August 9th, 2006

Keep It Simple

Posted by The Home Bartender in Classic Cocktails, Rum Drinks

I’ve been raving about aged rum. Well, this weekend I stopped at the Wine Gallery in Brookline and picked up a bottle of Ron Zacapa Centenario 15 year aged rum, a very fine and affordable ($28) Guatemalan spirit, then went to the trusty Hi-Lo market for a dozen limes, so I could give this excellent rum the simplest treatment possible. With a dash of simple syrup to round it out, I had what a friend had told me was the Cuban drink par excellence, the mojaga, which is basically the prototype of the daiquiri.

Mojaga

1 jiggers fine aged rum
1/2 lime, juice of and shell for garnish
1 good dash simple syrup

Pour liquid ingredients into an old fashioned or doubles glass. Stir, then fill with ice, and add spent lime shell

I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the mojaga in Havana new or old, but it’s a great drink, flavorful enough to satisfy those who want more than liquor on the rocks, but basic enough to let the quality of the rum to shine through. Obviously, you can cater to your preferences… more lime and sugar move it toward a daiquiri, less sugar make a minimalist rum and lime combination that many love.

Wine Gallery is located at 375 Boylston (Rt. 9), Brookline, near the Brookline Hills T stop.

August 6th, 2006

The Jasmine

Posted by The Home Bartender in Miscellaneous, Gin Drinks, Drink of the Season

I have my friend Rebecca to thank for a new drink to the repertoire: the Jasmine. It’s a surprising, but simple enough, combination of ingredients that a well-stocked basic bar would have:

Jasmine Cocktail

scant jigger gin
1/2 jigger lemon juice
a splash Cointreau
a splash Campari

She whipped up a batch Friday night, and for me it perfectly captured the late summer weather we’re having, with its sunny days and crisp nights. With plenty of citrus and just a hint of Campari, it reminded me a lot of the bitter-sour flavor of grapefruit juice. Like many great drinks, in any case, the balance meant that the ingredients added up to a whole greater than the parts. It’s now in my heavy rotation.

July 23rd, 2006

Alchemist

Posted by The Home Bartender in Restaurant Bars

I’ll admit I’m biased: I miss Triple D’s, the JP townie bar turned biker hangout turned lesbian karaoke joint. As my friend remarked last night, “How Boston is it to take a place that’s fun with an interesting mix of people and replace it with some bland notion of what a ‘big city’ restaurant should be?” Indeed the design cliches cross into blandness… the obligatory hardwood floors, the black concrete bar, the thick matte paint. Imagine a combination of Middlesex Lounge and Nightgale in the South End. It passes because it’s original for JP.

Alchemist is primarily a restaurant, but a sizeable bar area and a full liquor license make it the only full-service, non-pub bar in the neighborhood. (I’d reviewed Zon’s which has to make do with a cordials license.) Alchemist brands itself as a “lounge,” but it feels like a bar to me.

What do they do right? The host and bar service were all friendly and attentive. They have a decent beer selection; not unusual in a neighborhood of good pubs, but still a nice touch. And the cocktails themselves are decently good. I ordered a straight-up daiquiri made with a Nantucket aged rum. It lacked in fresh lime juice, but on a sultry summer night hit the spot. The bar, too, gets some of the details right, such as the nice concentric spirals for the lemon twists and the sleek, well-proportioned old-fashioned glasses. Finally, and importantly, the prices were quite reasonable. A seven dollar cocktail makes you glad for JP Exceptionalism.

Oddly enough, the bar doesn’t stock a full range of liquors, which seems a waste of a rare full license. Happily, they had Luxardo, though the bar staff didn’t know what it was nor were they aware they had it; it certainly didn’t touch my daiquiri, like it would have in an ideal world. The omissions, meanwhile, were glaring. No Campari?

Alchemist is still new and still packed (someone has to explain to me fire code regulations which would keep the bar area half empty). I’m curious to see if the bar grows and improves with age.

Alchemist Restaurant and Lounge is located at the corner of Moraine and South Huntington Av., at the intersection with Center Street in Jamaica Plain.

July 19th, 2006

Time for Aged Rum

With all the summer heat, it’s been time for the rum drinks. In particularly, I’ve grown really fond of aged rum lately. White, golden and dark rums are familiar to most (avoid spiced rum unless you want to bring back your guest’s memories of college hangovers past), but aged rum is as different from these as a good muscovado sugar is from white and brown sugar. Like whiskey, it is full bodied and complex. Like brandy it is adaptable and a great base for cocktails. What’s more, it’s relatively inexpensive: a top-of-the-line bottle can set you back forty dollars or so, but you can find decent blends for much cheaper. Seemingly every country abutting the Caribbean produces some type of aged, or añejo, rum, and it’s possible to pick up an excellent bottle of 8-to-12 year aged liquor for under twenty dollars. For the time being, the consumer can benefit from aged rum’s distinct untrendiness.

Which brands? It’s worth experimenting to see which flavor suits you best, but given how few Boston bars seem to stock more than one or two bottles of aged rum, that’s a difficult task. Bacardi 8 tastes too peaty and harsh for my taste. Haiti’s Rhum Babancourt has a more straightforward alcohol kick than I’d like, at least in the lower denominated ages. My workhorse favorite is the widely available Jamaican Appleton Estates blend, which to me has the right caramelly, oaky balance. The pocketbook has kept me from venturing far into high end territory – I’ve had Sea Wynde (Jamaican) and it is great – but if you want great value for a superlative rum, I’d highly recommend Ron Zacapa 12-year, from Guatemala, which is surprisingly affordable, if hard to find. (Try Wine Emporium in Brookline.) It’s just as good sipping as mixed, and I shudder to think how wonderful their more expensive 25-year version would be. I’d love to hear any reader recommendations.

How should one serve aged rum? The finest rums are great served neat or on the rocks, but cocktails made from aged rum are too delicious to pass up. Its flavor is more assertive than white rum, but within reason can be used interchangeably in recipes. My favorite, borrowing from my sour orange margarita, is a modified daiquiri using sour oranges instead of limes and a good quality curaçao (like Grand Marnier) instead of maraschino liqueur or Cointreau. It’s light and fruity and robust at the same time.

Sour Orange Daiquiri

Makes 2 cocktails in 5 oz. martini glasses

Juice of one sour orange (or more if the orange is not very juicy)
Few generous dashes simple sugar syrup
4 jiggers (6 oz.) aged rum
1 jigger (1 1/2 oz.) Grand Marnier or good quality curaçao
Orange slice or twist, for garnish

If you do not have sugar syrup on hand, just make some ahead of time; boil equal amounts of sugar and water together until sugar dissolves and a light syrup forms. Cool, then refrigerate. Chill cocktail glasses. In cocktail shaker, add ice, then the main ingredients listed. Shake thoroughly to mix and chill. Pour into glasses and garnish with an orange slice or twist.

If you’re looking for a lighter mixed drink, I’d recommend an Añejo Highball that Dale De Groff concocted: ice, a couple dashes of bitters, lime juice, curaçao, aged rum, then topped off with ginger beer. It’s sweet, but the ginger counters with a bite, the rum with a kick. For the ginger beer itself, stick with Jamaican brands (Stop and Shop at Brigham Circle carries D&G) or the domestic natural food labels; Goya is all bite and no aroma and makes a shoddy drink. My only complaint was that such a fantastic drink had such a pedestrian name, so my friends and I rechristened it the Ginger Rogers. A couple of them, and I’m sure you and your guests can come up with your own silly name for it.

Ginger Rogers
(a/k/a Añejo Highball)
from Dale DeGroff

Makes 1 drink

2 dashes Angostura bitters
Juice of 1/2 lime
1/2 jigger (3/4 oz.) Grand Marnier or good quality curaçao
1 jigger (1 1/2 oz.) aged rum
Jamaican ginger beer to fill
Mint sprig or piece of sugar cane, for garnish

Fill a highball or tall cooler glass with ice. Coat ice with bitters, then squeeze lime, dropping in spent shell. Add liquors, then top with the ginger beer. Garnish with mint or sugar cane.

Wine Emporium is located on Rt. 9 at Cyprus Street in Brookline, near the Brookline Hills T stop.

June 29th, 2006

Cherries

Posted by The Home Bartender in Mixers and Ingredients

I hate maraschino cherries. Or, rather, I like the look of them sitting plumply in my manhattan, but the waxy candy flavor is offputting and, in my view, undercuts the quality of the booze.

Fortunately, it’s cherry season right now, and the perfect time to stock up on real cherries. I pit them with the help of a olive pitter, put them in plastic bags and freeze them for when I need them in a cocktail.

Do note that frozen, they will float unless you thaw them first. But it’s worth using them. Instead of wax balls you get real cherries, with a hint of tartness.

And if the price puts you off, bargain hunters should note that Droubi Brothers market in Roslindale currently stocks them for two dollars a pound.

June 27th, 2006

Margaritas, pt. 2

Margaritas are nearly as wonderful straight up as they are on the rocks. They’re even better if you make them with sour oranges. I know that I’ve been talking up various knotty, dirty looking exotic citrus fruits you find at hispanic markets. Sour oranges – or naranja agria – are worth seeking out. They’re the traditional bitter oranges used in making orange bitters (not to mention orange marmalade), and they have a nice tartness, like a lemon or lime, with a floral orange taste instead. They really shine in cocktails, and in particular the sour orange margarita is probably the only cocktail I can claim some originality in inventing. (Perhaps recreating the wheel someone else invented?) To this day, it’s my favorite summer cocktail.

It’s a simple variation. A straight-up margarita is just juice of a lime, a good portion of tequila and quality orange liqueur, maybe with a heaping teaspoon of sugar to take the bite off. Substitute sour orange juice, decrease the sugar, and trust me, you’ll have a crowd-pleaser. It’s a good occasion to wheel out a better than average tequila.

Sour Orange Margarita
Makes 2 cocktails in 5 oz. martini glasses

Juice of two sour oranges (or more if the oranges is not very juicy)
Few generous dashes simple sugar syrup, or heaping teaspoons sugar
4 jiggers (6 oz.) tequila, mid-shelf or better
1 jigger (1 1/2 oz.) Grand Marnier, Cointreau or good quality curaçao
Orange twist, for garnish, optional

Chill cocktail glasses. In cocktail shaker, add ice, then the main ingredients listed. Shake thoroughly to mix and chill. Pour into glasses and garnish.

Oh, and if you’re not a tequila fan, try an aged rum, like a nice oaky Jamaican rum. The resulting daiquiris, if untraditional, are just as good.

Sour oranges available at Hi-Lo in Jamaica Plain and at fruit stands near Jackson Square.

June 18th, 2006

Margaritas, pt. 1

Posted by The Home Bartender in Tequila Drinks, Mixed Drinks

Having friends over yesterday evening, I wondered what I’d serve. I wanted something nice and refreshing, given the summer weather we’re having. I decided on a perennial favorite of mine, margaritas.

I tend to think of the margarita as one of two drinks. The first, is the traditional limeade-y mixed drink served on the rocks in sombrero-shaped margarita glasses. The second is a stronger cocktail version served straight up in a cocktail glass. I like both, but since the former is most people’s idea of a margarita let me start there.

For a well-made traditional Tex-Mex margarita, I’m not a purist about type of tequila (one can spend lots of money, if one wants, but Cuervo or Sauza Gold are fine with me), but I insist that the drink be made with fresh lime juice. Like I’ve said, making a margarita with sour mix is like making a screwdriver with Tang. Squeezing the limes means a bit more work, but the difference is immeasurable. It’ll take a lot of limes, too, maybe 10 or more for a pitcher, so find an affordable source. I get mine either at Hispanic markets/produce stands, at Chinatown, or at Haymarket, where you can get ten for a dollar instead of one for 75 cents.

The recipe I use is adapted from a Rick Bayless recipe. The trick is soaking the ingredients with lime zest (see photo), which gives a nice depth of flavor. His recipe is quite strong, so I highly recommend taking my proportions (which have half the alcohol), if you don’t want to be knocked on your ass. Trust me on this.

Margaritas on the Rocks
Adapted from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen
makes one pitcher (8 cups)

2 1/2 c. tequila
1/2 c. Grand Marnier
1 1/2 c. (heaping) fresh lime juice
grated zest of 4 limes
1 c. sugar
3 c. water
Lime wedges, garnish
Coarse salt (I use kosher salt) for rims

In a large non-metal bowl, combine all ingredients except garnish and stir to dissolve sugar. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours to steep. Strain into serving pitcher. The margaritas are ready to serve on the rocks, in glasses rimmed with salt, as your guests desire.

Can you use Cointreau or an other orange liqueur? Certainly, and I often do depending on what I have available, but I think the brandy notes of the Grand Marnier work best. In any case, stick to the twenty-dollar a bottle rule and avoid the cheap triple sec if you can.

The homemade version of the margarita, done right, is such a wonderful, sublime drink that it puts to shame much of what Boston bars and restaurants serve under the name. In fact, I almost never order the drink out.

June 13th, 2006

Make Your Own Bitters

Posted by The Home Bartender in Spirits: Bitters, Mixed Drinks, Drink of the Season

Angostura bitters are a wonderful ingredient – a necessity for any home bar and an item not used enough these days. But in the original days of the cocktail (pre-Prohibition) a number of proprietary bitters were on the market. Today, a couple commercially produced bitters remain… Angostura, Peychaud’s (most famous for its use in the Sazerac) and orange bitters. Angostura is available in the supermarket even, Fee Brothers orange bitters you can get at a couple places in Boston (Marty’s and I believe Liquorland), while Peychaud’s isn’t sold here.

Well, it turns out making bitters at home is not all that difficult. All you need to do is to infuse a high-proof spirit with a combination of citrus, spices and herbs, then dilute to get to a reasonable proof. Much like making limoncello. It probably won’t have the same shelf life as a store-bought bottle (I keep mine in the fridge), but its freshness will be noticeable.

The easiest place to start is orange bitters. Traditional recipes may call for spices, I don’t know, but I used simply the zest of the sour orange. For some reason these fruit aren’t generally popular, but Hispanic markets stock these (I get mine at Hi-Lo Market, or at the fruit stands near Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain).

Orange Bitters
Makes scant 1/3 cup
Zest of two sour orange (naranga agria)
4 T. 151-proof rum, or high-proof spirit of choice

Macerate zest and spices in liquor for a week, covered in the refrigerator. Strain into small jar. Add a two tablespoons pure water to dilute.

The result? The bitterness was accentuated over the Fee Brothers, but more importantly the floral scent of the orange was fresher and more powerful. I definitely prefer the homemade.

Even more successful was a grapefruit based recipe I created and called Jamacian bitters, not because they’re actually a Jamaican recipe, but because the spices and flavors are those you’d find in Jamaican cooking.

Jamaicain Bitters
Makes scant 1/4 cup
Zest of one grapefruit
one slice fresh ginger
few berries allspice
few whole cloves
1/2 in. of true cinnamon (canela) stick
1/4 t. black peppercorns
3 T. 151-proof rum, or high-proof spirit of choice

Macerate zest and spices in liquor for a week, covered in the refrigerator. Strain into small jar. Add a tablespoon or so of pure water to dilute.

A note on spices: you can improvise on the ingredients, of course, but be careful not to overwhelm with any one note. Ginger, for one, can be overpowering if too much is used. And use in moderation, if you can find it, true cinnamon (soft cinnamon, or canela), whose flavor is far milder than the Red-Hot-tasting cassia bark that’s sold in the U.S. as cinnamon. Hispanic markets like JP’s Hi-Lo and International sections of supermarkets sell whole canela; or, check out Polcari’s in the North End.

How to use these homemade bitters? Well, you can use the orange bitters in any recipe calling for them… I use a tad more in the recipe than I would with storebought, as the flavor is less saturated. But if you want a drink to really let these shine, particularly the Jamaican Bitters, I’d recommend the simple summer highball, the Gin Rickey.

Gin Rickey

1/2 juicy lime
1 jigger dry gin
Club soda
Several dashes citrus bitters

Fill highball glass with ice. Coat ice with bitters. Squeeze lime and drop in spent shell. Add gin, then top with club soda. Stir briefly.

As is, the rickey is a lovely mixed drink, the unfairly overlooked homely cousin to the gin and tonic. The bitters are my addition, not traditional, but try them and I think you’ll find that they pick up an understated drink and take it somewhere interesting.

June 4th, 2006

The Stinger

Posted by The Home Bartender in Liqueur Drinks, Brandy Drinks, Mixology Monday

When I found out that this Mixology Monday - hosted at Kaiser Penguin was going to be devoted to mint, I immediately thought of crème de menthe and one of the classic cocktails devoted to it, the Stinger, a combination of brandy and crème de menthe. I’ve never had a stinger before, but then again am not a huge crème de menthe fan. There may be some good brands out there – I await to see what the other Monday Mixologists are uncovering – but in general, I find the liqueur too one-note, as subtle as a vial of McCormick’s mint extract. Frankly I wasn’t sure I wanted to plunk down twenty bucks on a bottle that would linger unused on my shelf.

My solution was to make my own mint liqueur. Nothing too refined, I just started with an overproof rum, a bunch of chopped mint and some simple syrup:

Simple Mint Liqueur

2/3 c. chopped mint leaves
1/3 c. 151-proof rum (I used J. Wray & Nephew overproof white rum)
simple syrup, 1:1 ratio, sugar to water

In a bowl or jar placed in the refrigerator, soak leaves overnight in rum. Strain mixture through a sieve, pressing out excess alcohol. It should measure about a quarter cup. Add enough syrup to make 1/3 c. total. (Or, if making in larger quantities, keep 2 parts rum to 1 part syrup.)

From there, a nice, subtle stinger is just a step away.

I’ve actually become fond of making a number of brandy cocktails with cognac. (Cognac is brandy, but not all brandies are cognac.) I don’t break the bank, but for 25 bucks or so, maybe less, you can get a decent, full-bodied cognac with a nice kick that far more focused than the sweet, full brandies that comprise the cheaper brands. Not what you want all the time, but here a VSOP Marquis de Gensac carried the day.

Stinger Deluxe

1 jigger cognac
1 jigger simple mint liqueur

Shake ingredients well and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish if you like.

Since the homemade mint liqueur was far less cloying and sweet than crème de menthe, I feel justified in using a sugared rim and a mint sprig for garnish.

A lot of trouble, I’m sure plenty of you are saying. Or maybe you just want a full mint taste, something understated in my version. The traditional recipe, half brandy, half crème de menthe, may be the thing for you.

June 4th, 2006

Elephant and Castle

Posted by The Home Bartender in Bars

This ersatz English pub is odd at best. It’s ye-olde-England meets fern bar, a feeling not helped by the unwatched Arsenal matches on the TV or the deceptively cavernous dimensions of the place. On top of it all is the stranded feeling of the Financial District location, which thins out the crowd after the post-work drink hour and means that Elephant and Castle close shockingly early (midnight).

But there is one overriding reason to check out this place. It’s the only place I know in town that has Fuller’s on tap. A nice, full-flavored bitter ale, Fullers made a logical libation for the rainy weekend. Besides, it’s a great accompaniment to the deep-friend soft pretzels the bar serves.

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