Friday, August 24, 2012

Homemade Usquebaugh

One late night last winter, I thought to myself: there need to be more cocktail recipes featuring plain-jane brandy: not cognac, not armagnac, not pisco: humble, common, brandy. The kind that features in old-time medicine with draughty houses and much more exposure to the elements. Just a wee nip before bed and the endless strivings of the day melt away to bring peace.

Now granted, I've learned since that it's difficult to mix with the spirit unless you want dessert drinks - its sweetness makes it difficult to achieve balance otherwise. Still, I played around in the key of orange for a few months, trying to figure a new way to take it, researching researching researching.

When I read this. Then this. And this. Then, hello, this.

Usquebaugh. Depending on who you ask, "yellow water" (for the often-added saffron) or the Gaelic uisce beatha - water of life - the same root from which we get whisk(e)y.

Now, scratch someone into mixology and you're liable to find an alchemist's outlook underneath. The power of simple things in themselves, becoming so much more in combination. The secret scientific art of knowing how to combine. Old Medicine from before the Great Dissolution. So Usquebaugh? Nope, nothing there my four elements-meditating, Dioscorides-browsing self would find utterly fascinating. Nuh-uh.

This is less of a formal recipe rather than a recording of what I did for this one batch and a hub for other resources for your own experiments. If the above-linked recipes offer any insight, it's that Usquebaugh is an entirely to-taste matter, though it's possible for you to strive for historical accuracy if you like. The general principles for Usquebaugh appear to be: brandy, dried fruit, citrus zest, baking spices, saffron (for the "yellow water" definition). Really, much like European variations on fruit cakes, anything delivered from medieval spice trading routes appears to be fair game.

Cocktailian friends: I'm kinda curious to see if anyone out there would beat me to the punch and do a barrel-aged variation - some of those old recipes do say to mix in a barrel, after all.

MoD's Usquebaugh, take 1

33g raisins
1 date, sliced, pitted
1 peel, seville orange (approx. 6g)
2 peels, kumquat
2g stick cinnamon (approx. 1/2 stick)
3 petals star anise
1/4 tsp coriander, cracked
3 whole cloves
1 allspice berry
1 pinch saffron or dried safflower

Infuse all but the saffron in a mason jar for 10 days. Keep out of the sunlight in a dark cool cupboard and shake a few times a day. After 10 days, strain out the solids and add saffron. Infuse for 2 more days and then fine strain through a coffee filter and bottle. Stick back in the dark cool cupboard and forget about it for a few months, if not longer.

  • Albeit the spirit is young on the scene and I've only been working with it for a few months, Rémy V may be something worth swearing by - at least until it has direct competitors in the "white dog" brandy category. Brandy is the typical base spirit in Usquebaugh, and I wanted something unaged to let all the ingredients hold forth without oak influence. For that same reason the spirit is also a wonderful base for berry cordials.
  • As you might notice in the recipe, I didn't include any sugar. The dried fruit contributed a fair amount of sweetness by itself, so I let it go. One downside: pectin clumping. Nothing a quick re-strain can't fix, though.
  • What I'd do differently next time? I made this during my "star anise is NEAT!" phase. Not so much anymore. For this small amount of Usquebaugh, I'd limit the star anise to 1 petal, tops, and replace the remainder with cracked sweet anise seed. A little more even-keel, with classic anise notes.
  • Overall, the taste reminded me a lot of Sailor Jerry. Nice.