Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays from the Backyard Bartender.

Here's a warm and bright little sangria, perfect for sipping with the family this Christmas. The cranberry is a tart and tasty complement to the wine, a little bit of spice adds holiday cheer, and a cup of Lillet makes everything just a little more deliciously grown-up.

christmas sangria 350

Cranberry Spice White Wine Sangria
serves 8
1 bottle (750 mL) dry white wine (such as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc)
1 cup fresh cranberries
1 orange, sliced and cut into quarter-wheels
15 whole cloves
3 cinnamon sticks
1 cup Lillet Blanc
1 cup white cranberry juice
1 cup red cranberry juice (I used cranberry juice cocktail, since real cranberry juice is very tart and a bit hard to locate.)

Combine all ingredients in a pitcher and allow to steep overnight. Serve over ice.

Thanks for reading, friends. I appreciate you all, and hope you have a wonderful, safe holiday filled with good friends, good times, and good drinks.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beer Cocktails: Redneck Mother

Ever since I first had a "beer-tail" at Beaver's Icehouse, one of my favorite places in Houston, or the world, I have longed to create one of my own. It seemed so simple, and yet so terribly difficult - I know which liquors go together, but what goes with beer?

beer cocktail

I started with sloe gin, beloved of Anglophiles and snooty mixologists, and Lone Star, beloved of me, while floating down the river. While some friends had suggested that 'Down the River With Nancy' would be a delightful name for a cocktail, I was stuck on 'Redneck Mother', and sloe gin (which is red) and Lone Star (which is a little redneck) seemed to fit the bill. To this I added ruby red grapefruit (newly in season - buy local!) and ginger beer. I confess I was inspired in this by the Shiner brewery's summer seasonal, the Ruby Redbird, which is (was) brewed with ginger and grapefruit. So it's unsurprising that the finished product is a bit reminiscent of Shiner's summer brew - but that's not a bad thing. I could use a little remembrance of summer right now.

beer cocktail 2

Redneck Mother

1 oz Rio Star ruby red grapefruit juice (fresh-squeezed!)
.75 oz sloe gin (Get the Plymoth, if you can. It's a bit hard to find, but completely worth it. If you can't hunt down the Plymoth, use a bit less, as other brands tend to be sweeter.)
Lone Star beer
Ginger beer

Add the sloe gin and grapefruit juice to the bottom of a pint glass (or mason jar). Fill the remaining portion of the jar halfway with Lone Star and top with ginger beer. Cheers.

All You Ever Wanted to Know about Chartreuse.

chartreuse small

Those polled had mixed opinions about Chartreuse.

Betty: "This tastes like food. Kind of like herbs de provence." (But she really liked it.)
Luke: "I don't want to drink anything that sounds like 'shart'."

If you can see past the 'shart' (and the prohibitive pricing - a bottle of this stuff cost me nearly 60 dollars) - Chartreuse will unfold its strange, age-old secrets to you. Its taste is distinctively herbal, not quite like any other liqueur you've ever had, and its history is old and rich. (Chartreuse has been made exclusively by French monks since 1605, and its formula is known only to two people. Take that, Coke.) Read all about it at the Kitchn, where yours truly expounds upon the mysteries and wonders of this mysterious and wonderful libation.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Much Love - And a Blueberry Cocktail - To You.

Some of you might have noticed that I appear to be taking a bit of a break from backyard bartending. But worry not, because I've actually been very busy, and I have many, many ideas. This fall, I'm going to be plying my craft over at The Kitchn for another eight weeks, as well as (hopefully) getting up some reviews of NYC and DC bars, along with some original content just for the site.

In the meantime, just so you don't go thirsty, here's a lovely little cocktail from the tail end of my last stint at the Kitchn. It was originally published right before labor day as a sort of last-ditch summer cocktail, but you have my permission to fall-ify it by using a spiced rum. In fact, that sounds so delicious I might just make one right now.

blueberry rum 2

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Summer Sage

Here's part 2 of my series of cocktail posts for the Kitchn. It's a re-jiggering (see what I did there?) of one of my very first drinks, a delicious combination of red plums, sage, and rye whiskey. If you're wondering what, exactly, the difference is between rye whiskey and plain old whiskey, flip back to this post for all the details. To see the new recipe (and more delicious photos), check out the Kitchn post here.

Warning: looks like pink lemondade. Will knock you on your ass. (So...pretty much the perfect cocktail.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cocktailing Chicago: The Violet Hour

Just a few El stops away from the Whistler is the Violet Hour, known as THE Chicago cocktail bar. The Whistler and the Violet Hour were my two very favorite bars in Chicago, and Sarah and I hit them up in the same night, which, of course, begs a comparison, The Whistler was delightfully chill, probably the most relaxed atmosphere I've ever found at a dedicated cocktail bar. The whole vibe was very laid-back, very under-the-radar. In the very best way, the Violet Hour is the Whistler's exact opposite; they are both hard to find, both have amazing cocktails, and that's where the similarities end. The Violet Hour is dramatic, from the velvet curtains at the entrance to the Alice-in-wonderland decor to the painstaking presentation of the cocktails. Does it feel like a neighborhood bar? Absolutely not. Does it feel like an experience? Oh, hell yes.

A copy of the Violet Hour's 'House Rules'. Don't ask for a Bud Light.

In keeping with other Chicago cocktail bars, the Violet Hour is a bit..obscure. You'll definitely notice it if you walk by, but you might not know it's a bar. The exterior of the bar is covered with a lovely textured wood paneling (architect Nancy approves), and the lower part is painted with a mural which changes with the seasons. Concealed within the mural is the front door; find the handle, give it a tug, and you will be greeted by the hostess, who will usher you into the depths of the bar.

image: Metromix

Entering the Violet Hour is like passing into another world. Push your way past not one, but two sets of velvet curtains, and you will find yourself in a dimly lit, indigo-hued space that's a bit reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, if Alice's wonderland was a craft bar filled with mixologists ready to satisfy your every boozing whim.

Our bartender was not actually headless.

Sarah and I were seated at the bar, where our bartender, Rob (I'm not quite sure his name was Rob, but we'll go with that), was ready to assist us. You know how older folks are always talking about how air travel used to be so wonderful, back when flight attendants were so gracious and flying on an airplane felt special? (Well, I've actually never had this conversation with an old person, but I've imagined one, based on my readings about the golden age of flight. Yes, I'm a huge nerd.) That's how the service at the Violet Hour compares to the service at any old bar; it's very personal. After we had a chance to look over the menu, Rob asked us what sort of alcohol we liked. Sarah wanted something light and refreshing, so for her he recommended the Juliet & Romeo, a combo of gin, mint, cucumber, and rose water that's one of the bar's most popular drinks. It came in a cocktail glass, with mint leaves and drops of bitters artfully scattered across the surface. At the Violet Hour, no detail goes ignored.

Juliet & Romeo.

I scoured the menu and decided to order a Old One, a combination of pisco, lime, Cocchi Americano (an Italian aperitif that's a cousin to Lillet Blanc), and Peychaud's bitters. My drink was a perfect, delicate mountain of crushed ice, surmounted by just a few drops of bitters. So how did these perfectly presented drinks taste? The Juliet & Romeo was delicious, delicate and subtly floral, and the Old One started out sweet, owing to the pisco, and finished with an elegant, lingering bitterness, like a particularly poignant Russian novel.

The Old One.

The drinks were very good. You can't have a cocktail bar without good drinks. But really, I think what sets the Violet Hour apart is more than just the drinks - it's a feeling. Deep in the dark, past the velvet curtains, sipping your perfectly constructed cocktail in the flickering candlelight, you're far away from the noise of the street, far away from mundane, everyday things. You're a part of the drama, too; you're you, but for a little while, you're starring in a more sophisticated, more glamorous version of your life. I didn't want it to end.

Cocktailing Chicago: The Whistler

One of Chicago's best cocktail bars almost wasn't a bar at all.

Most bar owners decide that they want to open a bar, and then search for an appropriate space. The owners of Chicago's Whistler did it the other way around - they found the space, and then figured out what to do with it. They decided they wanted to open a live music venue - one that would sell wine, and beer, and maybe a few mixed drinks. Well, on the night of the very first concert, the cocktails were a smash hit. A star was born.

Like other Chicago cocktail bars, the Whistler is a little hard to spot. Look for the changing art installation in the store window in front.

Sarah and I showed up at the Whistler at 6 PM on a Monday night, right when the place opened. Not exactly prime time for any bar - in fact, we were the only customers there. "Could you print out a few menus?" Billy Helmkamp, one of the co-owners (I later discovered), yelled to the only other employee in the bar. Print the menus?, I asked. You have a different menu every day? Yes, Billy told me - a new menu is printed every day the bar is open, reflecting the availability of the different kinds of local produce they use in their drinks. Right away, I knew this was my kind of place.

The Whistler is really serious about local ingredients. They get a lot of their produce from a Chicago-area nonprofit that teachers inner-city kids how to garden, and like The Drawing Room, they're always looking for locally made spirits. One of their sources, Billy told me, is a Chicago-area attorney who makes cocktail bitters in his spare time. He distributes them to local bars, free of charge, apparently. He's in it for the love of the game.

But the Whistler, at its heart, is a live music venue. That's what the owners intended when they opened it, and they have live music every single night (although Sarah and I had to jet after about an hour and unfortunately did not witness this). This makes it a sort of hipster's paradise - laid-back location, delicious cocktails made with local ingredients, live music. Although I'm unable to confirm or deny the reports from Yelp that the Whistler is always full of painfully trendy, bearded types, I can report that, when Sarah and I were there, 100% of the other clientele (consisting of...1 guy) had beards.

Southern Exposure (l) and the Pago Pago.

While staying true to its roots as a live music venue, the Whistler is also an excellent place to get a drink. I had a Pago Pago, a classic tiki cocktail with...chartreuse?, which was as delicious as it was unexpected, and Sarah had a Southern Exposure (pisco, mezcal, lime, raspberry syrup, and allspice dram), whose pink hue and delicious smoky flavor made me exceedingly jealous. After only a single round of drinks and about 45 minutes of chatting with Billy about beer, booze blogs, and bitters, I was very sad to leave. If you live in Chicago (or are just visiting), do yourself a favor and soak up some live music (and some very good drinks) at one of my new favorite bars, the Whistler.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cocktail University: All About Sloe Gin.

Sloe gin, the liqueur that is the base for the lovely Hermione Granger, is a bit of a mystery to even my most booze-educated friends. "Um...what's that?", I always get asked, when I tell them that delicious tartness comes from sloe gin. Like a lot of forgotten cocktail ingredients resuscitated in recent years, sloe gin has a pretty interesting history. Read all about it at the Kitchn, where I'll be guest-writing a cocktail column for the next three weeks.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Enter the Dragon (Fruit)

The latest exotic fruit taking the culinary world by storm is...dragon fruit!!

After reading this sentence, you probably had one of two reactions:
1. There is a fruit called dragon fruit?
2. There is a such thing as...fruit trends?

Well, yes, and yes. Dragon fruit is so of-the-moment that the New York Times wrote a whole article about how cool it is. And you can hardly blame them - dragon fruit is a really, really cool-looking fruit. On the outside, it's hot pink with wavy green spines. Inside, the flesh is white (or pink, for some varieties) and studded with tiny black seeds.

It's got a great backstory, too - the cacti that the fruit grows on only blooms at night, under a full moon. (In the cacti's native lands, the flowers are pollinated by moths and bats; to grow the fruit in America, California farmers have to go out under the light of the moon and pollinate the flowers by hand.) And who wouldn't get excited about a foodstuff with "dragon" in the name?

Unfortunately, I didn't hear about dragon fruit from the New York Times, or some exalted food publication. I heard about it from watching the Bachelorette. (That's right - this is my second drink in less than a month to be inspired by reality television programming. (Here's the first - and a shameless plug for my snarktastic Bachelorette blog.) In a recent episode, Ashley and one of her would-be paramours are seen sitting on a beach in Thailand, drinking champagne and eating dragon fruit. My curiosity was piqued. So when I ran across some dragon fruit at a local Asian market, I thought, hey - why not give it a try?

Of course the big question with any exotic fruit is: what's it taste like? In this case: not much. Even the NYT admits that despite all the hoopla, dragon fruit doesn't really have much of a flavor. I found the texture to be pleasing, which was a surprise given all those seeds, and the taste to be slightly sweet and very, very mild. A little bit strawberry, a little bit melon, a little bit grassy. But veeery mild.

Then there was the issue of what to pair it with. I thought about tequila. I was worried that it might overwhelm the dragon fruit's delicate flavor - I don't think anyone would describe tequila as "mild" - but I had good luck in the past pairing tequila with another unusual pink fruit that grows on a cacti. So I gave it a try.

Dragon Fruit Margarita
Flesh of 1/4 dragon fruit
1.5 oz silver tequila
1/2 oz triple sec
1/2 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice

Combine all ingredients in a blender. Add 5-6 ice cubes. Run the blender, adding ice cubes as needed, until you achieve the desired slushy consistency.

Verdict: My gamble paid off. It's mild, it's sweet, it's refreshing - the tequila is definitely there, but, ever-so-subtly, so is the dragon fruit. In fact, I can almost taste the dragon fruit more in the margarita than I could in the plain old fruit. Maybe it's because dragon fruit and tequila both come from cacti, so they're buddies. Whatever it is: this is good.

Now if anyone needs me, I'll be drinking one of these bad boys on the beach. In Thailand.

More Delicious Margaritas:
The Sweet & Spicy Southwest Margarita
Key Lime Margarita
White Peach and Basil Margarita

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Backyard Bartender in the Kitchn

This week the regular cocktail blogger over at the Kitchn was away, so I filled in with a post about my strawberry basil margaritas. Mosey on over there and check it out. These are seriously some of the easiest cocktails I've ever made - you can throw together a whole pitcher in a few minutes. And they're so popular with my friends that I have to make a pitcher for pretty much every party I have.

Longtime readers may recognize this as a re-do of this earlier post. Longtime attenders of Nancy parties may recognize this as one of their favorite drinks.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Even More Harry Potter Cocktails.

It's that time again, y'all. Time for EVEN MORE Harry Potter cocktails. If you're looking for the big 3 (that would be Harry, Ron, and Hermione), get yourself over to this post and check out the cocktails I made for them. This time around, I selected four more of our favorite fictional persons to be immortalized in liquid form.

The Luna Lovegood

Luna Lovegood: a little strange, a little spacey, and infinitely lovable. Unaged corn whiskey (also known as moonshine) seemed like the perfect expression of Luna's particular brand of home-grown wackiness. It was only after I made the drink that Garret pointed out to me that Luna means moon, which makes it even more perfect.

Luna Lovegood
8 mint leaves
1.5 oz unaged corn whiskey (I used Georgia Moon)
1 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
.75 oz simple syrup

Place the mint and simple syrup in your shaker and muddle. Add the lemon juice and moonshine, fill the shaker with ice, and shake and strain into an ice-filled glass.

The Draco Malfoy

I don't know about you, but when I think of a Draco-esque cocktail, I immediately think of a martini. But it couldn't be just a martini: that's boring. One night, while mixing up a test batch of Lunas for the roommate, I had a brilliant idea: pickle juice. I had a jar of pickle juice tucked away in the back of the fridge, hoping that someday at some party I could convince some of my braver friends to do pickleback shots (shot of bacon-infused bourbon, followed by a shot of pickle juice and a chaser of beer. really). Into the mix the pickle juice went, and out came a cocktail that was just like Draco: smooth, sleek, and a little bit nasty.

Draco Malfoy
2 oz gin (or vodka, if you prefer)
1/2 oz dry vermouth
1/2 oz pickle juice (I used the juice of a jar of Claussen Kosher Dill sandwich slices, which are, in my opinion, the very best pickles.)

Stir (or shake) all ingredients together with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Drink deeply. Think evil thoughts. (Lauren, the roommate, came up with a brilliant idea: rimming the martini glass with salt will really bring out the savory flavors in this drink.)

The Neville Longbottom

Tea-infused gin and Pimm's: a little fussy, quintessentially British, and unexpectedly strong.

Tea-Infused Gin
In an airtight jar, combine 1.5 cups of gin and 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon of loose English Breakfast tea leaves. Seal the jar, shake once, and allow to sit at room temperature for two hours. After two hours, open the jar and strain out the gin.

Neville Longbottom
1.5 oz tea-infused gin
1 oz Pimm's
.75 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
.75 oz simple syrup

Combine all ingredients in a shaker. Shake and strain into an ice-filled glass.

The Severus Snape

Oh, Snape. Snape is by far my favorite character in the Harry Potter series, played to perfection by Alan Rickman, who is by far my favorite actor. Think about it: in the first book, Snape seems like some generic, greasy, throw-away villain, but then you learn that he's actually this hugely important character upon whom the whole series turns. Remember when you were anxiously awaiting the release of the seventh book, because you had to know whether Snape was good or bad? Well, if you haven't read the books and are waiting for the movie, I won't ruin things for you, but SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER I always knew that Alan Rickman would never betray me like that. And the delicious candy center at the middle of all Snape's turncoatery and snarkery turns out to be...unrequited love, which is one of the most romantic things ever. Snape is J.K.'s true masterpiece.

I held off on making a making a Snape cocktail last time, because how could I ever do him justice? And how could I ever make a cocktail that was an accurate reflection of Snape's personality and actually tasted good? Enter...Fernet Branca. Fernet Branca is a highly bitter, very complicated herbal Italian liqueur, and the very first time I tasted it I knew it was exactly what I need for my Snape. Add to that Blackstrap rum (a very deep, dark, molasses-y dark rum), falernum, and a dash of lavender bitters. Why the lavender? I wanted something floral to remind us of someone else with a floral name who Snape never forgot.

Severus Snape
1.5 oz Cruzan Blackstrap Rum
.5 oz falernum (I used Fee's)
.5 oz Fernet Branca
dash of lavender bitters (I used the Bar Keep Lavender Spice variety.)

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass over ice. Stir for thirty seconds, allow to sit for thirty seconds (I'm warning you - this one is strong), and strain into a cocktail glass.

I'm sad to think that the release of the last movie might be the end of all the Harry Potter madness. It's been a wild ride, and I hate to see it coming to an end. Whatever will we do? Well, I don't know. But have a drink.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cocktailing Chicago: The Matchbox

Chicago's matchbox is the cutest, tiniest little place you will ever get a drink that will knock you on your ass. It has the distinction of being the only bar we visited that actually looks like a bar from the outside, but you might miss it anyway, because it's about eight feet wide. Inside is a long bar with a single row of bar stools - there's about three feet between the first stool and the wall, and it only narrows as you go back.

It's even tinier than it looks.

I know this may sound like somebody's claustrophobic nightmare, but I just loved it. Somehow, squeezing yourself past other patrons to get to the bar, or the bathroom, breeds a bizarre sense of camaraderie. It's a feeling of community born from the shared experience of shoehorning yourself into this itty bitty bar to get a beer on a Sunday night. Maybe it's a trick - my shoulder is touching this person's shoulder, so we must be friends - or maybe I just liked it so much because it reminded me of college, where everyone seems willing to jam themselves into a tiny space with relative strangers as long as there's free food or drink involved. Whatever the reason, I completely fell in love with the feel of this bar - cool and insidery, but in a totally down, unpretentious way. A place can't be fancy if you have to make physical contact with 20 strangers to get to the bathroom.

By some stroke of luck Sarah, Rebekah and I managed to snag three consecutive barstools so we could get down to the business of drinking. The bartender was just the sort of woman you would expect to find behind the bar at a place like this - friendly but no-nonsense, chatting with regulars while slinging cocktails at alarming speed. The drinks were hit or miss. My gin blossom, a combo of gin, lemon, and elderflower liqeuer, was okay, but Sarah's lemon drop just tasted like vodka (okay, I guess, if you want a glass of vodka, but not if you ordered a cocktail), and Rebekah's Manhattan was overly sweet and watered down. My favorite drink I had here was just a plain old margarita, although I should probably qualify that by mentioning that by the time I tried it, I'd already had two other (quite strong) drinks.

The gin blossom.

The great thing, if you can find a drink you like, is that the bartenders don't skimp on quantity - the martini glasses are the same size you'll find at other bars, but with each order they give you the cocktail shaker used to make the drink, which has enough liquid in it to fill your glass over again. So it's really like getting two drinks for the price of one. Of course, they leave the ice in the shaker, so you'll have to drink your original drink first or your leavings will get a little watered down. Beers are bizarrely expensive ($4 for PBR? What?), so if your goal is to get the most buzz for your buck, you're definitely better off with a cocktail.

So: maybe not the greatest place for finely crafted cocktails, but definitely worth checking out. The whole thing just felt so comfortable - like I was always meant to be at this particular bar, with these people, sipping a Fin du Monde and melting into the music, and the atmosphere, and the perfect Sunday night.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Cocktailing Chicago: The Drawing Room

Chicago cocktail bars are hard to find.

Although none of them are rocking the speakeasy feel quite as hard as PDT, the NY cocktail den with an entrance in the back of a phone booth, all the places we went felt a little bit...tucked away. Secret. Special. Like you were cool and in-the-know just for getting in the door.

Sarah, Rebekah and I started off our very first evening in Chicago at the (relatively conspicuous) Drawing Room, a basement hideaway with an entrance tucked between a club and a little French restaurant. We got there around 7 PM on Saturday night, just in time to stake out some prime spots at the bar. From there, we could watch our cocktails being crafted by some of the world's best bartenders (head bartender Charles Joly won a James Beard award in 2011, which is kind of a big deal), and also check out the scene.


From the photos I found online, I was a little concerned that the decor would be a bit high-dollar Holiday Inn, but I couldn't have been more wrong. The Drawing Room feels loungey, intimate and wonderfully grown-up, like the kind of place you always imagined adults hanging out when you were little and couldn't wait to grow up. The space is a long, low room filled with plush furniture - it's modern but warm, fancy but not fussy. The perfect backdrop for for a night on the town with some good friends, and some very good drinks.

Let's talk about the drinks.

Normally, I feel pretty in my element when perusing a cocktail menu. Strange spirits, like cachaça, Fernet Branca? These do not phase me. I even know what a shrub is. But the menu at the Drawing Room threw even me for a loop, and that's a good thing. Cocktail experimentation with wild and wonderful ingredients? I love. And, it turned out, a lot of the things on the menu I didn't recognize because they were local spirits made in and around Chicago. This, I love even more.

Right off, Sarah asked me - what is Malört? Maybe a kind of whiskey? - I told her, totally flubbing. And then I remembered - Malört is that liqueur. Famous for tasting like tires, and for, well, being absolutely repulsive. People who taste Malört for the first time are usually so disgusted that they make what is called a Malört face, an expression of total disgust that is often captured by their friends and cataloged on this flickr site. Looking at it will give you a pretty good idea of what Malört tastes like to the first-timer.

This strange liqueur tastes like wormwood (also present in the extremely potent and supposedly hallucinogenic Absinthe), is freakishly bitter, and, I was told by Billy Helmkamp, one of the co-owners of the Whistler, is sort of the national spirit of Chicago. Seriously. There's even a Chicago flag on the bottle. Malört is to Chicago what Fernet Branca is to San Francisco. People in Chicago really, really love it. And, sure enough, ever bar I visited after the Drawing Room had a bottle of this stuff hanging around. Having seen all the faces on the internet, I was, of course, anxious to taste it for myself. Our bartender Sergio, whose service was impeccable, offered to pour me a bit so I could try it. I wanted to like it so badly. A taste for Malört is like the ultimate badge of cocktail snobbery; it's loved by hardcore cocktail enthusiasts and hated by everyone else. I...didn't like it. At all. In fact, I thought it was one of the foulest things I've ever tasted. Like rubbing alcohol, with a lingering aftertaste of pure hate.

Sergio plying his craft. Witness the Malört to the left.

Billy also told me that it takes until your thirties for the tastebuds that detect bitterness to fully develop, so you may not like bitter things until then. I am 27, so maybe my love for Malört is just waiting for my 32nd birthday to fully blossom. Rebekah, who is, for the record, younger than I am, thought the Malört "wasn't so bad". Perhaps she has a more advanced palate than I do? I am deeply ashamed. (Sarah can't actually taste anything at all, so to her the Malört just tasted like booze.)

I ended up ordering a Cake or Death, because how could you not order a drink with such a fantastic name? (And kudos to our man Sergio for pointing me to this Lego Version.) I'm afraid I can't do it justice in words - it tasted a a little bit like coffee, a little bit bitter, and mostly unlike any other drink I've had before. This, Sergio said, was exactly what they were going for, and they certainly achieved it. I drink a lot, and I am always looking for the strange. This was certainly strange. I'm not sure I liked it (like as in, I would readily order another one), but it was definitely interesting. Rebekah, of the advanced palate, fell in love with the Cake or Death, and agreed to trade me the last of my drink for the remains of her Nooner. People who have drunk with me might be aware of my love affair with bourbon, and the Nooner was near perfect - a wonderful little bourbon cocktail, with maple syrup for just the right amount of depth.

The Cake or Death. Nooner in background.

Sarah has a condition called anosmia, which means that she cannot smell at all: all of her taste sensations come from her tongue. (Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, if you believe in that kind of thing.) This makes her the perfect barometer for balance in cocktails - Sarah is never swayed by taste associations. She only tastes the most vital things. Sarah bravely ventured off the menu and asked for a cocktail that was "light and refreshing". Sergio delivered, with a drink made from gin, lemon, cherry heering, and creme de violette. For the gin, he chose North Shore distillery's No. 6, a (locally produced!) gin that is very lavender and citrus-forward, to compliment the floral flavors in the drink. Sarah liked it, and so did we.

We decided to linger for another round, drawn in by the drinks and the atmosphere. Sarah's Floradora was definitely the best drink this round, but we all left happy - a wonderful start to our adventures in Chicago.

Monday, June 20, 2011

MxMo LVIII: Carmen Sandiego.

Ever since I spent all that time making a balsamic syrup for that one cocktail, I swore that some way, some how, I was going to use that stuff again. It was, understandably, a bit tricky; you can't put a syrup made from balsamic vinegar in just any drink. Enter, propitiously, this month's Mixology Monday, whose theme is "Niche Spirits" (with your host Filip at Adventures in Cocktails). I'd long been wanting to do a cocktail with a pear-balsamic pairing, so this seemed like the perfect time to bust out the Poire William. Poire William is a brandy distilled from pears (translation: a hard liquor, that tastes like a pear) that is a bit underloved in the spirit world, but for some reason crops up quite a bit in this blog. (You'll also see it called Poire William eau-de-vie (a French phrase meaning "water of life", applied to many liquors distilled from fruits), or just plain old "pear brandy".)

To this I added cachaça (another off-the-beaten path liquor, so my entry doubly qualifies), a bit of lime, Cointreau, and a dash of orange bitters, for good measure. (I borrowed a little bit from my original balsamic vinegar drink, and also from this delicious pear sour by Vincenzo Marianella, the man behind the Santa Monica cocktail bar Copa d'Oro.) I put it all over ice and added a little soda, because it's hot as hell here in Houston. (Average daily temperature: about 102 degrees. And I'm only exaggerating a little.)

Then there was the difficulty of what to call my creation. I always run into this problem - interesting drinks, with no idea what to name them. I settled on "Carmen Sandiego", since this cocktail contains ingredients pilfered from all over the globe - Poire William from Germany, cachaça from Brazil, balsamic vinegar from Italy, Cointreau from France, bitters from oranges harvested in the West Indes. And can't you just see Carmen enjoying a cocktail after making away with Machu Pichu?

I know I can.

Carmen Sandiego
1 oz Poire William eau-de-vie
1 oz cachaça
1/2 oz balsamic syrup (recipe here)
1/2 oz Cointreau
1/2 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
dash of orange bitters
club soda

Combine all ingredients together in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice. Shake and strain into an ice-filled highball glass. Top with club soda (about 1-1.5 oz).

Verdict: It's well-rounded, it's interesting, it's...zippy. Definitely zippy. No less than what you would expect from that sassy, bridge-stealing broad.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Accidental Deliciousness: Courtyard Bar at Brennan's

About a month ago, I strode confidently into the Courtyard Bar at Brennan's. I'm here to try the Brugal Anejo Rum drinks, I told them. My people talked to the bar manager. It's all worked out.

The bartender looked at me like I was crazy.

A few minutes later, along came the manager himself. He gently informed me that he knew of no such arrangement. Perhaps I meant to go to Brenner's? Imagine me going from confident to deeply embarrassed in about 3.5 seconds.

But I was already there, at the bar, with my schmancy camera, and the afternoon sunlight was slanting through the windows just so, and the bottles behind the bar looked oh-so-alluring. I had dinner plans a couple blocks away in 45 minutes. What was I supposed to do, wait in the car? And everyone had been so nice. So I did what any reasonable person in my position would have done: I ordered a few drinks.

I spotted a bottle of Fernet Branca behind the bar, which intrigued me because I have my own bottle of Fernet Branca, sitting unopened, waiting for the proper inspiration. So I asked the Bartender, Adam (who, despite the initial mix-up, was courtesy itself) to make me a cocktail with Fernet Branca that was "not too bitter". He presented me with something called the Problem Solver - not too sweet, not too bitter, just the perfect little whiskey cocktail. If you would like your problems solved as well, you're in luck, because Adam was kind enough to give me the recipe. (See, I told you they were nice.)

The Problem Solver
2 oz rye whiskey
1/2 oz cherry heering
1/4 oz Benedictine
Fernet Branca

Stir the rye, cherry heering, and Benedictine together in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a Fernet-rinsed cocktail glass.

For my second drink, Adam made me a yellow plum daiquiri. Believe me, it tasted as light and beautiful as it looks. Unfortunately, I don't have the recipe for this one - you may just have to go to Brennan's and order one yourself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I Love Drama.

I do not watch much TV. But when I do watch TV, I like to watch TV that is, as Rachel says, "the TV-est of TV". I.e: reality dating shows. Yes, I watch the Bachelor, and I am not ashamed. In fact, I am so unashamed that I write a snarkerific blog recapping the Bachelor (and the Bachelorette). Maybe you should read it. I've been told it's quite funny.

Since last season I created a Bachelor cocktail to celebrate Brad Womack's return (and the launch of my snarkity blog), it hardly seemed fair not to honor this season's Bachelorette, dental student Ashley Hebert, with some kind of libation. (And after having taken a (emotional, not literal) beating at the hands of troll-faced bachelor Bentley last week, Ashley seems like she could really use a drink.)

Of course it had to be a champagne cocktail - champagne is all over every episode of the Bachelorette, and it suits Ashley's bubbly personality. I started with a classic champagne cocktail, the French 75 (especially appropriate since Ashley is french) and added mint, the flavor that most reminds me of going to the dentist. (Of course, my dentist also had bubble-gum flavored toothpaste, but there was no way in hell I was putting that in a cocktail.)

The Ashley
8 mint leaves
1.5 oz gin
1.0 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice (did you read the part where I said fresh squeezed? make it fresh.)
.5 oz simple syrup (don't be lazy. this stuff is super easy to make.)
Brut champagne

To make: Add the mint and simple syrup to the bottom of a shaker and muddle lightly (or smoosh with the back of a spoon). Add the lemon juice and gin and fill the shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a cocktail flute. Fill with champagne.

Verdict: Sweet, bubbly and delicious - the perfect accompaniment to a night of guilty-pleasure TV.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Chicago, IL: Three nights, six bars.

Chicago! The windy city! The city of the big shoulders! And also, I hear, a damn good place to get a drink. I'm planning a four-day trip - here are the bars that made my shortlist.

Violet Hour
The Violet Hour (so named for a line in a T.S. Eliot poem) is THE Chicago cocktail bar. It is the Anvil of Chicago. When people review other cocktail bars in Chicago, they compare them to the Violet Hour. If you're going to drink cocktails in the windy city you pretty much have to go here.

I'm a teeny bit disappointed that this bar is blue, and not, in fact, violet.

The word on the street: cocktails just as good as the Violet Hour, but cheaper! Awesome live music! Also supposedly chock full of hipsters at all times. Seriously, one reviewer said something like: "I've never seen so many beards in my whole life."

Hipster heaven. Booze heaven.

Super tiny and serves super strong classic cocktails. Yes.

The Green Mill
Not really a cocktail bar so much as a jazz club. Super old school - classic Chicago.

Sable Kitchen and Bar

If the Chowhound forums are any indication, this is the most buzzed-about new restaurant in Chicago. Several former employees of the Violet Hour have created cocktails for their menu, and word is they're quite good.

The Drawing Room
Decor looks a bit stuffy. Website is bleh. But they're supposed to have the best cocktails in town. (Head mixologist Charles Jolly won a James Beard award, which is kind of a big deal.) Looking at the menu is like wandering through a delicious boozy wonderland. And they have a drink called "Cake or Death?" - I mean, how could I pass that up?

My mission: to go, to drink, and to report back. I'll let you know what I find.

Images: Metromix, Starchefs, Esquire.

Monday, May 16, 2011

MxMo LVII: Barefoot in the Garden

It's Mixology Monday time again, and this month's theme (courtesy of Dave at The Barman Cometh) is "Flores de Mayo" - cocktails with floral ingredients. Serendipitously, when I got word of this installment I already had a cocktail up my sleeve (figuratively, otherwise it could've gotten a bit messy) that would fit the bill. A little back story, if you will:

I love the smell of celery. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite foods was this tuna casserole my mom made with celery in it. I loved being there when she was chopping the celery and the aroma filled the kitchen. But I never would've dreamed of putting celery in a cocktail until that article in Martha Stewart living showed me how to make celery and bay leaf-infused vodka. It wasn't long until celery martinis became one of my favorite things. On my post about the the celery martinis, commenter Frederic, of Cocktail Virgin Slut, helpfully pointed out that celery pairs well with St. Germain, absinthe, and other similarly herb-rich spirits. Veery interesting. He also said that celery works well with...tequila??

I had to try this.

Celery-Infused Tequila
1 1/2 cups tequila
2 celery leaves
1 celery stalk, cut in half

I always get the celery for my infusions from the farmer's market - I swear it has more flavor. If you can't locate any locally, try using organic celery. Infuse the tequila in an air-tight jar for two days. Shake the jar occasionally. When the allotted time has passed, strain out the tequila, bottle it, and store it in the fridge.

Verdict: Surprisingly delicious. The agave and celery harmonize beautifully. It even tastes, bizarrely, a tiny bit sweet. Take the celery tequila, pair it with lime, St. Germain and a little Lillet Blanc and you have...

Barefoot in the Garden
1.5 oz celery-infused tequila
.75 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
.75 oz simple syrup
.5 oz St. Germain elderflower liqueur
.5 oz Lillet Blanc

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker full of ice; shake and strain into a chilled glass.

I think I'm in love. This cocktail is a series of delicious contradictions - it's herbal but bright, sweet yet complicated. It's not quite like anything I've ever made before - and yet I can't stop drinking it. I think I'll make one to enjoy, while barefoot, in my little garden. Which might put me pretty close to perfect happiness.