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Bourbon Infusion #2: Flavors of the Fall

Fall is in the air! Well, actually it’s been 70 degrees here in San Francisco the last couple of days, but hey, a girl can dream. What better way to celebrate fall than with flavors like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and of course, bourbon. There used to be a cocktail lounge in the Bellagio, Las Vegas called the Fontana. It has been replaced with something much trendier, which makes me very very sad. It was very old-school Vegas, had the most amazing cover band with a lady singer who could do Shakira’s “Suerte” in Spanish, and (to get to my point) had a Manhattan on the menu made with Maker’s Mark that they infused in-house with “a secret blend of herbs and spices.” It was delightful, and I’ve been dreaming of recreating it for years. This week, I finally took a crack at it, and in keeping with my new mission of consistency, I wrote down exact amounts of everything I used. I made a big batch, because we still have some people to thank for all their help with the wedding, and what better way to thank people than with booze? If you re-create this recipe for home use, I’d recommend halving all the amounts, unless you throw a lot of cocktail parties. Here’s my recipe:

1.75L bourbon

6 whole vanilla beans (scored lengthwise)

2 large cinnamon sticks

1/2 cup fresh ginger (coarsely chopped)

20 whole cloves

dash nutmeg

teaspoon brown sugar

My ingredients. Aren't they pretty?

My ingredients. Aren’t they pretty?

The infusion process at work.

The infusion process at work.

Put all the ingredients in a 2-quart mason jar with a sealing lid. Then you just let it sit for 2 weeks or so and shake it up a few times a day. Usually I’m nervous about my ingredients overpowering the bourbon, but in the end the flavor turns out to be quite subtle. This time I decided to go bold. In addition to the usual fall spices, I added some ginger for a little bite. I didn’t have any whole nutmeg, so I just put a dash of the ground stuff in…we’ll see how that goes. I also added a little sugar to counteract the bitterness of the cloves and nutmeg, but you could leave that out. It’s got another week of infusing. Check back soon for the results. Happy mixing!

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A Good Old-Fashioned Controversy

Today’s post starts with a bit of cocktail history, as in my personal history with cocktails. I first started training to be a bartender when I was 19. I was hostessing at an old-school, Italian family owned seafood joint on the pier in Santa Cruz my sophomore year of college. The hostess stand was right next to the bar, so I ended up talking to the bartenders a lot. There was a bartender named Dave, who was the embodiment of the quintessential bartender: early 50’s, handsome yet a little grizzled, comforting and ready to listen, but didn’t take guff from anyone, could tell you the history of every drink he made while giving you solid life advice. At some point I realized that I wanted to be him when I grew up, and became obsessed with the idea of becoming a bartender. Since I wasn’t 21, technically I wasn’t allowed behind the bar, but Dave decided to take me under his wing. He gave me a couple of books to study at home, and started quizzing me every time an order came in. “What goes in a Singapore Sling, Sarah?” “What kind of garnish do you put on a Mai Tai?” “What’s the difference between a gimlet and a gibson?” He also gave me sage advice about love and encouraged my artistic pursuits. He was pretty much my favorite person at the time.

Fast forward a few years, and with a little fast talking and fudging of my resume, I landed a job bartending at a nightclub. The money was great, but the hours were terrible, and “bartending” really meant pouring beers, shots, and the occasional rum-and-coke. All I wanted in life was to mix fancy shaker drinks. I left that job to wait tables at a high-end restaurant, and after a few months I finally convinced the manager to let me behind the bar. This was the late 90s, the height of Sex and the City fame, so most of what I was making was specialty martinis: Cosmos, Manhattans, 007s, Appletinis. I became very adept with a cocktail shaker. One day, a gentleman came in to the bar and ordered an old-fashioned. I remembered seeing it in the bartender’s guide, but I had never actually made one. Luckily, I was working with another bartender that night, a veteran, but even she shot me a look like “Who orders an old-fashioned anyway?” This is how she made it: Put an orange slice, a maraschino cherry, a sugar cube (or one sugar packet) in a rocks glass, add 7 dashes of bitters, muddle all that together, add ice, and pour 2 oz bourbon over it.

And that’s the way I always made them. Granted, my last professional bartending gig was in 2004, pre-Mad Men, so I can count on one hand the number of old-fashioned cocktails I made in that time, but for some reason the recipe always stuck with me. Then along comes Don Draper and the resurgence of the “craft cocktail,” and suddenly every high-end bar has an old-fashioned on their specialty menu. And you know what? It turns out I’d been making them wrong all these years. Well not wrong, so much as the nouveau bastardized way, rather than the purist way. Apparently, the old-fashioned is somewhat of a controversial cocktail, especially amongst hipster bartenders and curmudgeonly old men who still wax poetic about the days when bread was 10 cents. In their eyes, a real old-fashioned is just sugar, bitters, and bourbon, and maybe an orange or lemon peel for garnish. The orange slice and cherry got added in sometime in the 70s/80s, when things started going from “less is more” to “more is more.” There’s an interesting Slate article written about the controversy, with some great recipes as well.

This old fashioned is so pure, they won't even let the orange peel touch the bourbon.

This old-fashioned is so pure, they won’t even let the orange peel touch the bourbon.

Maybe it’s because we’re a bourbon household, or maybe it’s because we watch a lot of Mad Men, but the old-fashioned makes a pretty regular appearance around here. Being a big fan of both experimentation and personalization, I’ve come up with my own old-fashioned recipe, and I’d encourage you to do the same. Here’s mine if you want to try it:

1 slice citrus (orange will make it sweeter, lemon will make it more tart, grapefruit and blood orange are fun too!)

1 sugar cube, sugar packet, or the equivalent amount of white sugar

7 dashes bitters

a few dashes of grenadine syrup (hard to measure, so I just use the cap)

1 1/2-2oz bourbon, depending on how strong you like it (use good bourbon…no cheap stuff!)

Those rocks glasses were a favor from a friend's wedding last year. Adorable and functional!

Those rocks glasses were a favor from a friend’s wedding last year. Adorable and functional!

Muddle the citrus, sugar, bitters, and grenadine in a rocks glass. You can use a wooden spoon if you don’t have a muddler, but really, you should just get a muddler right? Add ice. I highly recommend getting an ice tray that makes those huge cocktail ice cubes. We got ours at Crate and Barrel. Pour bourbon over ice and stir with a spoon. I usually take out the citrus peel, but some people like to leave it in. Simply delicious. Happy mixing!

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A Few Thoughts on Consistency

As most of you know, I have a hard time with recipes. Maybe it’s my theatre training, or maybe it’s just laziness, but I love to improvise. When I cook, I either invent something new based on what’s in the fridge/what looks good at the supermarket, or I start with a vague idea, look up a recipe, and then proceed to change it entirely. I almost never write down amounts of anything I use. I like to think of it as using the force, but I run into problems all the time when I bring something delicious to a pot luck or dinner party, and someone asks me for the recipe.  Errrr…. Usually the best I can do is a list of ingredients and a rough description of the process.

My approach to cocktails is more or less the same. I don’t run into the “can I have the recipe” problem as much with drinks because most people assume that mixing craft cocktails at home is difficult (it’s not), and are happy to drink whatever I happen to make for them at the time. The problem, however occurs when a cocktail turns out really well, or if I want to make another round of whatever I made the first time, but I have a hard time replicating it exactly.

Recently I read an interview of two amazingly talented bartenders. One of them (Lucie Wood)  happens to be the sister of a friend, so maybe I’m biased, but she said two things in the article that were particularly relevant for me as a home mixologist. One was, “Don’t waste money buying expensive mixers. It’s easy to make your own grenadine and infused simple syrups, and it’s way more fun than buying it.” This is pretty much my purpose in creating this blog, so: validation! From an expert!

The second was, “The key to a great cocktail is balance, and the key to a good bar is consistency. There’s nothing worse than ordering a drink from one bartender and enjoying it, then ordering a second one from another bartender and it’s completely different. That’s why we feel it’s vitally important to use measuring tools.” Ok, confession time: I was definitely one of those bartenders who took pride in my eye-balling, free-pouring abilities. I’m not running a bar (at least not currently), but I do want people to consistently enjoy the cocktails I make. And I want people to be able to replicate them at home, whether it’s from a recipe I give them or from reading this blog. So thank you, Lucie Wood. I will do my very best to use measuring tools, and write down my recipes from now on. Pinkie swear.

If you’re interested in the full article, you can find it here. Oh, and there’s even a part two. And if you ever find yourself in Fullerton, you should definitely visit her bar, Steamers.

Coming soon: fall infusions. Look for something spiced up and bourbon-y, and possibly pumpkin pie vodka. Happy mixing!

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Earl Grey Tea Vodka

Adding further evidence to my making-fancy-flavor-infused-booze-is-the-easiest-thing-ever theory, I experimented awhile back with infusing vodka with Earl Grey tea in an attempt to re-create a cocktail I had at the Bourgeois Pig in New York called the “Cold Toddy.” The name still doesn’t make sense to me, because Hot Toddies usually have bourbon or whiskey in them, not tea or vodka. In any case, it must have been seasonal, because it’s not on the menu anymore, but you should still definitely go there if you are in New York and want an amazing cocktail.

Right, back to the infusion. Here is how it works: take a 750mL bottle of vodka, pour it into a mason jar (wider mouth makes it easier to get the teabags in), add two bags Earl Grey tea (any brand), let sit for approximately 3 hours (the more time you leave them in, the more intense the tea flavor), strain if there are any loose tea leaves in the liquid, chill, and serve. Seriously, that’s all there is to it. You can drink it on its own over ice, or use it to make Cold Toddies (feel free to rename as you see fit):

2oz Earl Grey tea vodka

juice of one lemon

2 teaspoons honey

soda water

Shake honey, lemon, and vodka in a cocktail shaker, pour over ice, and top with soda water. Honey takes awhile to dissolve, so you’ll have to shake well. Garnish with a lemon twist if you want to get all fancy with it. Happy mixing!

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Wedding Cocktails!

As I mentioned in the previous post, I got recently got married. It was a lot of work, but totally worth it. Me being me, I wouldn’t throw any kind of party without a signature cocktail, or in this case, two. We knew we wanted a bourbon cocktail and a champagne cocktail.

The bourbon cocktail was fairly easy to decide on. After test-driving a couple different recipes, we settled on the Lady Shirley, with some slight modification, because, well, I just can’t ever seem to follow a recipe exactly. The recipe I found online gives you a pretty sweet little cocktail, which might be perfect for some, but here in the Savage-Liszanckie household we like our bourbon cocktails a little stronger. My recipe was more like: 2oz bourbon, 1/2oz grenadine, 1oz lemon juice (or about half a lemon if you’re squeezing them fresh), top with soda water.

We served them in mason jars. They were delicious.

We served them in mason jars. They were delicious.

The champagne cocktail took a little more experimentation to settle upon. Luckily we have plenty of willing guinea-pigs…er, friends, who very patiently drank the cocktails and gave me their opinions. Tough job, I know. What we ended up with was the Feathers McGraw, named after our favorite Wallace and Gromit character. The inspiration for this cocktail came from Martha Stewart, but of course I made a few changes. First, I made a mint-infused simple syrup. For the cocktail recipe, I upped the amount of Campari and Champagne, and lowered the amount of grapefruit juice and simple syrup. What can I say, Martha’s recipe just wasn’t boozy enough for me. Recipe for this one: 1oz Campari, 1/2oz mint simple syrup, fill glass 3/4 full with champagne (approx 4oz), top with a splash or two of grapefruit juice. The result is something like a grapefruit-y mimosa with a boozy Campari kick. Delicious!

The original Feathers McGraw. Ours was just a tasty tribute.

The original Feathers McGraw. Ours was just a tasty tribute.

The great thing about both these cocktails is that you can easily make them by the pitcher for a party…or a wedding. Just keep the proportions the same and increase by the number of cocktails you want to make. I promise, your guests will be impressed. Happy mixing!

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Simple Syrup Infusions

Sooooooo it’s been a really long time since my last post. Lots of life changes between than and now. I quit my job! I got married! Also, I made a lot of cocktails, probably too many to blog about, but I’ll do my best. First up: simple syrup. For those not familiar with it (and believe me, you WANT to be familiar with it, simple syrup is used to sweeten up fruity cocktails. You can buy it pre-made at Bevmo, but where’s the fun in that when you it’s so easy to make at home?  Simple syrup is called “simple” for a reason. Here is the recipe: 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar. Heat the water just below boiling until all the sugar dissolves. See? I told you it was simple.

The great thing about making your own simple syrup is that you can infuse it with almost anything, which is a great way to add extra flavor to your cocktails and impress your friends. “Oh this? It’s just a ginger-infused simple syrup. I made it myself. NBD.” You don’t have to tell them how easy it is, it’ll be our little secret. After the sugar dissolves in the water, turn the heat down as low as it goes, add anything you want for flavoring, stir and taste occasionally until the flavor strength is to your liking. Unlike liquor infusions, with simple syrup it’s best to stick with just one flavor. Some ideas for simple syrup flavors include: ginger, vanilla bean, lavender, mint, lemon zest, jalapeno peppers…feel free to experiment. We all know I’m obsessed with mint, so my latest experiment was a mint-infused simple syrup. Look for an upcoming post where I use the syrup in a cocktail. Happy mixing!

One bunch of fresh mint.

One bunch of fresh mint.

Mint in the sugar-water mixture.

Mint in the sugar-water mixture.

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Cocktail Hour at Home

My bourbon infusion was ready to go, so I decided to invite my lovely friend Brynn over for dinner and cocktails. Before we get into the drink recipes, let’s talk about the infusion by itself. How much do I love grapefruit? So much that I would write an ode to it, if I were any good at writing odes. The substitution of grapefruit zest for lemon and orange was a stroke of pure genius. The citrus did kind of overwhelm the vanilla, though, which was barely detectable. Next time I’d go with two vanilla beans instead of one. Still, it was quite nice, and could easily be a stand alone drink, chilled and served up. But where’s the fun in that?

No, my friends, the fun is all in the mixing, so on we go to the cocktails. The first concoction is something I’ve been making in various configurations for a while now, so it deserves a name. I hereby dub thee “The Savage Refresher.” Doesn’t that sound like something you want to drink?

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It consists of: bourbon (this time I used the infusion, but it’s also delicious with regular bourbon), muddled mint, bitters, and freshly squeezed grapefruit. You can add a little sugar or simple syrup if you like your drinks on the sweet side of tart. Muddle a handful of mint, sugar (if you want), 10ish drops of bitters, and a little ice in a shaker. Add 2 oz of bourbon (depending on how strong you like it), half a grapefruit (squeezed), and some more ice. Shake and serve up in a cocktail glass of your choosing.

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I squeeze the grapefruit by hand, but what I really want is a dedicated grapefruit squeezer like this one. Also, despite our arsenal of bar tools, we still don’t have a muddler at home, which makes me sad. Now you know what to get me for my birthday, right?

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The Savage Refreshers went perfectly with our dinner…I threw some mint in the salad too. Yummy!

Then it was on to post dinner conversation and round two. If you’re as obsessed with Mad Men as I am, you’ve probably had a hankering for an Old Fashioned sometime in the last few months. If you’re a purist, like Don Draper, here is a recipe for the classic Old Fashioned, complements of Esquire magazine. Most bars these days make it with and orange slice and a maraschino cherry, but apparently that’s a recent edition. Fascinating!

Seeing as how I’m all grapefruit obsessed at the moment, I use a grapefruit slice instead of the now-traditional orange slice, a smidge of grenadine, and regular sugar, because really, who has sugar cubes and maraschino cherries at home?

How to make a Grapefruit Old Fashioned: In a cocktail shaker, muddle a large slice of grapefruit, a teaspoon-ish of sugar, a dash or two of grenadine (one cherry’s worth if you can figure that out), and 3-4 dashes of bitters. Once that has been muddled, you add 2 oz or so of bourbon and shake. I like to top it off with another squeeze of grapefruit, but that’s just me. Traditionally, you’d serve this in a rocks glass over ice. What can I say, I’ve never been all that traditional.

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The photo may not look all that impressive, but trust me, they’re delicious. This cocktail makes a frequent appearance in our house. Typically while we’re watching Mad Men. In our fedoras.

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