I am a big fan of do-it-yourself cocktail projects. I find it incredibly relaxing to roll up my sleeves, throw on an apron, and break down fruits and vegetables. Maybe it's the physicality of actually working with my hands, maybe it's that I can escape into a totally different state of mind--I'm not sure it really matters. Regardless of why, I savor those moments surrounded by sieves and sugars, funnels and high-proof spirits. I don't even mind the time investment of larger projects, the daily shaking and tasting. There's something about this type of creative process that is both soothing and stimulating
When it comes to the process though, I often find that no recipes exist for what I want to make. Occasionally I can find an adequate guide where only simple substitutions are necessary. Mostly I just figure it out on the fly, and try not to focus on the results. What else it there to do when you want to make a hops liqueur, cook up some apricot shrub, or even try your hand at a celery root infusion? The crazier the project seems, the more likely I am to try it. Without a detailed recipe, at the very least Ill gain some valuable experiential knowledge. The end result isn't always important, sometimes it is the journey that makes all the difference. '
Besides storage, which is a huge problem on its own, the largest issue I have with making nontraditional cocktail ingredients is what to do with them once they're finished. Something like apricot shrub, or any other shrub for that matter, is pretty easy, but other things can be more difficult. I'm still not really sure what I was thinking with that celery root infusion. Usually miscellaneous syrups end up sitting in the refrigerator door, and countless infusion experiments have already overrun one closet and overflowed directly into boxes housed under my desk. Jars and bottles labeled with masking tape litter our house, half-forgotten and gathering dust.
Inspiration came most recently in the form of cilantro syrup. I had this great idea for a cocktail, or at least I had this great idea. In practice, not so much; the flavors just wouldn't come together. Eventually I figured out that it was a monumental fail, but I still had almost six ounces of syrup left. What now? I started easy--herbal cilantro with herbal gin in a refreshing silver fizz. Perfect, but that only used 3/4 ounce. I could always whip up a batch of cilantro lemonade, cilantro limeade, or even cilantro Italian soda. I wasn't finding too much inspiration there. But then I was talking about cilantro with Anna from twosheetsinthewind and she told me about her success pairing cilantro with Batavia Arrack. As luck would have it, I not only happen to love Batavia Arrack but I also own a bottle. What a glorious suggestion it turned out to be.
Dry shake ingredients. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a chilled sour glass or double old-fashioned. Garnish with a few drops of Angostura on the foam.
As I leaned in close to the Angostura-tinged foam, the aroma of the arrack and the cloves met me. I could also detect the scent of something vegetal, which I assumed was the cilantro. I was immediately impressed by how smooth the texture was. While this was in no way surprising--it does have an egg white in it after all--it was very pleasant. The peppery funky taste dominated the entire drink from the beginning to the end, though the lemon was just as strong. The egg white did soften it and smooth out the flavors in general, but the arrack was still a very strong presence. All the better for my palate--I love arrack. Initially, I was having trouble detecting the cilantro beyond the smell. The lemon and arrack were just too powerful. But as I drank more, and the drink warmed up, it became more pronounced. So much for thinking the cilantro syrup was too delicate. By the end, each sip started with more vegetal notes and then segued into the peppery spiciness of the arrack. The aftertaste was of course dominated by the arrack, but the sourness of the lemon lingered as well. This drink was extremely very refreshing and crisp, with the arrack providing a solid base for the other flavors. Anna was right--cilantro and the arrack do go very well together.
I have been craving citrus. It's a sure sign of spring. Almost every year without fail, once the sun starts to stick around more, for about a month or so everything I make or order has citrus juice in it. After a long dark winter, it seems natural to rebel, to distance myself from all those earthy, rich brown spirits. Mind you, I never really stop drinking barrel-aged spirits, I just drink them differently. For example, in the heart of January I wanted a Toronto, but now I am making Blinkers and Volsteads. The transition may seem extreme, but crazy things happen when the sun finally decides to come out. And who are we to doubt our cravings.
Cravings are weird things to consider. Completely intuitive, instinctual even, they link us to our animal selves. Most people probably don't even think twice about it--what they really want deep down. They just order without thought. But we all know that amazing feeling of wholeness when we truly satisfy a certain craving maybe that we didn't even know we had, or that feeling of utter disappointment when nothing on a menu seems exciting or even remotely interesting. For the past two years, I have been tracking my cocktail cravings. It changes how you think about yourself on more than one level. I have learned that I am almost completely predictable. But I've also learned that no matter how much time I've spent keeping track of the patterns, and not just the easy seasonal ones, I still couldn't tell you what I would want to drink at any particular time. Each time I sit on a stool, or browse the Internet looking for a recipe, the entire process is just as unconscious as before.
We have these ideas about ourselves and our tastes, but if we look closely how much do we really understand? How well do we really know ourselves? It's such a subjective question that it almost seems silly to even posit. If someone asked me what I usually drink in the winter, I would have said without hesitation mostly rye and bourbon. Then I really sat down and checked. While it was true that I did drink primarily rye and bourbon, that's not all I found out. This year I also had a momentary fling with scotch-based cocktails. And very frequently I found myself sipping on a cocktail that starred a barrel-aged rum or tequila. And I did quaff quite a number of Old Tom Martinez cocktails. So, what does it all mean? Maybe it means that what I crave in those dark winter months has nothing to do with whiskey, and everything to do with vermouth, or maybe just all things brown, bitter and stirred. It is hard to know for sure.
One thing's for certain, a craving can turn just as fast as the weather. Just as once my mind was full of whiskey, now I find myself pulled toward limes and lemons, grapefruits and oranges. And the flip side of all that citrus is the sweetener. I, at least, can't have one without at least a little bit of the other, whether that means a liqueur or syrup. Just because I found myself biting into my lime wedge garnish the other week, doesn't mean that it was completely satisfying. Balance is best, and syrups provide so many options. For instance, I have this cilantro syrup that goes marvelously well with citrus. It's very tasty, but also very subtle, and therefore needs a well-chosen drink to properly showcase its flavors without overpowering them. I chose the Silver Fizz and was tremendously pleased with the results: delightfully smooth, crisp and herbal. It was exactly what I wanted, and that kind of surprised me as well.
1 1/2 ounces gin 3/4 ounce lemon juice 3/4 ounce cilantro syrup 1 egg white 1 ounce club soda
Dry shake ingredients. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a chilled Collins glass. Top with club soda.
Notes on Ingredients: I used No. 209 gin because of its herbal complexity.
1/4 cup loosely chopped cilantro
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Combine sugar and water in a medium saucepan, stirring initially to dissolve sugar. Bring to a simmer for about a minute. Remove from heat, add cilantro, and cover. Let steep for 20 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a heat-safe container and let cool to room temperature. Optional: Add one ounce vodka as a preserving agent. Store in the refrigerator.