Eric Felten saved the James Beard awards. When he arrived at the ceremony last May, he saw that one of the the three cocktails he had selected to be made was using fake lemon juice. Eegad! Faster than you could say “shaken AND stirred,” he dashed out to the nearest Jamba Juice and had them squeeze a half a gallon of real lemon juice. He saved the Sidecar at the ceremony.
His passion for purity may have won him acclaim from the attendees but it was his superb cocktails column in the Pursuits section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal that won him an award later in the evening.
This holiday season, his excellent, slim volume, entitled How’s Your Drink is available, published by Surrey Books. It’s doing phenomenally well, already the third best seller in Amazon’s drink category (and currently on backorder!). It’s small wonder since the rich stories engagingly put the 50 cocktail recipes in their social and historical context.
I shared some Torpedo Juice with Eric last week at the Pegu Club in Manhattan at his book launch party. I asked him if we could give away three signed copies to readers of this site and he gladly started signing.
To win one copy of the book, all you have to do to qualify for a random drawing is post a comment here saying what is your favorite cocktail. Post your comment by midnight on Friday to qualify. Check your email or this post over the weekend to see if you won.
How’s Your Drink, by Eric Felten, Surrey Books (Agate), $20
I went to a gathering of my extended family over the balmy Columbus Day weekend. My aunt and I were talking about the Sidecar cocktails and she wanted to try one, so I brought along the fixins (it IS the year of the sidecar after all). But I knew there were other relatives who didn’t drink so I thought I would make them something too.
I wrote friend of the blog Brian Van Flandern, mixologist extraordinaire, what kind of a mocktail he would recommend since de-alcoholized wine shouldn’t even be served in Dante’s inferno. Brian came up with this cucumber tumbler recipe. It actually worked out great since my aunt’s garden had just yielded the last of its cukes, so I juiced those instead of the English ones Brian suggested. But use whatever cukes you can find–rip them off an unsuspecting sunbather if you have to. The drinks were a big hit.
3 oz. of fresh cucumber juice
(juice down a whole English cucumber with the skins on and strain for a dark green bitter cucumber juice-the English cucumbers are the long skinny seedless kind that are usually sold with plastic wrap around them instead of wax).
1/4 oz. of fresh squeezed lime juice (the juice of a quarter lime)
1/4 oz. simple syrup (1:1)
1/2 oz. Ginger beer
Mix ingredients together and tumble roll back and forth (don’t shake the carbonated ginger beer). Then serve in a highball filled with ice. Garnish with a cucumber wheel. Enjoy.
-Brian Van Flandern
Has there ever been a decent cocktail made with still wine?
Absolutely. There are many great cocktails that use wine as an ingredient. I myself have created several recipes that are greatly enhanced by the presence of wine. Sangria is made with wine and brandy for example. Try making a classic mojito (fresh lime juice, simple syrup, aged rum and Muddled mint) then add a modest splash of Pinot Noir. The result… a Burgundy Mojito. It tastes like a mojito up front with a pleasant slightly tannic sangria finish.
How can I make my own Tonic Water?
You stated that you are allergic to High Fructose Corn Syrup. This is not an uncommon allergy. I am NOT a doctor, so please make sure that you are not if fact allergic to quinine!
To make your own tonic, simply add a 16th of a tea-spoon of quinine powder to your base spirit (less is more) along with fresh lime juice and simple syrup. Shake this concoction vigorously WITHOUT ICE. The glycerin in the alcohol with dissolve the powder so that it does not clump or float on top.
Now fill a highball with ice and pour the mixture up to 50% full. Fill the rest of the glass with your favorite sparkling water. I use TyNant from Wales. It has smaller bubbles.
Finally, toss back and forth a couple of times and garnish with a lime. As always think ACID, ALCOHOL & SUGAR. Taste the drink and adjust it slightly by adding the component that will bring it into balance (i.e. add sugar if to tart, lime juice if to sweet, more gin if not enough booze, etc.) ENJOY!
Is a vodka – 7Up with two limes a balanced drink? If not what would you suggest is a good ratio for balance?
Yes it is. There are many factors in determining ratio vs balance. Bottom line…Approximately 1 1/2 of alcohol, the juice of one lime and fill with 7-UP then TASTE. Follow the rules of balance (see KIM’s question) and you can’t go wrong. Remember…ACID, ALCOHOL & SUGAR. Balance, balance, balance.
Thoughts on ice’s impact on cocktail making:
Ice is EXTREMELY important. The smaller the cubes the more dilution. It is GENERALLY desirable to have bigger cubes. Get the oversized ice cubes tray for home (like granny use to have). The quality of the water is also very important. Don’t fill up straight from the tap. Use filtered or bottled water. It makes a difference. There are applications for smaller cubes and crushed ice (the Mint Julip for example), however those are exceptions to the rules and are meant to be consumed quickly. Good luck.
If you have further question you may contact me at:
Brian Van Flandern
Creative Cocktail Consultants Corp.
Brian Van Flandern was the man behind the bar for three years at Per Se in New York. Now he’s on his own revamping the list at Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle among other places. Since he’s a a pioneer of food-friendly cocktails and has made many a cocktail for wine lovers, I thought if anyone could talk to us about cutting-edge cocktails, he’s our man. I caught up with him earlier this week.
If you have a question for Brian, post it in the comments below! He has said he will respond to the three reader questions.
Dr. V: Why should wine drinkers be interested in cocktails?
BVF: It’s a fun time in cocktail history. Last year was the 200th anniversary of the word cocktail in print. But only in the last decade or so have we moved out of the Betty Crocker era. The top chefs are sourcing meat and vegetables from growers, taking advantage of the terroir–wine is all about terroir.
Mixologists caught up with chefs in the last three or four years seeking out fresh ingredients, making their own tonics and tinctures. Ironically it is cutting-edge but also a throwback to a pre-Prohibition philosophy, when bartending was highly respected. Bartenders took care in making cocktails and sourcing ingredients, even if it took a long time to get them.
Now the cocktail is coming back as a wonderfully balanced libation. Cocktails are approaching the alcohol levels of wine at around 20-25 percent alcohol by volume and not the 35-40 percent alcohol that people may be used to. The alcohol level comes down with ice melting, adding juices, mixers, you end up with a cocktail just above some wines in terms of alcohol—and food friendly too.
A new generation of master mixologists is emerging. Culinary students are bringing food sense to mixology, and we’re starting to see a very professional mentality. And, thanks to FedEx, we’re able to source fruits and spices and unique food products that we were not previously accessible. You can have Australian finger limes any time of year. Same with Buddha’s Hand. Even fresh pomegranate juice was not available 5 yrs ago. Litchi, rambutan—these are all new flavor profiles.
A lot of times cocktails are just too sweet. Why? And what can a drinker do about it?
Yes. During Prohibition they were making high alcohol cocktails that were very poorly made. They threw a lot of sugar in there. The goal was to get schnockered before the cops busted down the door.
Reunite on ice was the bomb back in the day. So was box wine. But we have witnessed how wine has changed in the past 20 years. Now not only do we have cabernet sauvignon, but also gruner veltliner, tocai friuliano and so on.
Cut back to cocktails. They were all booze coming out of Prohibition—think Manhattan, martini, and Rob Roy. Then in the 1970s, there were the ice cream cocktails, the blended and frozen umbrella drinks. There were even sweet liqueurs like Kahlua, Frangelico, and Bailey’s. If a cocktail is not balanced, people can balance their own by requesting either a simple syrup or lemons and limes from the bar.
Now we’re latching on to the lessons of pre-Prohibition and applying what we have access to today.
Sounds good to me. What’s a red flag for people to know if the bar is not in this new generation?
Look around. In almost any bar, somebody is drinking a cosmopolitan. If it is clear, if it is red, I would be hesitant. If it is cloudy, bubble gum pink I would be intrigued.
Or ask “How do you make your cosmopolitan?” If they say they use Rose’s lime juice–get out! Run!
No fresh juices? That’s a red flag. If you listen and you don’t hear the “thwacka thwacka” of the shaker more than three times, that’s another red flag. Shaking drinks provides dilution, a nice texture and reduces the alcohol level.
So what are the basics of making a cocktail?
Start with the base spirit—1 oz to 1 ¼ oz. Then add the modifiying spirit—just for flavor, like vanilla extract in cooking, not for alcohol–¼ oz to ½ oz. Then add mixers—fresh juices, soda water, cola, and so on. Incrementally build the cocktail. The mixer is going to provide sugar or acid–if you use a mixer of Sprite, add some lemon or lime to balance that out. If you’re using orange juice, it’s high in sugar and acidity and may not need anything else. Lime juice is tart needs simple syrup or, say, pineapple juice.
Acid, alcohol and sugar, that’s the mantra. Balance in proper proportion.
Flavored vodkas: is there one worth buying?
Yes, but I always use flavored vodkas as a modifying spirit. The vast majority of them have a very chemical finish. They smell wonderful–just like lemon, raspberry and so on–but you always wince on the finish. They should be used in moderation as a modifier not as a base. I also don’t mix vodkas made from different base products such as wheat, potatoes, barley—I use the same base vodka and the same modifier.
What’s the best vodka for making mixed drinks?
I like Ciroc with juices because it is distilled from grapes. But I don’t care for Ciroc as a traditional martini vodka. Belvedere is good and crisp. It’s from rye and is viscous, has more glycerin. For olives, I like rye vodkas.
The cosmopolitan was born as a promotion for Absolut Citron.
When you were at Per Se you made your own tonic water for your “tonic and gin”? What’s your beef with Schweppes?
Ha. Mass produced tonic water uses a quinine derivative, which is assertive in flavor. In an effort to balance it they use high fructose corn syrup. I use raw quinine powder in its natural state, which is much less sugar by volume. I should add that the HFCS is in American tonic water—I’ve had Schweppes in Spain that is delicious.
All right, rapid fire now. What are the top ten cocktails that people should know how to make at home?
1. Sidecar — a classic and very tasty
5. Daiquiri/Hemingway daiquiri
7. Classic martini—gin or vodka
10. Bloody Mary-–actually quite a complicated process
What’s the most useful tool for the home cocktail maker?
A juicer! Fresh juice is so important.
What are some good cocktail reference books?
Craft of the Cocktail: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master Bartender, with 500 Recipes, by Dale DeGroff
The Joy of Mixology, by Gary Regan
The Bartender’s Guide on how to mix drinks (1862 edition), by Jerry Thomas,
Killer Cocktails: An Intoxicating Guide to Sophisticated Drinking, by David Wondrich
When can people come visit you at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle?
I’ll be there with all new cocktails—and none of those ten I mentioned—as of March 20.
What’s the most underrated cocktail?
And finally, if you were exiled to a desert island and could have one last cocktail, what would it be?
Mrs. Vino likes sidecars. Ever since Eric Felten stopped by the blog to tell us about the classic cognac cocktail, I’ve been making them at home. I even bought a cocktail shaker. Follow this and you’ll be mixing like a champ: 4 parts of VSOP cognac, 1 part of Cointreau, 1 part fresh lemon juice and shake over ice. Strain into glass with sugared rim.
So when I was invited to a blending seminar with Brian Van Flandern, I leapt at the chance to upgrade my game. Not only was this an opportunity to get some live instruction, but some top-notch instruction at that. Brian just left his position as mixologist at Per Se after three years behind the bar–or “inside a tall chimney-like structure” as the NYT described his workspace.
We tasted through a bunch of the youngest cognacs, VS grade, and I found them to have a kind of sweetness, not a long finish, and a lot of peppery heat, the sort of burn that usually keeps me away from distilled spirits. With Brian’s encouragement, I added some water to my glass and the aromatics intensified (as I had seen in Cognac). He explained that a similar thing happened when making a cocktail using ice: the temperature decreased, obviously, but the melted ice intensified the aromas. A stand-out at the VS grade was the Frapin VS (about $35, find this cognac).
Stepping up to the VSOP grade, I found the cognacs much more sippable, more integrated, with a longer finish. We tasted some very fine XO cognacs too but I’ll save that for a posting of its own next week.
So Brian whipped out his traveling bartender bag with so many gadgets it would make 007 jealous. He said that the key to a good cocktail is a balance of sweet, acid and alcohol. So in the sidecars I’d been shaking at home, the base alcohol, cognac, mixed in with the modifying alcohol, cointreau, with the acid of the lemon juice and the sweet of the sugar on rim.
Brian started pouring things into his pitcher. First went some Hine Rare VSOP cognac (about $50 a bottle; find this cognac).Then some Cointreau. Then some lime juice. Then some simple syrup (sugar dissolved in water) followed by a few dashes of Fee Brothers bitters. He poured that into a cocktail shaker, shook it vigorously for longer than I had been doing at home.
He poured the resulting blend into a martini glass and garnished it with a lime wedge. It was foamy. Then he reached over and ground some fresh nutmeg on top. Perfection! Brian said that he doesn’t need to measure since he knows the ratios from lots of practice. Nor did he have a name for this particular drink.
We tried another round with VS cognac and it was decidedly less impressive. I’m still not sure what to do with VS cognac since VSOP seems the way to go since it is good enough to be sipped or blended. As with so many things, this showed me that better the ingredients, the better the cocktail.
So a couple of days later I picked up some bitters and made some simple syrup. I found some nutmeg and ground it. I added the ingredients and shook it up. I served it to Mrs. Vino in a low tumbler glass. The unnamed cocktail was declared delicious. It was worth taking Brian’s souped up sidecar for a whirl.
MyMixologist, Brian Van Flandern’s web site
Eric Felten is the author of the “How’s Your Drink?” column in the the Wall Street Journal. I enjoy his spirits writing and, in particular, his story “Cognac and its cognoscenti” from last June. So I thought I would ask him for some orientation on how to enjoy cognac as I embark on a trip to the region. Hopefully I can avoid any egregious faux pas while there–and know how to make a sidecar when I return!
From Eric Felten:
I choose to finish a meal with whisky or cognac purely as a matter of mood and whatever my tastebuds might be wanting at the moment — just as one might choose, at dinner, between steak or veal. But whichever I choose, I have a couple of personal rules:
1) Wait until after dessert for the spirit. This, I admit, is a matter of my own preference. I simply do not like the combination of sweets and spirits. There have been a lot of people urging the pairing of chocolates with after-dinner spirits. Others may like that, but I find it to be just awful.
2) Do not warm your cognac. Silly tradition.
3) Avoid ridiculously oversized balloon snifters. Even sillier tradition.
4) As for mixing cognac, just be sure that the brandy is not overwhelmed by the other ingredients. The classic cognac cocktail — the Sidecar – is now regularly ruined as all one tastes is orange liqueur and (ugh) sweet-n-sour mix. To make the drink properly, use 4-6 parts brandy to one part Cointreau and one part (or slightly less) fresh lemon juice. That way you taste the cognac, which then makes it worthwhile to use a decent (VSOP) bottle.