Monday, May 4, 2009

It's Cocktail Time

I was blessed to marry someone who enjoys cocktails as much as I do. This past weekend we made our annual batch of whiskey sours that age for three months in the back of the fridge. Admittedly, I am biased, but I think Dave must have been reincarnated from our grandparents' generation when classy drinks were appreciated, understood, and expected. He is attempting to educate our generation one sidecar at a time. Below is his take on a springtime classic. Bartender, I'll have a julep, please.

I'm the bartender in our family. Possessing all the ingredients for many classic cocktails gives me the satisfaction of knowing that if I ask someone, "Care for a drink?" and they request a Rob Roy, I can accommodate them (a Manhattan made with scotch; thanks for asking). Unfortunately, in my generation, both the making and the drinking of cocktails is a bit of a lost art, so usually the answer to "Care for a drink?" is either "Water, thanks," or "Got any beer?" Not that there is anything wrong with beer. Or water, for that matter. I just want a challenge from time to time. Guess I need to hang out with more octogenarians.

One way around this problem is to have seasonally appropriate suggestions ready at hand. Since Saturday was Kentucky Derby day, what could be better than Mint Juleps? A few years ago Renée gave me pewter Julep cups, and let me tell you, they are so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking some up (apologies to FB). A cocktail glass, as you might surmise, is designed to keep the beverage cold by insulating it from your body heat. You hold the glass by the stem, never touching the glass which touches the liquid. A Julep cup is designed to do the exact opposite: to transmit the bone-chilling cold of the julep to your body, cooling you on a hot summer day. It doesn't last very long, necessitating drinking more Juleps.

I start by making simple syrup. Also known as sugar syrup or gomme syrup, this is a fun little science project you can do with your kids. Put 2 cups of granulated sugar in a pot with 1 cup of water, bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Watch as the water, outnumbered by the sugar at first, gradually beats down the sugar's resistance until the whole sticky liquid is completely clear. Then cover and keep in the refrigerator. The stuff keeps for quite a while, but after a few weeks starts to crystallize (more science fun!). You can use it in any drink recipe that calls for sugar or confectioner's sugar. It makes mixing easy, even at cold temperatures. If you know what specific cocktail you want to use the syrup for, you can add flavoring during the simmering stage. For my Julep project, I added a few sprigs of mint from our side garden (actually the weeds growing up through the cement next to our garbage cans -- mint is hardy stuff), then removed them as it cooled.

For a nice Mint Julep, start off with a 6-8 mint leaves in the bottom of a cup. I try never to pay money for mint, because as I said, it's a weed and will grow anywhere, from spring through the end of summer. The smell of your fingers after plucking a few leaves from your garden or pot is heady. Next add a spoonful of simple syrup and a splash of water. Muddle that stuff up with a wooden or metal spoon. You want all the minty goodness to get absorbed into the water and syrup. Next, crush a bunch of ice. I have a hand-cranking ice crusher from the 50s which is built like an American car of the same vintage. [insert gov't bailout joke here] You can also take ice cubes and hold them in the palm of your hand and smack them hard with a metal spoon or a tool designed for the purpose. It stings a little, but, "No pain, no cocktail hour," as my old Nanny says. One way or another, the ice must be crushed. This is very important. We are looking for maximum cold in minimum time. Something to do with surface area. Then fill the cup 2/3 with crushed ice and add bourbon whiskey (like Jim Beam, Old Granddad, or Maker's Mark) to the top of the ice. Stir hard until the cup is almost unbearably cold to the touch. Then fill the cup the rest of the way with more crushed ice. Ahhhhhhhh....... Kind of like a sno-cone, but for grownups.

For those with a sweet tooth, or without a taste for whiskey, increase the amount of syrup and/or water.

And a final note: this is an interesting blog about keeping the art of cocktails alive: Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails - Boston