Monday, September 23, 2013

Mixology Monday, September 2013: SMOKE

Rock on! It's Mixology Monday! [cue the theme song!]

This month's edition is hosted by Elana of the très très chic Stir and Strain (seriously, it's like My Little Ponies dancing on your eyeballs in the best way possible - do go check out her marvelous and beautiful creations!). The theme? Ideal-for-the-season (and a great companion piece to last month's theme) SMOKE.

From the announcement post:
They say where there’s smoke, there’s fire– it isn’t necessarily true if we’re down to the smoldering embers, but, well, they say it anyway. In our case, where there was fire, now there’s smoke, and it’s time to stoke your enthusiasm for the next challenge.

Smoke has been everywhere this past year, from liquors to lemonades, to the hills here in Southern California(!); smoke in its many forms has been front page news.

For me, smoke is also a transitional element: it symbolizes the last summer bonfires, sitting around the fire pit making s’mores, and the start of the fragrant crackles from the fireplace announcing that fall is coming.

For September’s theme, I’d like to see how you interpret smoke. With your liquor or ingredients? Your glassware? Will you whip out a chemistry set to transform your cocktail into ghostly vapors? Do you own a home smoker, still in the box, that’s never been used? Well then, you’re welcome. Unpack those ideas and let’s set off a couple smoke alarms this month for MxMo.
When active, this link will send you to the summary post of this month's festivities.

This is a recipe I've had in the back of my mind since about May or so, when I first discovered fresh oregano. I quickly learned the herb is generally better-used dried - you won't get as much flavor as you might like if you muddle it fresh in a drink. So, with that little ditty on the backburner, when the Smoke theme came up the idea and image of oregano smoke sparked renewed interest ('cause dried oregano infused into spirits seemed more spaghetti western than straight western, knowwhatImean?).

But why stop at oregano smoke? I had also considered doing another western-y sage smoke cocktail, but the ingredients for that one are still out of sight in the ether... Oregano's all well and good, but what about some sage too? And maybe some homemade dried bitter orange zest for balance? And some wormwood while we're at it.. And and and...

How about Vermouth Smoke?

Originally dubbed The Melancholy Heart of the Ancient Desert, maybe something a touch less dramatic was in order for all the mixed herbals involved. Elana's one to post a song of the day on Twitter, and I've started doing a once-monthly #FridayMuse series beginning with MxMo hosting duties last month, so a song seemed in order. I had thought to perhaps name the sage smoke cocktail after a similar-themed song, Horse with No Name by America, but that name was already claimed. Second best, The Distance by Live, off one of my favorite albums The Distance to Here, also worked well. The transformative smoke fit just right with the message.

Let's go to the recipe:

The Distance
1 oz Buffalo Trace bourbon
1 oz añejo tequila
3/4 oz tawny port
vermouth smoke (recipe below)
1 small sprig oregano planted in a bourbon cherry for garnish

Stir the first 3 ingredients on ice.

On the lightest heat possible, gently heat the vermouth smoke tea in a tin pie plate or similar on the stove or hot plate. Collect vermouth tea fumes (even lighter than regular smoke - you want to avoid char scent and flavor in favor of the vaporized essences of the herbs you use) in a jar for several minutes. AVOID IMPATIENCE, YOU'LL MESS IT UP.

Strain the cocktail into your smoke container, swirling for 15 seconds or so.

Immediately pour into chilled cocktail glass.

Add garnish.

  • This is one of those cocktails that turned out almost-right the first go-around (a 1/4oz less port and it was just right). The original mix prior to the smoke is pretty good itself: buttery toffee, agave and warm bourbon, with port's depth. The Distance starts a little jumbled as the smoke integrates itself, but as you get into your sips, the alchemy takes over. It's difficult to say when you get beyond the initial nose, but shortly after you find a sip on your palate you swear was either vermouth or a cocktail made with vermouth. The vanillas in the barrel-aged spirits and the bit of cherry from the garnish add to the impression, but so do the herbs and the orange zest too. It seems a deeper sort of flavor melding than even, say, the emergent-unique-flavor of a Manhattan, probably because of how the smoke binds it all together into something new. As a bonus, the nature of smoke itself dries the cocktail out, and the slight bitterness of the herbs negates a need for a dash of bitters. (any herbals would get in the way of the smoke effect, frankly)
  • I would avoid a Smoking Gun here because that would require actually burning the tea - it's great for various types of wood smoke, but would blunt more delicate aromatics.
  • There's something wonderfully westernly world-weary about Buffalo Trace - it's like bourbon imbued with the dry dust on the hooves of its mascot. If you've got a bourbon like that, by all means, but otherwise I recommend this particular one. I used Don Julio añejo and Sandeman tawny port, but use as your preferences and availability allow (though a nice black pepper note on the port would be quite good here).

Vermouth Smoke Tea
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp dried sage
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
10 dried rosemary needles
1 petal star anise
1 nickel-sized (1.5 cm diameter) piece of dried bitter/sour/Seville orange zest, chopped
1 small pinch dried wormwood
1 small pinch dried centaury

Grind all into a tea with a mortar and pestle.
By all means, omit wormwood if wary of it.

Cheers to Elana for a delicious theme and for hosting, and to Fred of cocktail virgin slut for the cat (and possibly marsupial)-herding!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sunset of September Seventh

Back last summer while prepping for the Smokemont, I made a delightful purchase of rare/offbeat fruit preserves from Smoky Mountain Farms. In addition to Smokemont's huckleberry, I also picked up bottles of mayhaw and scuppernong jellies. Leaving aside the mayhaw for now, the state fruit of North Carolina is a whiter, muskier form of muscadine grape, whose earliest cultivar may be the "Mother Vine" from Roanoke Island. The scuppernong had this mild wine-like early-autumnal taste perfect for this moment in the season.

My thoughts instantly drifted to some form of Sour cocktail, a natural when using jellies or other preserves, possibly with cognac to match or maybe woody and orchard-fruited Dad's Hat* rye whiskey. I couldn't decide, so I split the spirits, noodled around the edges, and came up with something just right for this very moment.

* any other rye whiskey is going to be a step away from tthe intended result, Dad's Hat being quite distinct in its own way.

Sunset of September Seventh
3/4 oz Dad's Hat rye whiskey
3/4 oz cognac (Ferrand Ambre)
1/2 oz reposado tequila (Cazadores)
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz scuppernong jelly
1/4 oz Drambuie
5 drops Fee Bros. black walnut bitters

Shake all on ice - hard.

Double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

No garnish.

I first should note that the honor of doing a scuppernong jelly Sour goes first to B. T. Parsons for his Scuppernong Sour, from his Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All (itself a riff on Jamie Boudreau's Marmalade Sour). The germ of SoS7 was already in my mind when I got the book last fall, but it fell off for awhile until I checked on a misremembering and found his version used bourbon and egg white. That was great motivation to keep going and add in some tweaks to help this drink further stand on its own (though I did borrow the extra 1/4 oz sweet from his structure - I think the jelly's pectin negates some of its sweetness, or at least my jar's did. YMMV.).

I had started with a classic 2 : 1 : 1 structure for this sour with rye and cognac, but the base spirits seemed a bit overwhelmed by the sweet and sour elements. So I pulled both of those elements back while adding a third base, buttery highlands reposado tequila to help dry it further (but not overmuch that the agave note would stick out like a sore thumb). And these mods pretty much made the cocktail.

The overall flavor is an emergent one, but depending on the sip you get those hints of agave, or a wash on palate and nose of maple syrup and birch wood from the rye and bitters, or perhaps a view down to the copper horn of cognac on which everything rests. The egg white seemed like so much gilding with everything else going on, so I omitted it - but the jelly's pectin adds a lovely body. The scuppernong flavor itself is mild and mellow, but it dominates in its own way. I added the Drambuie instead of simple syrup to help keep with the overall "golden" aesthetic, and it helps round edges with faint herbs and scotch-smoke where they would otherwise be flat.

You get a little bit of summer in the glass from the lemon and tequila, while slowly moving into autumnal flavors with the cognac and rye. Shake up a glass for yourself today and toast the rays of gold falling on you and the ever-darkening shadows. This is the best time of year.