As I write this column we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us are pretty much stuck at home with very limited outside access. And – by the time you read this – conditions may well be worse. It might seem frivolous to be considering what cocktail to mix up, but I think we need to have at least some sense of normalcy in our lives despite the abnormal situation that undeniably engulfs us. Many apparently concur: alcohol sales spiked in March: wine sales were up almost 28 percent over last year and spirits sales were up 26 percent. Clearly our stress level is leading many of us to consume a bit more. The same thing happens in times of dire financial straits; the power bill may be paid late and the charge cards might have to wait – but there’ll be a bottle of bourbon stashed under the kitchen sink that gets hauled out a little more frequently.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading, even more than my usual (which is extensive). My usual taste for light-hearted suspense and mystery has now been supplanted by some actual educational tomes. I read a biography of Peter the Great and was so intrigued by Russian history that I continued on to a weighty tome on Catherine the Great (I am, however, admittedly through with Russian rulers, Great or otherwise, for the time being).
Along the lines of educational, I thought it might be interesting to do a little mixology lesson. It’ll be a review for some but hopefully just about any reader will pick up an interesting new tidbit of cocktail knowledge.
First, why are mixed alcoholic drinks called cocktails anyway? They have nothing to do with roosters, nor tails, nor rooster tails. It is thought the word resulted from the Anglicization of the French word coquetier which is an egg cup in France. Americans (incorrectly) pronounced it cocktay. When famed New Orleans apothecary owner Antoine Peychaud started serving brandy with a shot of his newly created bitters in egg cups folks would order a “cocktay.” And the name stuck to eventually encompass margaritas, slow gin fizzes and vodka gimlets.
Speaking of bitters, Peychaud’s are just one of many, although along with Angostura, the most well-known. There are myriad bitters available now, but what are they and how are they used. I’m glad you asked. Bitters, originally crafted for medicinal reasons, are botanical tinctures containing herbs, spices, tree bark, seeds, roots, fruits, etc. Most originated as patent medicines, often with dubious claims as to health benefits. Monsieur Peychaud based his formula on gentian root, the underground component of a trumpet-shaped vivid blue flower. The result is anise-flavored with notes of mint and woodsy elements. Peychaud’s bitters are an essential component of the Sazerac, an aromatic bayou classic.
SAZERAC (the official recipe)
1 cube sugar
1½ ounces (45ml) Sazerac Rye Whiskey
¼ ounce Herbsaint
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Pack an old-fashioned glass with ice
In a second old-fashioned glass, place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud’s Bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube
Add the Sazerac Rye Whiskey to the second glass containing the Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar
Empty the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the Herbsaint, then discard the remaining Herbsaint
Empty the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture from the second glass into the first glass and garnish with lemon peel.
I know this seems laborious, but the preparation will kill an hour or so and you can leave the TV off.
This recipe raises the question: What is Herbsaint? This stuff is used as a substitute for absinthe, which for many years was banned in the United States due to the misconception that it caused insanity. It actually just caused drunkenness (like all spiritous liquids) and folks thought it was insanity. The anise-flavored liqueur was originally bottled in 1949 at 120 proof(!), but now is offered at a more reasonable 90 proof. Conveniently, it is produced by the Sazerac Co.
Since I mentioned “proof,” it might be a good time to offer a definition of that term. The proof of an alcoholic beverage is related to the amount of ethanol it contains (or the ABV – alcohol by volume). In this country proof is twice the ABV. So the Herbsaint in 1949 consisted of 60 percent alcohol by volume. Most bottles of spirits these days are 70-90 proof. The alcohol content in wine ranges from 5 percent to 14 percent. Beer has much less alcohol, coming in from 3 percent to as high as 14 percent, but generally closer to 7percent in domestic brews. Some so-called high-gravity beers, typically craft beers from Belgium or Germany, hit that upper range. Interestingly, the term proof is seldom if ever used to describe the ABV of beer or wine; that’s reserved for spirits.
Even nondrinkers likely know the phrase “shaken not stirred” as spoken by fictional 007 Agent James Bond when giving instructions as to how to prepare his martini. But what does it mean? Quite simply there are two methods of combining ingredients in a cocktail: stirring or shaking (in a cocktail shaker). Stirring is just as it sounds – put the liquid in a glass and (you guessed it) stir. Shaking is much more theatrical (think Tom Cruise as a bartender in the movie Cocktail) and requires a good deal more energy.
But why the two methods? Suffice it say that volumes have been written on the differences resulting from the two mixologies. The short explanation is: Shaking a drink in a shaker with ice results in more dilution of the drink (the ice melts more) and more air is incorporated into the liquid resulting in a cloudy end result. The cloudiness when gin is involved, as in a classic martini, is often referred to as “bruising” the gin. Most bartenders consider shaking as a method to be used when a drink is intended to be aerated and frothy – like a Tom Collins or margarita. Personally, I still relish the sound of my martini being shaken like nobody’s business and strained into a chilled martini glass – bruised gin, air bubbles and all.
A final question: Who is Tom Collins and how did he get a delicious classic cocktail named for him? Well, sorry to disappoint but there was no Tom Collins. Unbeknownst to many, there is a whole sub-category of cocktails called “Collins.” A Collins is a predominantly sour cocktail utilizing a base spirit plus lemon (or other citrus) juice, sugar and carbonated water. It is served over ice in a tall glass called, not coincidentally, a Collins glass. In the case of a Tom Collins the sprit utilized is gin, and originally the gin of choice was a variety called Old Tom (a version of gin a bit sweeter than the usual London dry. There is also a vodka Collins, and the much more creatively named John Collins (with rye whiskey), Jose Collins (tequila), Sandy Collins (Scotch) and Russell Collins (Jagermeister).
2 ounces gin (Old Tom if you want to be historically accurate)
¾ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup
2 ounce club soda
Fill a Collins glass with ice and place in freezer to chill.
Combine gin, juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well.
Strain into the chilled glass and add the soda on top. Garnish with a lemon wedge.
That’s our libation education for this issue. Now I’m searching the internet for ways to cut your own hair. I’ve heard it can be done. I may have to have a cocktail before – and definitely will need one after!