Cocktails: The Witch Hunt

Since today is Halloween, I thought I’d bring back from the (almost) dead a cocktail I first tried at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, GA, a few years back. At the time, Miles Macquarrie shared the recipe, and we did a quick little video showing off Leon’s bar and the making of the drink itself. Miles is now slinging excellent drinks at sister restaurant Kimball House (go. now. for oyster happy hour 5-7pm. and great cocktails. really.), but brought back this drink for Fall. It’s great for easing into the cooler weather, a mix of house-made apple-cardamom syrup, gin, Liquore Strega (Italian for witch), a bit of lemon, and an absinthe rinse. Full recipe below.

Leon’s Full Service: Miles & the Witch Hunt from Thirsty South on Vimeo.

The Witch Hunt

1.5 oz Dry Fly gin (or similar)
3/4 oz apple cardamom syrup (see below)
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/4 oz Strega liqueur
Absinthe for glass rinse
Orange peel for garnish

Rinse cocktail glass with absinthe, combine all other liquid ingredients in cocktail shaker, shake vigorously with ice, strain into cocktail glass. Squeeze orange peel into glass and drop in!

Apple Cardamom Syrup

Combine 1 cup water, 2 cups granulated sugar, and 1/4 cup cracked green cardamom pods in saucepan. Simmer over Med-High for 5 minutes, until very fragrant. Add 3 cups fresh pressed apple juice, simmer until reduced in half (roughly 15 to 20 minutes). Strain, cool, add a dash of neutral spirit as preservative, may be refrigerated up to 2 weeks.

Kimball House
The bar at Kimball House

Coffee, Fernet Branca, Rum: Whynatte?

Whynatte Cayrum Fernet Branca

Why the hell would anyone want to mix a latte energy drink, Fernet-Branca, and ginger-honey infused rum? The answer lies somewhere at the center of the Venn diagram where hipster bartenders, tweaked-out party twenty somethings, and laid-back Dominicanos converge. And if you read that and think there’s no way that Venn diagram actually exists in the real world, well… you might be right. But I’m hopeful that somewhere down a dark alley not far from the beach in Punta Cana, there’s a mustachioed mixologist with a PDT Cocktail Book¬†on the shelf, a fridge full of Whynatte, an old uncle home-infusing ginger-honey rum, and a raging dance floor nearby. It could happen, right?

The truth is, this drink was inspired by a random confluence of events. I was talking with Jesse Altman, founder of Whynatte, for a profile in Creative Loafing (that came out this week – check it out).¬†For those of you not familiar with Atlanta-based Whynatte, it’s basically a canned latte energy drink that was built for mixing – with things like J√§germeister,¬† Fireball whiskey, and, um, whipped cream vodka. As I said in Creative Loafing, ¬†Whynatte is “decidedly not the stuff you find at reverent temples to cocktail classicism. In fact, it’s tremendously popular at places like Smith’s Olde Bar and the Vortex, and even the Cheetah. Why not?”

In any case, Jesse and I were talking about how Whynatte just doesn’t fit behind certain bars, and I asked if anyone had paired it with something super-bartender-nerdy like… Fernet-Branca. After all, Fernet fits somewhere on the same branch of the spirits tree as J√§germeister –¬†embraced both for its purported medicinal qualities and definitive medicinal taste.¬†The key difference for Fernet-Branca is that it dials way back on the sugary syrup of J√§germeister.¬†Altman said they had once tried a push to get some serious bartenders to get creative with Whynatte, but it was the simple shooters that really seemed to click best.

After our chat, I just couldn’t let go of this seemingly incongruous pairing – between the whipped cream vodka loving party animal and the hipster bar geek. I did a bit of digging around for other similar drinks, which mainly reinforced that Fernet-Branca and (hot)¬†coffee or espresso are frequent companions. So maybe this pairing wasn’t so crazy after all.

I tried simple first – just two ingredients – and landed on 2oz Whynatte and 1oz Fernet-Branca over ice. It makes for a bracingly refreshing cold coffee drink. Then I tried adding in rye, figuring bourbon might be too sweet, and found a nice balance at 2oz Whynatte, 2oz rye, 1oz Fernet-Branca. You still get the herbal punch of the Fernet, the creamy coffee flavors still coat the tongue, and the rye somehow manages to bridge the two with a potent whiskey presence. Not bad.

Doing some further digging, I came across a cocktail recipe that got me thinking that rum could be a good companion. I started rifling through my rum options for inspiration. An unaged rum proved too sharp. An older rum seemed a bit, well, wasted in such a concoction. A spiced rum proved too… much. And then I tried a bottle of Cayrum that I had been given not long ago.

Cayrum, from the¬†Kane Family Rum Company,¬†also happens to be based in Atlanta, though the rum is distilled, aged (three years in bourbon barrels) and infused with local honey and ginger in the Dominican Republic. The ginger really pops in this stuff – it could almost replace a ginger liqueur like Domaine de Canton or the King’s Ginger in cocktail recipes. But it’s the honey (at least, I think it is) that helps bring the Cayrum into harmony with the latte and the Fernet-Branca when you mix those ingredients together.

This is not a drink for everyone. Or maybe I should say, this is a drink for hardly anyone. There’s a 2 in 3 chance that you’ll find it disgusting. And a 0.9 in 3 chance that you’ll find it only mildly offensive. But I like this drink – it manages to be creamy, sweet, bitter, bracing, and spicy in some strange jumble of proportions. The ratio I settled on was 1 part Whynatte to 1 part Cayrum to 1/2 part Fernet-Branca. If you want something more coffee-like and less cocktail-ish, just amp up the Whynatte. If you find the medicinal slap of Fernet offensive, definitely dial back the Fernet-Branca. Me? I’m happy imagining my place at the bar by the beach, chatting with a mustachioed bartender while a nearby throng of partygoers dances the night away.

The Dominicano Hipster All Night Rave
2oz Whynatte coffee and energy drink
2oz Cayrum honey and ginger infused rum
1oz Fernet-Branca
Combine and stir over ice. If you like it frothy, shake it up first.

The Mustachioed Rye-natte
2oz Whynatte coffee and energy drink
1oz rye whiskey
1oz Fernet Branca
Combine and stir over ice. If you like it frothy, shake it up first.

The Why Not Fernet
2oz Whynatte coffee and energy drink
1oz Fernet-Branca
Combine and stir over ice. If you like it frothy, shake it up first.

Drinking Blue: The Aviation and the Blue Moon

I blame it on Boozehound. The fact that I have a bottle of¬†Cr√®me de Violette, that is. I never knew I needed it until I read Jason Wilson’s account of the Aviation cocktail, a classic that apparently lost its way and fell from the sky. Until a few years ago, most recipes for an Aviation called for gin, maraschino liqueur, and lemon juice. Few had any clue why it was called an Aviation. Then someone dug up the fact that the original called for¬†Cr√®me de Violette, a deep purple-y blue bloom of floral intensity that does indeed turn the cocktail the color of a pale, hazy blue sky. (That’s a fairly crappy photo of a Blue Moon pictured above, not an Aviation – hold your horses, we’ll get to that in a minute). Turns out,¬†Cr√®me de Violette was practically non-existant for decades until being revived in the past several years, and we have Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz to thank for bringing Rothman & Winter Cr√®me de Violette back into obsessive bars all over.

The Rothman & Winter Cr√®me de Violette is distilled in¬†Austria by Destillerie Purkhart, a¬†maceration of two types of violets ¬†in “weinbrand,” a liqueur distilled from grapes, with some cane sugar added. It’s worth pointing out that the color is not fully derived from the violets – there is coloring added, too. This Cr√®me de Violette is intense, perfumey stuff – it doesn’t have the easy appeal of the honeysuckle sweet St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur – so it needs to be used in small, careful doses.¬†Also, it seems to work especially well with dry gin – the Aviation and the Blue Moon are both gin-based cocktails, as are a few other lesser known cocktails like the Jupiter and the Yale cocktail (beware blue Curacao, be true to¬†Cr√®me de Violette).

So, back to the Aviation. The recipe in Boozehound calls for:

1.5oz gin
3/4oz fresh lemon juice
1/2oz maraschino liqueur
1/4oz Crème de Violette

It stirs up into a pale, cloudy, lavender-blue that lets the
light shine through in an appealing way. Despite the fact that the¬†Cr√®me de Violette is a minor ingredient, a¬†floral smell dominates the nose. Cherry is there, as is the angular spice of the gin, but it’s those violets that jump to the forefront. As you taste the cocktail, a¬†tart, crisp, mouth watering, citrusy burst hits first. Then the cherry rolls in, the flowers come in again at the end, and the gin provides a steady bass line throughout. Rothman & Winter’s rendition of the Aviation recipe calls for less lemon juice, less maraschino, and MORE¬†Cr√®me de Violette (not surprising, really, they love the stuff!). Personally, I prefer to up the gin to 2oz (following the rest of the recipe in Boozehound)¬†to pull back the floral notes and cherry into more of a balanced dance with the gin. It’s a lovely drink, unique, but rewards playing around with the ratios to suit your tastes.

As for the Blue Moon (pictured up top), it’s very similar to the Aviation, but with¬†more gin (2oz), 1/2oz each of the lemon juice and Cr√®me de Violette,¬†and NO maraschino. The color stays roughly the same strange lavender-blue hue, but the gin is indeed more prominent on the nose here. On the outset, I find the Blue Moon a bit more balanced overall, with the lemon acidity in check. But that gin seems to come on a bit too strong towards the finish, throwing that balance off. When I was playing with this one, I went back and added the maraschino into the mix, and really felt that kicked up the¬†body, complexity, and nuance of the drink, actually propelling the floral notes forward in a positive way. So, yes, I prefer a ride on the Aviation, keeping the maraschino in.

Of course, if you’re not into gin (what, are you crazy?), there’s the basic Violette Royale – 4oz Champagne and 1/2oz¬†Cr√®me de Violette. Now, if you’re not into Champagne either, don’t bother buying that bottle of¬†Cr√®me de Violette.

That’s Amaro

I recently reviewed STG Trattoria in Atlanta for Creative Loafing, and while I think the kitchen at STG still needs to uncover its true voice, the heavily amaro-centric cocktail list is already a unique and compelling aspect of this restaurant. Actually, “cocktail” may not be the right word in a literal sense – with the exception of a Negroni and and an “Italian” Manhattan, STG’s bar really offers “aperitif sodas” with an array of Italian aperitif options, plenty of juice and soda, but no (or minimal) heavy alcohol.

Over several visits, the basic menu (shown below) has remained roughly the same. The formula is aperitif (such as a barolo chinato, or Aperol, or an amaro) + fruit juice (such as lemon or lime) + soda (such as ginger ale or tonic or cola or sparkling mineral water) + bitters. Of course, there are a few twists along the way, like a touch of absinthe in the mix in the “Reviver Pop.” And the results all fall on a spectrum that starts off heavily bitter (the “Cynar Lime Soda” packs a dry vegetal bite) and moves to equal parts sweet and bitter (the “My Amaro Cola” uses Mexican Coke for a heavy dose of sugar sweetness). My favorite choice for a hot summer day is the “Aperol Orange Soda,” for its bright citrus acidity and its powerfully refreshing base bitterness. These drinks are ideal to start off a meal, cooling you down, whetting your appetite with a not-too-strong kick in the pants, putting you in the mood for something rich and indulgent to counter the bracing jolt of the drink. The price is right too – six bucks seems like a bargain drink these days, and these beauties are worth every penny.

Cocktail purists will not be thrilled that there’s not a fulltime bartender on duty – the two heavy duty cocktails on the menu are pre-batched and the sodas are (in theory) easy enough for anyone to throw together. I must say that the pre-batched cocktails work wonderfully: the Negroni being everything you want in this classic cocktail, and the Italian Manhattan offering a rich and intriguing twist on its American counterpart. But I have had some variability of quality on the aperitif sodas, suggesting it may be worth the staff’s time to have some more in-depth training on putting these sodas together properly.

STG’s cocktail menu is definitely different, not trying to be all things to everyone, staking out a specific area of focus that fits perfectly with a menu heavy on pizzas and Italian-inspired plates with local ingredients. It’s also the kind of menu that will benefit over time from a thoughtful bartender who can take the basic formula and apply both creativity and a knowledge of the classics to come up with some new takes. I look forward to more amaro at STG. Maybe even a few flights of straight amaros and aperitifs to help diners/drinkers become more familiar with these Italian masterpieces. When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie, that’s …¬†

Drinking New York City

I get to New York about once a year on average. I make lists each time. Bars, restaurants, food trucks, coffee shops. Places I just have to hit. It’s always a blend of the old and new – I lived there many years ago and still have to hit some favorites each time I go back. And I usually make it through only a small portion of “the list,” defeated by human limitations on time and consumption. And, of course, walking the streets of New York, there are always places that were never on the list that end up beckoning you in.

Cocktails at Mayahuel

For cocktails this trip, I ended up hitting PDT and Mayahuel and Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar (which also has an incredible wine list), and had time to walk in and check out Death and Company but not enough time to actually get a drink (bummer! this was at the top of my list but just didn’t work out). Other places I had really hoped to hit were The Beagle, Amor y Amargo, Booker & Dax, and Employees Only. Amazingly, The Beagle, PDT, Death and Company, and Mayahuel are all in an area about four blocks square in the East Village. That would be some cocktail crawl. Another time.

Mayahuel rocked. Thanks to some local Atlanta bartender friends who insisted I go there; I had never heard of it.¬†Mayahuel focuses on tequila and mezcal, and does tremendously well with those spirits and a number of infusions and interesting flavor plays. There was the “Slight Detour,” with a jalapeno-infused tequila, reposado tequila and mezcal, agave nectar, and Xocolatl mole bitters. And there was something else… I can’t recall thanks to the tequila and mezcal. It’s a cool little underground space, an intimate bar with good things going on.

Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar was one of those places I just happened upon, another tiny little space that seats about 15 people max. I know the Blue Ribbon folks do just about everything well, so was confident that we’d find something good there. There were oysters, champagne, and deviled eggs, and then a cocktail involving gin and cucumber that was bright (naturally) green and tremendously interesting and complex. I just wish I could have done a few wine flights here as well.

The Bear at PDT

And the heralded PDT? Let’s just say I’m over the whole speakeasy-enter-through-a-secret-door thing, and I’m also kinda over gimmicks like bacon-infused bourbon. PDT has been doing this particular drink (the Bacon Old Fashioned) for more than four years now, but it seems people won’t let them take it off the menu. I may not love bacon-infused bourbon, but, luckily, I do love stuffed bears.

The only beer stop on the trip was Birreria, the rooftop bar at Eataly. The rotation of three house-brewed beers here are a co-production of Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head and Italian brewers Baladin and Del Borgo, but I was really disappointed in them (despite being a fan of Dogfish Head in general). All three are unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally carbonated cask ales. All sounded interesting Рthere was a witbier brewed with coriander and peppercorns, a chestnut ale, and a thyme pale ale. But none met the mark, more due to the beer lacking character than the presence of the flavoring elements. Service was equally disappointing.

Coffee? Holy smokes, it seems like there are excellent coffee choices every block or so in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I had the wonderful New Orleans ice coffee at Blue Bottle, a few fabulous espressos with different portions of steamed milk (no Italian names here) at Ninth Street Espresso, a great latte and espresso from Joe, a spot-on cortado at Third Rail… and I passed many, many more places that I wish I could have checked out, including the Mudtruck on wheels. Like I said, holy smokes.

Wine? That list at Blue Ribbon blew me away, and I had some really nice wine pairings at a “fancy” lunch at Eleven Madison Park. Favorite wine of the trip? A funky Savennieres from Domaine aux Moines that really woke up my taste buds with excellent acidity.

Making the Egg Cream

Oh, also at Eleven Madison Park, one of my favorites things imbibed this trip, an orange cocoa-nib “egg cream” that was perfection, with a subtle chocolate kick beneath a sharp orange cream bite. Like liquid dark chocolate-covered orange rind. In case you didn’t know, egg creams have no egg, no cream (discuss…), but are based on seltzer water, milk, and (most often) chocolate syrup. A high end take on this humble New York specialty was a surprising treat.

Of course, there was lots of food to go along with the drinks. A few places that I’d highly recommend: Kin Shop for semi-upscale Thai, Red Hook Lobster Pound for lobster rolls, the Lounge at Le Bernardin for late night seriously upscale seafood, Lonestar Empire at the Williamsburg Flea Market for an awesome brisket sandwich, and the always amazing chocolate chip cookies from Levain Bakery. Sure, there was some damn good pizza and pasta and bao and soup dumplings and pastrami, too, but the names above stood out most.

Local Spirits: Bourbon? Leave that to the South!