Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Mixology Monday, January 2013: Fortified Wines

Happy Mixology Monday, everyone!

The mighty Jordan Devereaux of Chemistry of the Cocktail hosts this month's MxMo event - giving us the ever-enlightening theme of Fortified Wines:

Fortified wines began, in large part, as a way to deal with the difficulties of shipping wine long distances in the holds of sailing ships. Without the rigorous sterilization that is possible today, wines would often spoil en route. However, increasing the alcohol concentration to around 20% ABV was enough to keep them from going off… These wines held an important place in.. punch and have continued on in cocktails proper.  [These wines include] sherry, port, and, to a lesser extent, madeira and marsala, all find their way into various mixed drinks… They can play many different roles – from taking the place of vermouths in classic drinks, to providing richness and sweetness in winter tipples, to serving as a base for lighter aperitifs. Whether forgotten classics or new creations, let’s see what you can put together.

When active, this link will send you to the summary post of this month's festivities.

Goodnesses, this was an educational MxMo. Before this month I'd only had/worked with sherry once, out of the many fortified wines listed in the prompt. I honestly found the palo cortado so-so: the quality was evident, but there's only so much nuttiness I can stand - maybe there was some slight salinity in it enhancing those notes too. That and the way sherry has been especially popular in the last few years made me curious about lesser-used Madeira. So, I figured this would be a grand opportunity to start in on my education on that particular spirit.

Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia (Malmsey). And Rainwater, a style offshoot of Verdelho. Those are the primary varietal names you'll see with Madeira, listed from driest to sweetest, respectively. There are blends as well, and vintages too. But in the circumscribed confines of MxMo, I chose to focus on the drier styles and challenge my sweet-leaning palate with Sercial and then Rainwater -- and managed to come up with some rather enjoyable cocktails with both.

With Sercial, I started out playing around by adding brown spirits (bourbon, rum, armagnac) and either PAMA pomegranate liqueur or a homemade blood orange cordial plus Angostura bitters and possibly dashes of amaretto. (Blandy's 5 year Sercial LOVES Angostura). The drinks turned out decently, but it was hard to highlight the Sercial - and differently from the many already-established madeira cocktails (particularly of the "Creole" persuasion). But when pressed at the last minute, I happened upon a golden combination:

The Light Will Guide Me
1 1/2 oz Irish whiskey (Clontarf Black Label)
1 1/2 oz Sercial Madeira (Blandy's 5 year)
1/4 oz Benedictine
5 drops Urban Moonshine citrus bitters
1 dash Dr. Adam's Aphrodite bitters
lemon zest

Stir all on ice to chill and dilute. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a swatch of lemon zest.

The lone true-hearted sailor drops anchor on a distant verdant and lush island: one with a fortifying spirit. Now he sits in his cabin watching the late afternoon sun stream gold through his chalice on the fine wooden furnishings. He knows his course is true, blessed even. Lemon, vanilla, grain, and the faintest hint of sub-tropical mystique: he feels the hands of his angel on his shoulders, and she presses towards the Isle of Light.

Many of the madeira recipes described over at Cocktail Virgin Slut (and many thanks to MxMo coordinator and CVS blogger Fred Yarm for keeping things up and running, at that) are interesting for the equal ratio given between the madeira and base spirit. All the better to taste both, surely, so, I started with that. My instinct was to try to think of the fortified wine as one would a vermouth, but given the lack of herbal thrust tried to make that up via the Benedictine and bitters. Sercial is especially difficult to mix with (note the lack of recipes using that particular varietal, and, I was constantly thinking to myself "why mix with it when it's so perfectly balanced [between nutty sweetness and dry acidity]?!"): it either dominates or gets lost in the mix. Here, the acidity is naturally ever-present, and here and there the nuttiness pops through in a sip and is a delightful surprise.

Curious enough, instead of using the bitters to bind, I wanted that bitterness to crash through and break things up: give some flavor variation on which the other spirits could better make themselves known. The Urban Moonshine citrus urged a general trend towards citrus (Clontarf has some interesting tropical notes like passionfruit and pineapple to boot), but with a spare astringency that would work against the madeira's body which dampens individual flavor notes. A more complex bitters like Aphrodite further helps break things up while pulling forth the madeira with coffee and chocolate notes.

Furthermore, in the last week or so I was noodling around on another side project trying to come up with some drink names for ingredient combinations that were skewing very soft, feminine and youthful (but with off-the-top-of-the-head names like "Baby Blocks", perhaps a little too youthful). Well, I stumbled onto a naming convention that allowed not just 3 recipes but nearly a dozen more, and with that idea giddiness came this writes-itself recipe, perfectly timed for MxMo:

Raindrops on Roses

2 oz Lillet Rose
1 1/2 oz Rainwater Madeira
1 oz grappa
2 dashes Dr. Adam's Teapot bitters
grapefruit zest garnish

(like the pic shows, I used Miles Medium-Dry Rainwater Madeira & Alexander Grappa di Cabernet)

Stir all on ice to chill and dilute.

Strain into a champagne flute or sherry glass.

Garnish with a thin grapefruit spiral, or if you really want to get fancy, a rose made of grapefruit zest.

  • This one comes together especially well, with some fascinating rose-like qualities emerging from the various ingredients. And, I'm happy to have it inaugurate the My Favorite Things project this year (if you think about that for 5 seconds, you know exactly what the other 12 cocktail names will be, though I'm still coming up with worthy ingredient combinations: and yes, somehow there will be a Schnitzel with Noodles). 
  • I tried an earlier version with pisco instead of grappa and there's a world of difference: the pisco merely added weight in a grape-spirit-minded way, but the grappa lets you know it's in charge here (probably a good thing because the pisco version was a tad too easy to drink). The thing that strikes me about using grappa is how its weight and general flavor tone remind me so much of the characteristics of a large weighty tea rose, further enhanced by the other ingredients.
  • Rainwater Madeira truly does match your mental image of the spirit: it has a soft dewy body, which dampens the acidity a shade, though it's still noticeable -- enhanced by the Lillet and zest, no doubt.
  • Lillet Rose serves as the flavor that colors everything else going on. The Teapot Bitters add their special whimsy on the nose, and their vanilla, hazelnut and rose notes punch up to the fore those elements in other ingredients.
  • Be mindful of the zest: too much for too long infusing into the drink can overwhelm with bitter acidity, though just enough brings out some interesting watermelon notes from its good friend Lillet.