It’s the most wonderful time of the year. At least that is what Andy Williams led us to believe with his 1963 hit song from “The Andy Williams Christmas Album.” And I will let you in on a dirty little secret. I agree with Andy. Summer is great, but in terms of holidays, it does not get much better than Christmas – a holiday that centers around love, giving, friendship and sacred traditions. And beyond that, there is nothing quite like the Christmas season, with its evocative smells of pine boughs and warm spiced cider, crackling fires, cold rosy cheeks, twinkling lights, grandma’s homemade peanut butter fudge, and an endless supply of heart-felt tunes. If you believe the Christian narrative about Christmas, (and even if you don’t) Christmas is a very spiritual time as well. The shared experiences of Advent, love, family gatherings, gift-giving and music are all spiritual. But this season is a “spiritual” time for another reason as well, which is the premise of this column – spirits!
I love to extend and receive hospitality. My primary fascination with and passion for all things food and drink is socially spiritual. I love the beautiful ways in which community unfolds around good food and good drink that is shared with good friends.
My hope is this column inspires you to branch out and try new things – good things – and that you are encouraged to dive into the wet and wonderful world of spirits. In the process, I intend to convince you that you like many libations you have never tried or even heard of, and that a well-crafted cocktail is not simply a means to an end, but a deliciously profound way to extend hospitality and create community. That is my burden of proof.
Spirits is a catch-all that refers to distilled beverages that are typically between 70 and 120 proof (35-60% ABV) – think whiskey, gin, rum, tequila, brandy and vodka. Spirits also include lesser-known distillates common in Latin America such as pisco, cachaça, mezcal, and seco. This column will focus primarily on cocktails, but from time to time will deviate from its “spiritual” roots to explore wine and beer, which are not technically spirits because they are not distilled, but do make for some riveting cocktails.
For our inaugural discussion of spirits, I have chosen two drinks, the French 75 (and a slight variation that hints at another drink called the Kir Royale) and an original creation I have named Joe the Plumber.
The French 75, named after the French 75mm field-gun of 1897, is classic prohibition-era concoction that first appeared in Harry MacElhone’s 1919 book, “Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails,” credits bartender MacGarry of the Buck Club in London with the drink. And, like its namesake artillery, it packs a wallop. But enough history – you want to know how to get this goodness inside of you:
1 ounce gin
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup
2-3 ounce chilled Champagne
To build the French 75, combine gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a Boston shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously for 10 to 15 seconds. Double strain with a Hawthorne and fine-mesh strainer into a chilled cocktail glass or an ice-filled Collins glass or Champagne flute. Top with Champagne.
The combination of base spirit, citrus and simple syrup is foundational to all sour drinks, such as the sidecar, margarita, and whiskey sour. If you top the drink with club soda instead of Champagne you have yourself a Tom Collins. Another great French drink, the Kir Royale, is simply made by combining Champagne and crème de cassis (black currant liqueur). The Kir is named after French war hero and priest Canon Félix Kir. (See, cocktails are spiritual in more ways than one.) Instead of ringing in 2015 with a Champagne toast, I recommend the French 75. And if you want an especially compelling drink with a beautiful rose-colored hue that is sure to impress, take a hint from the old French priest himself and substitute at least half of the simple syrup with black currant liqueur or Chambord, a delicious black raspberry liqueur. It promises to be the best New Year’s toast you’ve ever had!
At this point a brief explanation of ingredients and method is in order. All the cocktails we will discuss that use lemon or lime will call for fresh squeezed juice. Bottled juice from concentrate will do in a pinch but there is no substitute for fresh citrus. Your mouth (and your guests) will thank you. Simple syrup is exactly what it sounds like: a simple syrup made of equal parts water and sugar. I recommend making this ahead of time because you need to use hot water to dissolve the sugar fully and then should let the syrup cool so that it does not warm your drink – for cocktails anything less than ice cold is a big no-no. Double straining is not necessary but will improve the mouthfeel and consistency of the drink by removing excess juice pulp and any shards of ice that splinter off in the shaking process. Lastly, if you walk into any bar you will find a variety of opinions about shaken drinks and stirred drinks. Let’s set the record straight. As a general rule, if the drink contains only spirits, as is the case with a martini and a Manhattan, it should be stirred to keep the drink silky smooth. If someone tells you that a martini should be shaken, they’re wrong. If the drink contains non-spirit ingredients likes eggs, cream, or juice it should be shaken to incorporate air into the drink and give it effervescence and a nice frothy texture.
Let’s get spiritual again. My Joe the Plumber cocktail is another great winter warmer that’s a variation of a general category of drinks called “flips.” Jerry Thomas wrote the first guide to making flips, so named because of the frothy texture created by the use of eggs, in his 1862 cocktail book “How to Mix Drinks.” In this drink, the egg, cream and bourbon marry wonderfully with the subtle dark cherry and chocolate notes of the port and coffee liqueur. I like to think of this drink as the aftermath of a vigorous fight between eggnog and a dark chocolate covered cherry. Let the games begin:
Joe the Plumber
1 ounce bourbon whiskey
1 ounce port
1 ounce coffee liqueur
¾ ounce heavy whipping cream
1 whole egg
2 dashes bitters
Dry shake the egg and cream in a Boston shaker without the other ingredients for 20 to 30 seconds. A whisk ball works great for this but isn’t necessary. You can also beat this in a small bowl with a wire whisk. Either way, this initial dry shake/whisking is important to froth the egg and cream sufficiently, thereby making it possible to emulsify the other liquid ingredients in your final shake. Once you have a good frothy texture. Add the bourbon, port, coffee liqueur and bitters, and fill with ice. Shake again vigorously for an additional 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled eggnog glass, or preferably an Irish coffee glass, and dust with freshly ground nutmeg. The shaking is hard work but well worth your sweat and tears. Clark Griswold and Cousin Eddie would be so proud.
The burden of proof is now yours -- go make a good drink for a good friend. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!