Martinez? Well, strictly speaking, it’s delicious when made properly. While the Manhattan certainly achieves balance, and the true Martini is a glorious mix of crisp, floral flavors, the Martinez walks a line between strong and weak, bitter and sweet, that possibly only the Negroni can do better. When modernizing recipes, I always look to the past to get an idea of the template I’m using, and the flavor profile I’m looking to achieve. Modern mixology allows us the use of many liquors and liqueurs that simply weren’t available in the Golden Age. My, how far we’ve come. From having virtually no tools only a decade ago, to an abundance of them today, the possibilities are endless.

The Martinez lends itself well to interpretation. My addition of kirschwasser, a distillation of sour cherries (Morello, traditionally,) keeps this drink dry and flavorful. A combination of Ransom Gin and Hayman’s Old Tom tones down the woody notes of the Ransom that can overpower this drink. The addition of Boker’s Bitters (a product recreated by the amazing Adam Elmegirab) adds spicy complexity to the traditional orange bitters. All in all, the drink is as close to perfect as any Martinez I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve included it here, verbatim.

Is it true that some questions are better off unanswered? Some mysteries left unsolved? I’ll ponder that, staring reflectively off into the night, as I sip on my cocktail….

 

The Martinez (Classic)

  • 1.5oz Old Tom Gin (Hayman’s)
  • 1.5oz Italian Vermouth (Carpano Antica, Coccho Vermouth di Torino)
  • .25oz Maraschino Liqueur
  • 2 dashes Orange Bitters
  • Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon or orange peel.

 

The Martinez (Adam Patrick)

  • .75oz Ransom Gin
  • .75oz Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
  • 1.5oz Carpano Antica vermouth
  • .25oz Maraska Maraschino Liqueur
  • .25oz Clear Creek Kirschwasser Cherry Brandy
  • 2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters
  • 2 dashes Boker’s Bitters
  • Stir all ingredients over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Slainte

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Gin & Tonic – A Journey Through Time

The origins of the Gin & Tonic differ from that of most mixed drinks. It wasn’t invented by a famous mixologist from the pre-prohibition era. It didn’t bring fame and renown to any luxurious turn of the century hotel bar. No famous bartending guides list it among their most cherished libations. And yet, the history of this drink is one steeped in international and domestic politics, global expansionism, agriculture, and even medicine. It is not just a confluence of ingredients, however, but also of nations and cultures. Every time we mix a Gin & Tonic, we retell the story of several countries, on three continents, over a period of two hundred years. There’s scant ambiguity to its history, and very little debate as to its timeless endurance.

While most of us view gin as the quintessential British spirit, this was not always the case. Believed to be invented by Dr. Fransiscus Sylvuis, a Dutch scientist and Professor of Medicine at Leyden, Holland, the first gin was a distillate of neutral grain spirits flavored with the essential oils of the juniper berry, and was intended to aid people with kidney diseases. Juniper berries had been a favorite remedy for a host of maladies for hundreds of years, going back in Europe as far as the plague, and they were used to combat everything from circulation issues, to fever, to poor digestion, and an excess of other issues. Sylvuis termed his concoction “Jenever,” after the French “Genie vre” meaning Juniper, and, by 1655, it was being produced commercially. The best versions that became part of Dutch culture used malt-wine as the base of fermentation. English soldiers fighting in the Netherlands during the Dutch War of Independence developed an affinity for Jenever (pronounced Gen-ee’-vurr.) They watched, captivated, as Dutch soldiers threw back gulps of the booze and charged headfirst into battle, earning Jenever the nickname “Dutch Courage.” Soon, English soldiers returning home to Britain were bringing bottles of “the courage” with them, and it didn’t take long before the whole country was smitten with Jenever, eventually shortened to “Jen” and finally “Gin.” This Gin was very different from the Gin we know today. Take a swig from a bottle of Bols Genever and you’ll see what I mean. True Genever is malty, and has an air of age to it. Imagine mixing gin with irish whiskey, and a little bit of sugar, an idea that even cocktail historian David Wondrich admits “works tolerably well in Punches and the like, but less so in Cocktails.”

The Revolution of 1688 brought about the next major step in the evolution of Gin. William of Orange disposed of England’s Catholic monarch, King James II, and became William III, the new king of England. A year later, William banned the import of French Brandy, and levied serious duties on German alcohol, virtually guaranteeing a market for Dutch spirits. He also ended a royal monopoly on distilled spirits that allowed English farmers to distill from local grain. In 1695, the British raised taxes on beer, making gin the cheapest beverage in England. This created a gin boom that lasted for decades, and gin consumption became so rampant that new laws would have to be enacted to curb what was being called the “Gin Craze.” During this time, as happens any time the market becomes saturated with a cheap product with near limitless demand, product quality waned. Harsh distillate was sweetened with sugar to seem more palatable, and the precursor to Old Tom Gin was born. Old Tom Gin was called so because many of the Gin Shops around London would place a small wooden plaque shaped like a black cat (an old tom cat) on the outside of the pub. A customer need only drop a coin into a small slot on the side of the plaque and gin would be dispensed from the cat’s mouth. Eventually, laws like The Tippling Act of 1751 were passed that eliminated smaller gin shops and left the distribution to larger distilleries and retailers. In the late 1800’s, the invention of the column still also helped to solidify the gin we know today as London Dry, a style made so clean and so well that it didn’t need sugar or other flavorings to mask deficiencies. London Dry, a style dominated by the flavor of the juniper berry, remained the benchmark for over a hundred years, until products like Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray Malacca opened the door to a host of new, less juniper-dominated gins dubbed “New Western Gins.”

The second and more variable ingredient in the Gin and Tonic, is the tonic itself. Tonic is essentially a delivery system for quinine, an anti-malarial alkaloid found in the bark of the cinchona tree. The Quechua people, indigenous to Peru, were the first to discover the fever-reducing, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties of the cinchona tree. The Incas used quinine, derived from steeping the bark in water (or even better in alcohol), as a muscle relaxant used to halt shivering due to low temperatures. As it turns out, the same pharmacological properties that make quinine effective at treating shivering also make it effective against the deadly malaria virus, and its fever-inducing chills.

Soon, Spanish Jesuit missionaries discovered the beneficial effects of quinine first-hand.  The tree itself is named after the Countess of Chinchona, the wife of a Spanish viceroy to Peru. In 1638, after falling ill and finding no remedy for her malady, the Spanish doctors enlisted the help of the Quechua in saving the life of the Countess. The cinchona tea spared her from death, and the history of quinine on the European continent began. Due to the demand of quinine in Europe to battle malaria and other diseases, the Jesuit priests began smuggling seeds and saplings out of South America. Concerned with facing lost revenue, Peru immediately outlawed the export of any form of cinchona other than bark or extract, a form they could control. In the mid 1800’s, South America maintained a near monopoly on cinchona bark, exporting nearly two millions pounds annually. During this monopoly, however, demand began to exceed supply. British and Dutch soldiers in East Asia needed quinine to battle the incessant malaria that was so prevalent at the time. In turn, prices for Peruvian cinchona bark skyrocketed, and in 1862, an entrepreneur named Charles Ledger aimed to do something about it. Ledger smuggled cinchona seeds out of Peru and sold them to the Dutch government. The Dutch, in turn, began transferring the new strains to island plantations in Ceylon and Java. Without this new, abundant source of quinine, the colonization of East Asia may have been halted at the doorstep of malaria.

For almost a century, Indonesia supplied close to 95% of the world’s quinine. But in 1942, Japan attacked and took control of Indonesia to secure oil for the war effort. The Allied powers would summon a meeting, as important as the Manhattan Project, to discover a way to produce synthetic quinine. Thus, we have commercial quinine extract, added to tonic water, and the beginning of the end for natural quinine production.

The British Navy had always been drinkers. Rum rations went back as far as the mid seventeenth century. British officers long knew of the horrors of scurvy, a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C. For decades the navy battled this by adding to a daily rum ration a dose of lime juice, forming the basis of grog (or rum, sugar, and lime). As a side note, alcoholic proof was also invented at this time, meaning the minimum amount of alcohol in rum that could be lit on fire with gunpowder. Hence were the ways sailors ensured they were not being cheated out of booze by their superiors. Those same superiors, however, drank the Queen’s gin, not bottom-feeders’ rum, and soon the sailors rations were reduced to limit alcohol consumption. When Britain began the colonization of East Asia, they found themselves at the vortex of history, necessity, and convenience. Quinine, in the form of tonic water, was crucial in the prevention of malaria. Lime juice not only prevented scurvy but gave life to a mixed drink, a little acidity to wake up other flavors. Sugar was as important as any other ingredient to balance flavor; and it wasn’t too long before someone decided that the most ubiquitous of all British liquor should be added for good measure. After all, if you had to take your medicine, you’d want it to not only taste good, but knock you around a little as well. And thus, we have the gin and tonic cocktail, the final step in a two-hundred year road to cocktail perfection, the likes of which was as unprecedented as it was unmatched.

We are lucky to live in the current revival of mixology that dominates the present day. New gins from America as well as the rest of the world have begun to be taken as seriously as those recipes from the past that are now being recreated. Bartenders and mixologists have more than just new gins to play with, however. Tonics such as Tomr’s, Fentiman’s, Q-Tonic, and Fever Tree provide fresh quinine without added high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, and other adulterants. Like all artisan spirits and mixers, some work well in certain applications and some work well in others. When it doubt, experimentation is the gateway to deliciousness, and what might be good for some may be disastrous to others. While gin itself is legally complicated to produce, tonic water is not, and a quick romp through a health food store or two might yield you enough ingredients to make your own. As is the motto of this web site, when you can make your own mixers, from fresh ingredients, you’re obligated to try.

Below is listed my starting point for homemade tonic water. It’s a combination of a couple of solid recipes from other bartenders, presented here to familiarize the everyday drinker to the world of craft mixers, using products you can get at your local Whole Foods. In no way is this a be-all-end-all recipe designed to fill every niche. Some gins like Bluecoat and Tanqueray 10 play well off of citrusy components. Aviation might play better off of spice. And even juniper heavy London Dry Gins can have flavors accentuated by other ingredients. The key is to keep playing with things until they work out the way you like to taste them, and even then, there’s always more experimenting to do. The following recipe contains some easy to gather ingredients that play particularly well with a wide variety of gins. As always, when looking to match with specific spirits, some items will need to be dropped or added. Consider this a starting point and go from there.

Tonic Syrup:

Bring to a boil –

  • 4 cups of water
  • 1 cup chopped lemongrass (chop like celery, using all but the last inch of the stalk.)
  • .25 cup ground cinchona bark (a heavy-duty spice/coffee grinder works well, or just purchase ground cinchona bark. Nature’s Wonderland is a good start.)
  • 3 fine zest of lime (a Microplane works well. Avoid long strips as with a vegetable peeler.) & juice
  • 2 fine zest of lemon & juice
  • 1 fine zest of orange & juice
  • 1 fine zest of grapefruit
  • 3 Tbsp. Citric Acid (many recipes call for twice this amount, but I think it’s overkill. Experiment freely.)

Additional ingredients to play around with, depending on the Gin you use:

  • 1 Tbsp. allspice berries
  • 1 Tbsp. coriander
  • 1 Tbsp. bitter orange peel
  • 1 tsp. lavender
  • 1 tsp. cardamom pods
  • 1 Tbsp. chamomile
  • 1 tsp. grains of paradise

After boiling, reduce to a covered simmer for 25 minutes. When the time is up, strain out the solid ingredients and filter the resulting tea through a couple rounds of coffee filters and/or cheesecloth. Let the liquid sit for an hour or two in a French Press, and decant into a quart container to remove the remaining solids.

Add the resulting tea back to a clean pot. Heat to a simmer and add .75 cup of sugar for every cup of liquid. Dissolve and remove from stove to let cool. The syrup will be brown, no two ways about it. Give it your all when it comes to filtering out sediment before you add the sugar and you’ll be in better shape. The color will not, however, turn clear, no matter how much you work at it. Such is the way life goes.

In a highball glass filled with ice, mix:

  • 2oz of Gin
  • .75oz – 1oz of tonic syrup
  • Top with soda and splash of lime.

It is also possible (and maybe even advisable) to mix the tonic syrup with distilled water in a carbonator (such as an iSi), and carbonate to order. The bubbles will last longer than mineral water and the texture of the drink will not suffer.

Slainte!

A Treatise on Tending Bar – Part Two: Sweet

Premise #1:

It’s a cold, snowy, Monday evening in New York City’s flatiron district. Your favorite restaurant is closed for a private party, and you’ve decided to branch out. There’s a hot new dining location just down the road that your friends have been raving about. You step inside and shake off the cold, pleased you are able to get a small table right away.

The host pulls out your chair and smiles as you settle into your seat. She places the dinner menu in front of you, and the wine list to your right. You smile back, but gently push them away, thanking her. As she leaves, you’re brimming with anticipation. You know exactly what you want, you’ve been thinking about it all day. You relax, momentarily, and take a sip of the water just provided to you by the young man in the black tie. You notice a slightly older, more confident gentleman making his way to your table, and your excitement is reignited. He greets you and asks how you’re doing. “Hungry,” you say, grinning. Before he can reply, you blurt out, unrestrained, “I’ll have the fish! With potatoes, and broccoli.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the confused waiter replies. “Which type of fish would you like?”

“Any fish,” you answer. “Your cheapest fish. With potatoes and broccoli, please.” You’re grinning again, confident in your decision.

Again, the waiter appears perplexed, but handles it with tact. “Ma’am, tonight the chef has prepared a pan-seared Halibut with—“

“Doesn’t matter what fish,” you interrupt. “I’ll take Cod, if you have that.” You retain your smile.

“Yes ma’am,” the unflappable server continues, “with a lemon, wine, caper, and dill sauce, accompanied by hericot verts and cauliflower gratin. I apologize, but tonight we are not offering a Cod dish. Perhaps I can walk you through our menu? There are other seafood options as well as—“

“I just want fish and potatoes,” you blurt out, your smile fading away. “Don’t you have fish and potatoes here? What kind of restaurant doesn’t have potatoes?” What kind of restaurant, indeed.

——————-

Premise #2:

You settle into your seat at the bar. Through the stench of burnt fryer oil and stale beer you can smell something almost relatable to food. Bacon maybe? The floor is covered in muddy footprints, the back bar in more than one layer of dust. You take off your overcoat, and look around for a hostess. Spotting a young lady in a green polo shirt you motion to her with a smile. “Would you take my coat, please?” you ask. “Why?” she replies, “you don’t want it anymore?” You recoil, stunned, pulling your coat to your chest. “I beg your pardon?” you retort. She chuckles and walks away.

Following a moment of awkward silence, the bartender approaches. A young man, possibly out of high school, his hair is disheveled and his shirt is untucked. A pencil perches precariously behind his left ear, and the tattoos run down his right arm from shirtsleeve to wrist. You believe you see more than one naked woman in the colorful milieu.

With a quick nod, the kid asks, “Whatcha havin’, bud?”

“A menu please,” you respond, to which one is tossed, randomly, in front of you. “Any specials?”

“It’s all special, my man,” the young bartender says. He stands in front of you, staring impatiently as you scrutinize the selections. You notice a plethora of burgers, and not much else in the way of choice.

“Is the beef grass fed?” you ask.

“The bartender raises his eyebrows. “I dunno what they eat, man. They’re frozen when they come in, and hot when they go out.”

“What about organic vegetables? Are the sides and toppings local and sustainable produce?”

“Bud, I got the lettuce from the grocery down the street about three hours ago ‘cuz we ran out of it after lunch. So, I’m guessin’ that’s pretty local. You want a burger or what?”

As you contemplate your response, another young man in a stained white t-shirt appears from the kitchen. He gestures to the bartender, asking, “Dude, got a smoke? I’m fuckin’ shot.”

You decide maybe you’re not so hungry after all.

——————–

Let’s face it, we rarely pick restaurants haphazardly. If we need a quick bite, we hit up fast food or the local coffee shop. If we plan to entertain friends or enjoy the creations of a famous chef, we dress up and visit a nicer location. We scour the internet for Yelp reviews, Google reviews, and Tripadvisor reviews. We stare for hours at Zagat ratings, Michelin ratings, and New York Times ratings. On our phones we flip endlessly through Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and Instagram pictures. And we do all of this so that when we decide to spend our money at the restaurant we choose, that we have the best possible idea of what we are spending that money on, how the food is going to taste, and what type of experience we are going to have. We do this, seemingly, without training or coaching of any kind. The fear of being even remotely surprised by any facet of a restaurant’s production leaves us trembling and unsure. Is the caviar really Beluga? How is the foie gras prepared? Are the meatballs really the best in the city? Because you’ve had meatballs all over the city and you know how meatballs are supposed to taste. You’re a meatball aficionado. You’re not even going to give the damn meatballs the light of day unless they get at least a four star Yelp review from three of your closest followers. Fuck it, skip the meatballs. Not worth the chance for sixteen dollars. Unless they are….

So why don’t we apply this same thinking to the bar? As stated in the overwhelmingly awesome column (here) in Esquire Magazine by Aaron Goldfarb, people rarely choose a bar based on what drinks they serve. But you would never choose a restaurant without having at least some sort of an idea as to whether or not their particular choice of cuisine appealed to you at that particular moment. Why the disparity? Why is there such a chasm between the cocktail bar and the dive bar, such a disconnect between one end of the spectrum and the other? The reality is, there isn’t a spectrum at all. There’s no line of continuity, no scale from one to ten. The fact is, you either have a beverage program or you don’t. The strength of your beverage program can be judged, but first you have to develop and implement one. Therein, lies the rub. If the above stories seem silly, it’s because they are. If we witnessed anyone behaving in that manner in either of those situations, you can be sure we would act with either laughter or disdain. Surely we would tweet about it. But these situations happen in bars all the time. Customers are confused as to what to order and when, and as industry professionals, we are not doing a good enough job of helping them learn.

It’s not altogether complicated to paw through your state’s liquor ordering guide and (assuming you have the capital to spend) purchase a bunch of booze. You don’t need to know a whole lot about Scotch whisky to know that drinkers will order Macallan, Glenlivit, Glenfiddich, and Chivas Regal, based solely on name recognition. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand you will sell Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek if you display them on the back bar. Flavored vodkas are plentiful and cheap, so why not just order as many as possible? This doesn’t, however, constitute a beverage program. Neither does the mass collecting of all of the possible iterations of a given liquor. For example, while I’d be impressed if a bar offered every possible bottle of Scotch available in a given market (I’m looking at you, Owl Shop), that type of gross investment isn’t all that inspired unless every bartender that works at the establishment can educate me on how each selection tastes, and how it compares to the others in its range. Merely having a lot of choices without any education can actually detract from consumer demand, as the liquor list can appear pretentious and daunting. In most cases, a finely tuned liquor list, with bottles chosen for taste, price, region, food pairing, accessibility, and purpose, will net the business owner positive customer feedback. So why doesn’t it happen more often, and whose fault is it?

The answer is three-fold. Number one, it’s a lot of work to develop and institute a quality beverage program. Number two, there’s little demand for it. Number three, and the kicker, is that most restaurant and bar operators don’t have the slightest idea of what they’re doing, and they don’t care. So when I consult with an operator on the possibility of developing a bar program for their establishment, I begin in much the same way that I began this series, with the little things. Why spend thousands of dollars on quality booze if your bar uses boxed sour mix, bottled bloody mary mix, brown limes, Rose’s lime juice, Apple Pucker, and the like? It makes little sense to invest time, energy, and money into the research and purchase of expensive and artisanal spirits if your bar still clings to the bottled and boxed mixers of old.

In the previous article, we mentioned how simple, sharp citrus fruit, like lemons and limes, can be utilized to bring bright, vibrant tastes and smells to craft cocktails. The days of the prepackaged sour mix are long gone, and restaurants looking to up their game have already hopped on the fresh juice bandwagon. But there’s another side to sour, and that’s its opposing force: sweet. To complement the acidic component of a drink (or bitter, for that matter), there needs to be sugar, in one form or another. Table sugar, demerara, muscovado, turbinado, honey, agave, Truvia, are all examples of sweeteners, but the most important of ingredients, and the starting point from which all others should branch, is simple syrup.

So what is simple syrup? Strictly speaking, simple syrup is nothing more than a 1:1 ratio of white table sugar to plain water. It takes the place of granulated sugar in cocktails, achieving two main purposes. First, it is incredibly time consuming to dissolve granulated sugar (even “bar sugar” which is essentially superfine table sugar.) You may have noticed that slightly grainy last sip of your Old Fashioned. That’s due to the fact that it takes several minutes to properly saturate sugar in cold water, even using a muddler. The second, is the difficulty in gaining a consistent dilution ratio. Unless you’re measuring the amount of water you are diluting your sugar in, how can you be sure that the drink stays consistent from one to the next? Face it, you’re splashing water on the sugar from a soda gun. It’s going to vary from glass to glass. Simple syrup allows a consistent dilution rate, and speed of service without sacrificing quality. But one size does not fit all. Changes in concentration and temperature can alter not only taste, but sweetness and mouthfeel. Top level bartenders realize nuance, and slight variations can cause the difference between cocktail success and failure. Knowing how to tailor your syrup to suit your needs will separate the professional bartender from the amateur.

A quick chemistry lesson. The chemical name for table sugar is sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide (or complex sugar) made up of two monosaccharide (or simple sugar) molecules: fructose and glucose. The fructose and glucose bond can be chemically separated by either a catalyst (such as lemon juice or cream of tartar), or by heat. In industrial applications, a catalyst is less time-consuming and more precise. In restaurants, chances are you’ve made your simple syrup by heating your water up on a stove or hot plate, and adding sugar until it fully dissolves. What you didn’t know, is that you’re effectively changing the chemical makeup of the syrup by doing this, and the resulting syrup is called invert syrup (called so because of how polarized light changes direction when shone through the different syrups.)

Why do we heat simple syrup? Like most bartending routines, mainly because it’s how we were taught. But is it the ideal method to make our syrup? Maybe, maybe not. Heating sugar and water in the temperature range of 130-140 degrees F. will effectively dissolve your sugar, but the heat causes the sucrose molecules to separate. The resulting fructose-glucose, or invert syrup, will not only be sweeter (fructose is sweeter than sucrose), but it will be less velvety and smooth, due to the greater viscosity of the sucrose molecule. Subtle differences, but important ones. Heating your syrup at a temperature closer to boiling will cause your syrup to develop a burnt, caramel-like quality that can contaminate nuanced cocktails. Heat it at a cooler temperature, and crystals may develop, as the sugar has not fully integrated with the water. Adding cream of tartar or lemon juice may prevent crystallization and break apart the sucrose bonds further, but it may require 20 minutes or more of boiling just to rid your syrup of a lemon flavor.

One plus to heating your syrup is that the resulting invert syrup actually extends shelf life. You see, water activity is the amount of water in a substance that isn’t immobilized or chemically bound. High water activity = high chance of spoilage (red meats, fruits.) Low water activity = low chance of spoilage (dried pasta, grains.) Because monosaccharides aren’t smaller than disaccharides, they take up more room in the solution, thus reducing water activity and increasing shelf life. But what if I told you that you could have your cake and eat it too?

Increasing the concentration of sugar by adding an extra part to the syrup yields a 2:1 sugar to water solution. This is my go-to for simple syrup in all applications that I can control. First and foremost, the 2:1 syrup (called rich simple syrup) does two immediate things. One, it gives me a concentration of sugar that better approximates granulated sugar (so that I no longer need to adjust recipes that predate syrup), and it doesn’t water down my cocktail as much as 1:1 syrup does, while maintaining the same level of sweetness. I simply use less, and get the same result.

Now, I can heat 2:1 simple syrup and end up right back where I started, or I can add two parts sugar to one part slightly above room-temperature water and shake the shit out of it. Eventually, it will mix completely, and I have a perfectly sweet sugar solution that doesn’t taste burnt, sweetens my cocktail without watering it down, and has an amazingly silky mouthfeel due to its increased viscosity. And, if that all wasn’t enough, the greater concentration of sugar increases shelf life more than 1:1 ever could. I even throw an ounce of vodka in the mix, per liter, just for shit’s sake. I have a bottle of said syrup in the fridge right now that’s going on six months, no mold, and tastes great. But don’t take it from me:

Camper English, did an experiment in which he tested the shelf lives of different sugar syrups. On this site he states: “I found that 1:1 simple syrup spoiled in about one month, 1:1 syrup with vodka lasted three months, 2:1 simple syrup went six months without spoiling, and 2:1 simple syrup plus vodka was still unspoiled when I stopped the experiment at six months.”

But what of other sweeteners?

Agave Nectar: Despite what you may think, agave nectar isn’t a nectar at all. While it is marketed as a product gained in a similar fashion as maple syrup, agave nectar is actually a highly processed, fructose-rich syrup produced from the starch of the agave’s pina, or the same portion of the plant used to make mescal and tequila. The process is not unlike that of high fructose corn syrup, as that syrup is made from a processing of corn starch. Agave nectar is essentially no healthier for you than table sugar. While its low glycemic index results from less glucose, the abundance of body-harming fructose counteracts many health claims. Fructose, unlike glucose, is processed in the liver. It also contains more calories than white sugar. Like most bartenders, however, I’m concerned not so much with health as I am with taste. Agave nectar has a rich flavor that is hard to duplicate and compliments any aged spirit as well as mescal variations.

Honey: In this case, raw, organic honey harvested directly from beehives is the way to go. Packed with enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, honey may be the healthiest natural sweetener available. Dilute with an equal part of water to allow for greater mixability. Raw honey is notoriously difficult to integrate into a cocktail without first being diluted.

Maple Syrup: Go for Grade A here, the better, thinner stuff. Grade B is thicker and used more in cooking. Since we’re all familiar with the flavor of maple syrup, I’ll simply add that the flavor is intense, and doesn’t compliment everything. Use sparingly. If you see Grade C, it is the same as Grade B.

Sucanat/Muscovado/Panela/Jaggery: Unrefined cane sugar. Essentially dehydrated sugar cane juice, or cane sugar with the juice evaporated. All of the molasses content remains.

Turbinado/Demerara: Partially refined cane sugar, some of the molasses remains. Syrups made from these sugars will have a depth and richness of flavor that simple syrup lacks, and can bring an amazing funk to mixed drinks.

Stevia: All-natural and calorie free, the stevia plant tastes like sugar without being sugar. In its raw form, its dozens of times sweeter than sugar, so in commercial applications (like Truvia, Stevia in the Raw) it is combined with other additives. 86% of Truvia by weight is erythritol, a carbohydrate that our bodies lack the enzyme necessary to process, hence zero calories. The most successful use of Stevia that I’ve seen applied to the bar business is to steep the leaves, themselves, in alcohol when making homemade liqueurs or tinctures.

Coconut Sugar: a healthy, natural, sustainable sugar that is made from the sap of the coconut tree. Although difficult to source, it can add real depth of character in cocktails. Its taste is similar to maple and its glycemic index number is low.

Gomme/Gum Syrup: essentially simple syrup with gum arabic (Acacia gum) added. Gomme syrup will add to your cocktail a rich, silky mouthfeel and bolder body than traditional simple syrup. It also acts as a stabilizer, preventing crystallization in rich syrups. You can buy gum arabic at specialty baking stores, but I buy mine on Amazon. Add 1/4 cup boiling water to 4tsp powdered gum arabic. Stir and let sit for a couple of hours. Stir again. You will notice it thickens up like a gel. Make your 2:1 simple syrup in a pot on the stove. When it’s ready, stir in your gum mixture and simmer on low heat for a couple minutes. Do not raise the temperature, it will foam all over the place. After 4-5 minutes, skim off the foam and bottle. Piece of cake.

**One note here on muddling sugar. While I avoid muddling sugar pretty much all of the time, there are two situations in which I believe it can suit the cocktail, one being an Old Fashioned when you have the time to do it properly. In this situation, I would use a sugar cube, and soak it with bitters. Then I would muddle for a good solid couple of minutes in a mixing glass until every granule is dissolved. It requires patience, I assure you. The second situation involves THE SMASH, and its Latin American variant, THE CAIPIRINHA. In both of these drinks, you are sprinkling sugar on wedges of lemons or limes and essentially using the graininess of the sugar to help pulverize the fruit. Very rarely do the granules survive this massacre. Should you like to avoid buying premade sugar cubes, I’ll list a short recipe, below:

Homemade Sugar Cubes: Mix one cup sugar (any kind) with 3 tablespoons water. When completely and evenly saturated, spread mixture on the bottom of a baking pan (like you might use for mac n cheese or meatloaf) and press down firmly. Using a knife, slice into small cubes. Bake at 250 degrees for about one hour. Let cool for ten minutes and then break it up. Simple as pie.

Utilizing our new sugars and syrups, here are some fun cocktails to experiment with:

Mojito

  • Slap in your hands 8-10 bright green and fresh mint leaves, and place them into a mixing tin
  • 3/4oz freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 3/4oz 2:1 simple syrup
  • 2oz white rum (I use Vizcaya 12yr or El Dorado 3yr. Flor de Cana works well, also)
  • Shake all ingredients with enough ice to fill up a highball glass.
  • When through mixing, add enough soda water to tin to fill up the highball glass.
  • Pour, unstrained, from tin into highball glass.
  • Garnish with a fresh mint sprig and a straw.

 

Bee’s Knees

  • 2oz high quality London Dry Gin (Tanqueray, Beefeater)
  • 3/4oz – 1oz 1:1 honey syrup
  • 3/4oz – 1oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
  • Garnish with a lemon peel

Fonda la Paloma

  • 1 1/2oz Imbue Petal & Thorn Vermouth
  • 1oz El Buho Mescal
  • 1oz 1:1 honey syrup
  • 1oz freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
  • 1/2oz freshly sqeezed lime juice
  • 1/4oz 2:1 simple syrup
  • Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
  • Garnish with a lime wheel.

The Rum Old-Fashioned

  • 2oz El Dorado 12yr Rum
  • 1/2oz 1:1 Demerara Syrup
  • 3 dashes Falernum Bitters
  • Add ingredients to a rocks glass and stir with ice.
  • Garnish with a lime peel

The Caipirinha

  • 2oz Cachaca
  • 1-2 sugar cubes
  • 3-4 lime wedges
  • Muddle lime wedges with sugar cubes in a rocks glass until dissolved.
  • Pour Cachaca over muddled fruit and shake with ice.
  • Serve in the glass you built it in

Slainte!

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