Rouge Anyone? Repurposing Oxidized Wine

My liquor collection is a monstrosity. Over a year ago I changed apartments and discovered that I had amassed a collection that filled over 35 liquor boxes. And that is not counting the assorted glassware, tools, spare bottles, and cocktail books that I own. Unfortunately, there are pitfalls of growing such a collection--a fact I was made aware of when I started packing up bottles. In the very back of one cabinet I discovered an open bottle of Lillet rouge. The bottle was dusty and who knew how long it had been sitting there in that dark corner, oxidizing steadily with each passing hour. Obviously, it was ruined. In the haste of packing I simply shoved it into a box to be dealt with later. But when I was unpacking I rediscovered it, and for some reason I chose not to dump it down the drain. Perhaps it could still be useful.

Inspiration arrived soon enough. While out on the town one night, I overheard someone referring to the New York Sour. This drink is just your basic whiskey sour with a float of dry red wine--usually a Syrah or a Malbec. At that moment, however, I thought back to my poor ruined Lillet. And while there was no way to use the product as is to top off a sour, I started wondering what would happen if I made the Lillet rouge into a syrup? Then I started wondering how it would taste if I mulled the wine first to help cover up the oxidized flavor. If a wine-topped whiskey sour works so well, and it does, why not use a spiced wine syrup instead of the wine and simple syrup components? I wasn't sure if the Lillet would even make a good syrup, oxidized as it was. An experiment seemed to be a better solution than just dumping the contents. And I am glad that I did.

Acela Sour

2 ounces of bourbon
1 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce Lillet syrup
1 scant dash simple syrup
1 egg white

Dry shake ingredients with the coil of the Hawthorne strainer. Add ice and shake again. Strain ingredients into a chilled old-fashioned glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Buffalo Trace bourbon.

Cocktail Geekery: In truth this is really a cross between the Boston Sour and the New York Sour. Boston Sours are notorious for their inclusion of egg whites. They can of course be left out, just make sure to double check the sweet-sour balance before adding the egg whites. The creaminess of the whites tames sourness. if more sweetener is required, correct, if necessary, with plain simple syrup. The Lillet syrup is dryer and more bitter and will only further upend the balance.

Mulled Lillet Syrup

3-5 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 large orange peel
1 cup Lillet
1 cup sugar
1 ounce overproof vodka

Crush cinnamon sticks and cloves. In a small saucepan add spices, peel and Lillet and heat over low for about an hour. Strain Lillet into a measuring cup. Add sugar in equal measure. Whisk until no granules appear at the bottom of your bowl. Let resulting syrup cool to room temperature, and add vodka (or other overproof spirit) to preserve. Store in the refrigerator.


Change Is the Only Constant

I started this blog in 2009 and over the past four years it has been the only constant in my life. Regardless of the ups and downs and challenges that have been presented to me, I always returned to writing here, though not always as often as I would have preferred. I started blogging very early in my cocktail and spirit education. I remember boring everyone in my life with esoteric details about cocktails, spirits, bitters, syrup production, watching their eyes glaze over with the onslaught of miscellaneous data. Being able to express those thoughts here saved many friendships. Over the past four years the blog grew alongside my own knowledge and experience.

Though it still chronicles my current interests and tastes, it has grown to encompass so much more. Instead of having my own experiences guide the content, creating content for the blog began guiding my experience. As the topics that excited me became ever more complex, the amount of time I spent constructing blog posts increased. Regardless of the errant typos that still crop up no matter how many times I proofread a piece, it usually take at least a week for me to finish an entry, though often it takes much longer. Over the years the amount of time required, the depth of research necessary, and the breadth of topics that I wanted to cover grew exponentially. But my life beyond the blog was changing dramatically as well. I tried for a long time to dedicate the same amount of time and energy, regardless of the distractions of real life. In the end, in order for the blog to continue to grow, its role in my life must change.

I have never before felt that I should apologize or make excuses for the infrequency of posts, nor did I think I should congratulate myself for pumping out posts at other times. I am not attempting to do either here. I offer details merely to explain where this blog must go in the future, how its position in my life must change. You see, a few months ago I started working as a bar back. This addition has severely limited the amount of time I have available, well, for anything. Because I love writing this blog and wouldn't give it up for anything, the role of this blog needs to change. Though I would love to offer up great diatribes dedicated to the history and evolution of the Brandy Crusta, to the ways to use syrups made from wine or vermouth, to the intricacies of pisco production, I just don't have the energy and time at present. So shorter, less dense pieces will be more the norm around here. I would rather give up word count than quality. But please bear with me. It is often hard to see where the path is taking us while traveling on it; pit stops, where we can catch our breath, are far more illuminating. Thank you for reading thus far and have no fear,the journey is far from finished.


Rediscovering the Classics: Welcoming Back Overproof Cognac

Cognac was once the workhorse spirit reached for more often than any other spirit. By the late 1800s with the phylloxera epidemic threatening to devastate the entire European grape industry, cognacs were still flowing into all sorts of concoctions in America. And with good reason--cognac is tasty. But as the blight continued, something had to change. For the wine industry that meant grafting American root stock onto European vines to curb the pests' steady appetite. The cognac industry made changes as well. For instance, the folle blanche grape, long the mainstay of cognac distillers, was passed over in favor of the more resilient ugni blanc grape. Even considering the changes and innovations cognac houses made, cognac's reign in the world of cocktails persevered. Even as many spirits fell out of popularity during Prohibition, cognac maintained a steady role as such classics as the Sidecar, French 75 both gained their popularity during those dark days. And if the resilience of the Stinger, which made it through unscathed, attests to anything, it is that cognac still carried weight in bartenders' hands.

When Americans emerged from the bleak days of the failed Noble Experiment, cognac, like many spirits, was forced to change again. New drinkers emerged, but their thirst was not for the more rough and tumble spirits that flowed during the golden era of cocktail. Their palates, fueled by years of sweeter drinks that required cream and other heavy-handed mixers to overpower the under-quality spirits, craved more mellow flavors, sometimes even invisible spirits. Thus, Canadian whiskey, bourbon, and vodka grew in popularity. With innovations in the areas of distillation, barrel-aging and blending, cognac producers were able to keep their spirit on pace with demand. Regardless of whether the industry changed to adapt to the market or whether it was just a happy accident, the resulting cognacs were smooth, drinkable and utterly complex. These changes would help define the cognac market for years.

No matter how revelatory a fine cognac's qualities may be in a snifter, the master blender's artistry can easily be lost in a mixed drink. While the hints of oak and vanilla can create a wonderful foundation, the other flavors in a cocktail often take center stage instead interacting with and enhancing the base spirit. While historically cognac has been used in conjunction with other stronger flavors--such as in the vieux carre where the rye is tempered by the milder cognac--cognac was never simply a pushover spirit. Like the whiskeys and rums of the early twentieth century, early cognacs were built for more, whether by choice or accident. And while this may have turned off certain tastes, those cognacs were able to carry a cocktail and not be pushed around. And even before the age of cocktails, brandies held up the punches of the world.

With the popularity of truly classic cocktails rising, the booze market has been steadily introducing products to allow those historic drinks to be re-created. And while those early spirits were rougher for many reasons, not all of them on purpose, they also were sold at higher proofs. This allowed the spirit to shine when mixed, and perhaps required that they be mixed. But as new products meant to replicate obscure ingredients emerge, we have also seen the the re-introduction of higher proof spirits with bolder flavors. Quality overproof cognacs give us a glimpse into what those classic cocktails may have tasted like and it becomes quite apparent why cognac was reached for so often.

Champagne Julep
Juleps were one of the first mixed drinks consumed widely across the United States. A simple mixture of spirit, mint, sugar and ice--nothing is more refreshing, especially in the heat of summer. Today, the julep has become linked to the Kentucky Derby, and it has become famous for its reliance on bourbon. This was not always the case. In the days before whiskey found a steady audience, a julep meant cognac. And just as an overproof bourbon works best in a julep--primarily because it won't be as affected by prolonged dilution--an overproof cognac also is a clear choice. Adding champagne to this already decadent beverage is quite extravagant, and incredibly delightful. Dangerous, yes, but delightful nonetheless.

Champagne Julep (adapted from Paul Clarke's recipe at cocktailchronicles.com) 

2 ounce cognac
7 mint leaves
2 teaspoons simple syrup
1 ounces champagne

Muddle lightly mint leaves in syrup. Retain one for garnish. Add cognac and then crushed ice. Top with champagne. Garnish with mint sprig.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, Chateau St. Michelle sparkling wine, and a 1:1 simple syrup. 

Prescription Sazerac
The original Sazerac was so named because of the cognac used to make it: Sazerac-du-Forge et fils. I have tried many Sazeracs with cognac and they are quite lovely. But with an overproof cognac, they are a revelation. Still, though it is not a true historical representation, using a mixture of cognac and rye creates a marvelous drink that has been a mainstay of my cocktail rotation. Much as the way that the cognac and rye play off each other in a Vieux Carre, the same is true in other incarnations. The rye dries out the more sweet cognac. The cognac balances the spicy rye. If you are using both an overproof rye and an overproof cognac, beware--this drink is hefty. But if your palate can handle the heat, it is worth it. Of course, give it a couple extra turns with the ice to make it balanced. Just because a recipe calls for an overproof spirit does not mean overall balance should be sacrificed. These overproof spirits are intended to be diluted in mixed drinks. The wonder comes from the way that they can retain their flavor in the face of other ingredients as well as the weight of water.

Prescription Sazerac

1 ounce rye
1 ounce cognac
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
1/2 ounce simple syrup
3 dashes (or so) Herbsaint

Combine ingredients except Herbsaint in a mixing glass half-filled with ice. Stir and strain into a chilled old fashioned glass rinsed with Herbsaint. Express lemon oils and discard peel.  

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, High West rye, Herbsaint Legendre, and a 1:1 simple syrup. 

Pink Sidecar
While the Sidecar was created sometime in the 1920s, it grew to popularity during the dark days of Prohibition. While certainly a lovely drink, the Sidecar grew into a quick slurp on the road to drunkenness. Even when a sub-quality cognac is used the lemon juice and orange liqueur easily mask it--and that is not counting that pesky sugar rim that would be added to the recipe in the 1930s. It would be easy to discount this cocktail as yet another get-drunk-quick drink, but there is more behind its pedigree than meets the eye. Many stories point to the Continent as the locale of origin, making the cocktail not one put together in the murky dens of ill-repute that proliferated in American speakeasies. Classy drinks could still  be found abroad where many American barmen emerged with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. But regardless of these creation myths, the Sidecar was always a drink I wanted to love. It was after all my first classic cocktail. And with such notorious cocktail luminaries as David Embury elevating the drink as one of the most basic drinks that every host should know, I always felt like I had missed something. Of course even he says that the Sidecar "is the most perfect example I know of a magnificent drink gone wrong." Embury takes the path most appropriate for one who only has access to standard proof cognac--he bumps up the booze and dries it out as much as possible and omits the sugar rim (8 parts cognac, 2 parts lemon juice, 1 part Cointreau). Once I tried the standard recipe with overproof cognac, I was floored and understood why this cocktail has been around for almost 100 years. This revelatory experience pushed me to experiment further, and I found that other liquors also created amazing results.

Pink Sidecar

2 ounces cognac
1 ounce pamplemousse rose
3/4 ounce lemon juice

Combine ingredients in a ice-filled shaker. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. 

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac and Combier pamplemousse rose.