Monday, May 25, 2009

Amer Picon, Torani Amer and Amer Boudreau

Amer Picon is yet another of the "lost" ingredients popular among the cocktail crowd these days. Originally invented by Gaetan Picon in the mid-1800's, it was used to combat malaria, first by himself, then by the French Army during his time in Algeria. It contains orange peels, gentian root and quinine among other things.

The formulation changed forever in the 1970's when it went from 78 proof down to 39 proof, making it difficult to recreate the flavor profile and potency of the original version in cocktails. The new formulation is only widely available in France and is not sold in the U.S.

A number of people have set out to recreate this classic ingredient, most notably the Torani company, maker of all of those flavored syrups (their orgeat is my favorite), who market a product known simply as Torani Amer. At 79 proof, many enthusiasts proclaim this to be close replica of the original Amer Picon. And apparently things improved recently when people started noticing a distinct lack of an undesirable vegetal, celery-like flavor element, which they believed pagued this product for a long time. (I have not tried the pre-reformulated version). The reformulated version is very good with a distinct orangey nose, is fairly high alcohol, and has a nice bitter finish. It is very popular in San Francisco and anywhere with a large Basque community (e.g. San Bernardino, Fresno) where Picon Punch seems to be a cultural phenomenon.

Recently, well known bartender and cocktail enthusiast Jamie Boudreau developed an Amer Picon replica known widely as "Amer Boudreau" (recipe here) which makes use of a homemade orange tincture (dried orange peel soaked in high-proof vodka or grain alcohol), Ramazzotti Amaro (which I originally discovered while in Italy - fabulous on its own) and Stirrings Blood Orange bitters. The version I made is a little sweeter than the Torani Amer, but part of that is due to the fact that I used 80 proof vodka so the overall proof level is lower. I'll use a higher proof vodka or Everclear for my next batch.

As far as cocktail recipes, three that I really like are provided below. I discovered the recipe for the Brooklyn Cocktail in an article in Imbibe magazine titled "Gone but not Forgotten" about defunct and lost ingredients.

The Picon Punch recipe is adapted from the recipe in the book aperitif by Georgeanne Brennan. There are a lot of variations on the Picon Punch recipe - many do not use lemon juice at all, but only the peel as the garnish. Some omit the soda. I like both in there. It is an amazingly refreshing cocktail and you can increase or decrease the amount of soda quite a bit without diminishing the enjoyment of this beverage.

The Liberal cocktail recipe is from CocktailDB and makes use of rye and orange bitters. It's similar to a Manhattan but with an extra orangey flavor profile in the background. I'm increasingly becoming a fan of the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond (BIB) rye whiskey, which I recommend in this cocktail. While I gave it low marks on its own during a recent rye tasting, I've found that it brings out an extra dimension in mixed drinks (especially when paired with Carpano Antica Formula vermouth) and is fast establishing itself as a standard for me in the Manhattan.

Brooklyn cocktail
2 oz rye or bourbon (Sazerac Rye)
3/4 oz dry vermouth
1/4 oz Amer Picon (or substitute)
1/4 oz maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)
Add ingredients to a mixing glass with ice, stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a marasca cherry.

Picon Punch
1 1/2 oz Amer Picon (or substitute)
1.5 tsp grenadine (homemade)
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
1 tsp brandy
soda water (~2-4 oz. depending on level of refreshment desired)
Add ingredients except brandy to a large-ish wine goblet, top off with soda, add lemon twist and float the brandy.

Liberal Cocktail
1 1/2 oz rye or Bourbon whiskey (Rittenhouse BIB)
1/2 oz sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica Formula)
1/4 oz Amer Picon (or substitute)
1 dash orange bitters (Regan's)
Add ingredients to a mixing glass with ice, stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a marasca cherry.

Final Notes - The currently available forms of Amer Picon - Torani Amer and homemade "Amer Boudreau" are enjoyable base ingredients for a number of interesting cocktails. The Torani Amer is inexpensive and readily available ($10.99 at BevMo) and makes a delicious Picon Punch among other things. For those of you enamored with the idea of making your own spirits, the "Amer Boudreau" is fairly easily made and delicious as well - similar but slightly sweeter. So pick up or make a bottle of Amer and find out what it's all about for yourself.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Green Chartreuse

I finally hit a critical mass of interesting looking mixed drink recipes using green Chartreuse and had to get myself a bottle. My first experience with green Chartreuse was many years back; after reading a rave review of the spirit in Wine Enthusiast by the spirits editor F. Paul Pacult, I bought a bottle for my brother as a Christmas gift. I tried it at least a couple of times and was fascinated by its complex herbal flavors.

Chartreuse is made by Carthusian monks, who apparently got the recipe for the stuff back in 1605 at the Chartreuse Monastery located in the Chartreuse Mountains. Chartreuse comes in many forms. Yellow, which is lower in alcohol and sweeter, the aforementioned green, which clocks in at 110 proof, VEP (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé) versions of both yellow and green which are aged extensively in oak casks and are very expensive, and finally the Elixir Végétal, supposedly the original form of the spirit which comes in a handsome lathe turned wooden case, is 142 proof, and is not available in the U.S. (and is thus very interesting to me).

Green Chartreuse is excellent on its own, ice cold. It is high in alcohol, but has a light sweetness and an overwhelmingly complex herbal flavor. It is made with 130 herbal extracts. Think of an herb and you'll probably find it evoked in this liqueur.

A number of cocktail recipes can be found which make use of green Chartreuse. Just search CocktailDB and you'll find over 50 recipes. I picked a few from CocktailDB and other sites which seemed especially interesting.

Of note is the Chartreuse Swizzle which is excellent and makes use of Falernum and swizzling - some recent favorites of mine. This recipe came from Marco Dionysos (of Harry Denton's Starlite Room in San Francisco) and won a Bay Area Chartreuse drink recipe contest in 2003. A recipe I found on the internet calls for a garnish of mint and nutmeg. The mint is key, but I am eschewing the nutmeg as I have a strong association with it in rich creamy winter concoctions such as the egg nog and brandy Alexander - which makes it out of place in this drink for me. As for the Falernum, I used Taylor's Velvet as the Fee's would be too sweet in this with the pineapple juice. Also this drink is great with 1/2 to 1 oz. of white rum added if you find it too sweet.

The Swamp Water is also delicious and can be found on the menu at Los Angeles's preeminent Tropical Bar, the Tiki Ti.

The Last Word cocktail is an old-timer, dating from at least before the 1930's, but not widely known. The original recipe calls for equal parts of the ingredients, but as usual I find the Maraschino overpowering and reduced it a bit, while upping the gin a hair.

The St. Germain and the Green Ghost looked the most interesting among the CocktaiDB recipes. The St. Germain is a bit odd, but I like that it's not too sweet, nicely tart and has a nice rich egg white foam. It appears I'm becoming a big egg-white-in-cocktails fan. The Green Ghost is likewise very dry with the Chartreuse more in the background of the gin.

The Last Word
1 oz. green Chartreuse
1.25 oz. gin
0.5 oz. Maraschino liqueur
1 oz. lime juice
Shake ingredients with ice cubes in a cocktail shaker and strain into a cocktail glass.

Swamp Water
1.5 oz. green Chartreuse
5 oz. pineapple juice
lime wedge
Combine in a highball glass with cracked ice. Squeeze lime wedge and stir.

Chartreuse Swizzle
1¼ oz green Chartreuse
½ oz falernum (Taylor's Velvet)
1 oz pineapple juice
¾ oz lime juice
Swizzle with crushed ice (stir until frost forms) in a tall glass. Garnish with a spring of mint.

St. Germain
1 oz. lemon juice
0.5 oz. grapefruit juice
1 egg white
1.5 oz. green Chartreuse
Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker and dry shake (i.e. without ice for 10 seconds). Add ice cubes and shake like the dickens for about a minute. Strain into a cocktail glass.

Green Ghost
2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. green Chartreuse
1/2 oz. lime juice
Shake ingredients with ice cubes in a cocktail shaker and strain into a cocktail glass.

Final notes - Green Chartreuse is a complex and tasty herbal liquor. It is excellent on its own - in fact many believe it to be a waste to use it in mixed drinks at all. I do like Chartreuse on its own, well chilled, but also find it can make an excellent cocktail when paired with the right ingredients. Among the cocktails listed above, my faves are the "long drinks", the Chartreuse Swizzle and the Swamp Water, in that order. They're on the sweet side, but the flavors combinations are amazing. All are definitely worth a try.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Happy National Pisco Sour Day, Chile!

According to Wikipedia, today is national Pisco sour day in Chile. In celebration, I've made a few of this venerable cocktail using various recipes. I really like this drink.

Pisco is a south American spirit that is produced from grape juice, namely Muscat, Torontel and Pedro Jiménez varieties in Chile, and a long list of varieties in Peru. It is similar in flavor profile to grape brandies that I tasted while in Italy. Also according to Wikipedia: In modern times, it continues to be produced in winemaking regions of Peru and Chile. The drink is a widely consumed spirit in the nations of Bolivia, Chile and Peru. The right to produce and promote pisco has been the matter of legal disputes between Chile and Peru, both of which hold their most iconic cocktail to be the pisco sour. Apparently Peru already celebrated their national Pisco sour day in February.

I've chosen the Chilean version of this drink in deference to my good friend Marcos whose family hails from Chile and provided me with the critical element to this drink - the Chilean Pisco. (Capel brand). I can remember being at his house in junior high or high school and his parents mixing up a batch of pisco sours for guests at a midday party in their backyard. Too young to drink at the time, I can still remember the festive atmosphere that accompanied the preparation, serving and consumption of this beverage.

A number of recipes abound. Some use egg whites, some don't. Peruvian pisco sours usually come with bitters (Peru native Amargo Chuncho brand preferred, but Angostura will do), but Chilean sours mostly do not. I've gathered from some reading that the Chilean version tends toward the simpler side, with the egg white and bitters being considered unnecessary adornments for this delicious cocktail. Marcos's mom uses egg whites in her recipe and I really like the silky texture that results, so I'm including them in mine, but the drink is still delicious without them. Also, she does not use bitters so I'm leaving them out despite my current predilection to use Angostura bitters in everything (beverage-related and otherwise). She recommends rimming the glass with sugar.

Also, citrus selections also vary by locale. In Peru, it is traditional to use limón de pica (thorny lemon), which is apparently similar to Key lime or West Indian lime in the U.S. The typical citrus used in the Chilean Pisco sour is lemon.

Ratios vary. The formulation that I present below is the result of some experimentation - I like a strong citrus character balanced by sweetness. The recipe included on the bottle of Pisco wasn't my favorite (3:1:1/6 Pisco:lemon: sugar) My base recipe uses lemon exclusively, but I've also found that a little lime works very well. Try it and decide which best suits your taste.

Finally, regarding the preparation method, either a blender or shaker will do the job and give you a nice texture with a lot of dense foam. The shaker method works better for a small batch (one or two cocktails) but definitely requires a good deal of elbow grease in order to generate a meringue-like foam. The blender is better for larger batches. Either method, when done properly, yields a good result. I've added a scant pinch of salt to bring out some additional flavor (yes it makes a subtle difference).

The result is a smooth and tangy drink with the nice grape flavors of the Pisco. So head to your local liquor store, buy yourself some Chilean Pisco and celebrate national pisco sour day! Discover what a delicious drink this is if you haven't already.

Pisco Sour (Chile)
3 oz. Pisco (Chilean brand such as Capel or Alto del Carmen)
1 1/2 oz. lemon juice (or 1 oz. lemon, 1/4 oz. lime)
2-3 tsp. sugar (scant Tablespoon, Baker's superfine)
1 egg white (or not)
scant pinch salt
8-9 ice cubes (shaker) or 1/4 cup cracked ice (blender)

Shaker Method) Add ingredients except ice to shaker and dry shake (i.e. sans ice) vigorously for about 10 seconds to emulsify. Add ice cubes and shake vigorously for about 1 minute or until your arms give out (resting every 20-30 seconds is ok). Strain with a Hawthorn strainer into a sour glass or footed goblet rimmed with sugar (I used a Riedel Vinum Port glass)

Blender Method) Add ingredients to blender except ice and dry blend (i.e. blend sans ice) for a few seconds to emulsify. Add ice and blend for 10 seconds pulsing, if required, to blend ice. Strain with a Hawthorn strainer into a sour glass or footed goblet rimmed with sugar.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Batavia Arrak and Swedish Punsch

For my birthday, I got a bottle of Van Oosten Batavia Arrack among other interesting Haus Alpenz products. I've been wanting to try this sugarcane and fermented red rice-based spirit due to its long history of use in punches such as the famous Swedish Punsch.

According to Wikipedia,

It is the "rum" of Indonesia, because--like rum--it is distilled from sugar cane. It is a pot still distillation, a type of still which was influenced by the Chinese, who brought the distillation process to Indonesia.

To start the fermentation, local fermented red rice is combined with local yeast to give a unique flavour and smell of the distillate. It is distilled to approx. 70% alc. vol. Like rum, Batavia Arrack is often a blend of different original parcels.

It should be noted that "Arrack" is a generic term for eau-de-vie in parts of the world, and Batavia Arrack bears no relation to Sri Lankan Arrack or Lebanese Arrack. Also of interest, Batavia Arrack is stored in teak vats, which undoubtedly provide some of the unusual flavors found in this spirit.

On its own, Batavia Arrack smells like rum, but with a distinct woodsy smoky note along with a distinct floweriness. It's not exactly something that I would want to drink straight, but it's quite interesting - unlike anything I've tasted, so comparisons are difficult. As previously mentioned, it's most commonly used in cocktails, most notably punches, with the most famous being Swedish Punsch.

The history of Arrack in Sweden dates back to 1733, per Wikipedia, when the Swedish East India Company starting importing it to Gothenburg. Since that time, it has held a prominent place in Sweden's drink heritage, mostly as a base for punsch. Originally served warm, once commercial versions starting appearing in around 1840, it became more common to serve it chilled.

Swedish punsch combines Batavia Arrack with lemon, tea, sugar and sometimes other spices such as vanilla, cardamom and nutmeg. A number of commercial versions are available, but none in the US at this time. The brand Facile has been planning a launch of their punsch in the US this Spring, but their website is out-of-date and it is uncertain when it will arrive. Also, there has been some word that Haus Alpenz will be introducing a Punsch to the US this summer. Cocktail bloggers everywhere are trembling in anticipation.

For my first punsch, I've chosen a recipe that I found posted on the TikiCentral Forum by Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz.

According to Eric, this is an adaptation of a commercial recipe for Swedish Punsch, and quite close to the Facile Punsch (I haven't tried the Facile punsch yet, but am eager to try).

Punsch "Josephine" Liqueur, 375ml @ ~24%
180ml Batavia Arrack
100ml Water
135g Sugar (Bakers)
3/4 tsp Natural Vanilla Extract (Trader Joe's)
6g Tea Leaves (Assam; equiv to 2 typical teabags)
Peel from one lemon, fresh ground cardamom (I used nutmeg)
Prepare the cardamom: open the pods and crush the seeds. Either add to loose tea leaves or, if you want minimal sediment, place into a tea bag/sachet. Prepare the tea with the cardamom and lemon peel - by this amount it should brew to twice normal service strength. After 4 minutes, remove the cardamom, tea leaves/bags and peel and mix together with the sugar, stir until syrup-like, then add the Batavia Arrack and vanilla. Give a quick stir to further dilute then immediately bottle.

Another recipe that I will most definitely try in the future is from Erik Ellestad's Underhill Lounge blog here.

The Swedish Punsch is intriguing. Despite the fairly heavy use of lemon peel, tea and vanilla, none of these elements are really conspicuous in the punsch. The Arrack is noticeable, but it has been significantly softened by the other ingredients. There is a little bit of a wet-dog smell thing going on here, but I'm not finding it offensive (really). This is good, but again, I'm not sure if I would really drink this on its own. Searching CocktailDB, I came across a number of recipes that sounded good and served as a starting point for experimentation:

Bombay Cocktail (Swedish Punsch, lemon juice)
Boomerang Cocktail (dry vermouth, Swedish Punsch, Bourbon or rye whiskey, lemon juice, Angostura bitters)
Diki Diki (apple brandy or Calvados, grapefruit juice, Swedish Punsch)
Doctor Cocktail (Swedish Punsch, Jamaican rum, lime juice)
Havana (apricot flavored brandy, Swedish Punsch, London dry gin, lemon juice)
Pooh Bah Cocktail (Swedish Punsch, white rum, gin, apricot flavored brandy)
Waldorf (Swedish Punsch, London dry gin, lime or lemon juice)

Tasting Notes -
Bombay Cocktail - wonderful combination of the punsch with the lemon. Could even use a little more lemon for tartness.
Boomerang Cocktail - Bourbon sort of covers up the flavors of the Swedish Punsch resulting in a sweet and fairly uninteresting beverage.
Diki Diki - did not make due to lack of Calvados at this time.
Doctor Cocktail - excellent with the dark rum (used Lemon Hart) still shows a lot of Swedish punsch flavors with nice tartness from the lime.
Havana Cocktail - way too sweet. Not what I want in a cocktail
Pooh Bah Cocktail - I love the name and the feeling of being a Grand Poobah, but the cocktail is merely ok. Better than the Havana but still a little sweet and lacking tartness for balance
Waldorf Cocktail - still on the sweet side, but with the extra lemon/lime juice (used 1 oz lemon, 0.5 oz. lime) a much better balanced drink. Very nice.

Final Verdict -
I like Batavia Arrack - mostly as an ingredient to Swedish Punsch - which I like mostly as an ingredient in cocktails. I can't really see drinking the Arrack or the Punsch on their own. As far as the cocktails, my top recommendations among the ones I've tried so far are the Doctor Cocktail, the Waldorf Cocktail and the Bombay Cocktail. A nice and interesting new addition to my cocktail arsenal.

**Update** - After a trip to Penzey's for some vanilla and cardamom pods, I repeated the recipe above but this time I soaked the lemon peel in the Batavia Arrack for about 6 hours instead of brewing it along with the tea. This drew a lot more of the oils from the peel and resulted in much more lemon zest character in the punsch - an improvement, IMO.