"The Sunday Mercury says that if you are at a hotel, and wish to call for a beverage compounded of brandy, sugar, absynthe, bitters and ice, called by the vulgar a cocktail, ask for une queue de chanticleer-it will be an evidence at once of your knowledge of French and of Chesterfield."
- The New Orleans Daily Picayune, February 2, 1843, p.2
[Transcribed by David Wondrich, October 2008]
World Cocktail Week might be over, but that doesn’t mean it is forgotten!
Our good friend Natalie Bovis-Nelsen over at theLiquidMuse.com has had plenty to say about it. She kicks things off with her "World Cocktail Week Begins Today" post on May 8th, follows that up with "World Cocktail Week Continues in Los Angeles", and continues to report on our LA festivities with "Who’s Got Spirit" which focuses on the involved celebrations by The Doheny in downtown LA.
So stop by the Liquid Muse and get a little cocktail inspiration of your own!
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Some of you already know about this, but for others, this might come as a bit of a surprise. Angostura is coming out with "orange bitters’… and SOON.
But before I get to that (don’t worry, I’ll spill the beans by the end of this post), let’s cover a little background first to get everybody up-to-speed. Here is a little bit about bitters that was published in "The Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book", by Albert Stevens Crocket from 1935:
BITTERS – Beverages containing alcohol, together with a component for cathartic effect. Best known varieties: Angostura, made from the bark of a South American tree; Calisaya, synonymous with cinchona or quinine, also of South American origin; Orange; Boonekamp, made in Germany; Boker’s, Amer Picon (which a stenographer rendered for me "American Pecan"); Hostetter’s, West Indies, Pepsin, Peychaud (formerly made in New Orleans); Fernet Branca, etc. So named from the usual bitter taste.
Elsewhere in that same book he says:
"…Bitters of one kind or another was considered a necessary ingredient of most Gin cocktails. The favorite was Orange Bitters, which appears in something like one hundred different recipes."
This particular book was published right after American Prohibition ended, and is based upon the bar book that had been in use by the Waldorf Astoria before prohibition hit. During the time of Prohibition, the Waldorf Astoria hotel was torn down to make room for the Empire State Building.
After Prohibition, things changed drastically. A few bitters survived this terrible time, Angostura being primary amongst them. The others that survived (which I am aware of) were Peychaud’s bitters, Abbott’s bitters, various folks who produced orange bitters (or re-started production), and Fee Brothers, who survived prohibition by manufacturing products which could be used in non-alcoholic drinks.
Over time, the notion of adding bitters to a cocktail gradually fell away, with fewer and fewer customers requestiong them, or bartenders adding them, to their drinks. Today, we are at a point where the only common drinks which you might still find bitters used in are the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Champagne Cocktail.
Time was however, when by its very definition, anything known as a "cocktail" would include bitters. Yes, even the Martini was properly made through the use of bitters, and specifically through the use of orange bitters.
When I first started getting into cocktails, the ony bitters I could find were Angostura bitters. As I read up more and more about the history of the cocktail however, I became intent on finding the various other bitters which were being listed for various other drinks. Eventually I found some Peychaud’s bitters, but it was orange bitters which I really wanted to track down. And I wasn’t the only one, this is the time when the classic cocktail was gradually seeing the glimmer of a resurgance.
Eventually I came across Fee Brothers out of Rochester New York, who appeared to be the only remaining company that manufactured orange bitters. I also came across a recipe for "orange bitters #4" in "The Book of Bourbon" by Gary Regan, this recipe prompted me to try making a batch of orange bitters myself. I then found some bottles of full Abbott’s bitters on eBay and scarfed them up. Gary Regan eventually was able to bring his orange bitters to market, although by this time it had gone into revision #6. I have since acquired a few different bitters that are manufactured in Peru, for the use in their famous "Pisco Sour", some friends over in Germany are manufacturing bitters (aromatic, orange, lemon, and Boker’s) in small batches under the name "The Bitter Truth", and the Suntory company in Japan makes an orange bitters under their "Hermes" label.
My quest for bitters led me to attempting to re-create Abbott’s bitters, and my early experiments ended up with a product that was different from all of the bitters I have tried so far, and thus was born what I refer to as "House Bitters" (others refer to them as "Hess Bitters") the recipe for which was just recently published in "Imbibe" magazine.
One of the things that really sunk home for me as I was doing my various experiments with bitters, is that Angostura bitters rocks. It’s rich complexity along with its overall flavor balance, really can do wonderful things to cocktails when properly utilized. It is no surprise that of all the pre-prohibition bitters, it came out as almost the sole survivor.
The bitter landscape has radically changed in just the last ten years. Where once there was only a single noteworthy bitters available, today there around a dozen different ones which can be found if you look hard enough, add to that some of the bars across the country which have taken to making their own bitters (The Zig Zag Cafe, Vessel, and Licorous here in Seattle, No. 9 Park in Boston, Pegu club in New York… just to name a few). Overall however, bitters is still the unsung hero of the cocktail. Their might be small and dedicated pockets of "cocktail geeks" who really get into using bitters in their cocktail, but the general public, and even the average bartender, is still clueless when it comes to the value of bitters.
Imagine my surprise then on a recent trip to London, when I am asked to sample two different possible recipes for a new orange bitters that is looking at coming onto the market. The bottles were distinctly unlabled Angostura bottles, and a glance and a nod indicated that this indeed was the company behind this new product. These bitters had the complexity and balance of flavor that I had come to appreciate in Angostura, but with the subtleness that is appropriate for a bitters that is indended more for gin cocktails than it is for whiskey.
Now I knew the who and what, but the burning question remained of "when". Within a year or so was all I could find out.
Recently I had heard a variety of rumors that Angostura’s new bitters would be coming out fairly soon. Some were saying in a month or so, others were saying in the fall. I decided to take the bull by the horns and today got in contact with Patrick Sepe, the CEO of Angostura Spirits & Wine here in the US. As it turns out, Angostura Orange Bitters is set to be officially announced THIS WEEKEND, at the National Restaurant Associations annual show in Chicago. The plan is then to role out the product for nationwide distribution in late June or early July, with it expected to be available through every location that regular Angostura bitters is within six months.
The role out is going to be accompanied by both a marketing campaign aimed at raising the awareness of the importance that bitters can play in both cocktails and cooking, as well as a focus on getting bartenders to re-discover the cocktail craftsmanship that was common place prior to Prohibition. Angostura USA will also get it’s own website, so that not only will information on it be more appropriate to an American audience, but it will also make it easier for contact, sales, marketing, and product information to be distributed quickly and efficiently.
I am very excited about the potential of having Angostura enter the orange bitters market, It may be just the shot in the arm that we have been needing to move the classic/culinary cocktail out of the small pockets of devotees that it has today, and into a larger audience of customers. Joe Fee over at Fee Brothers, and Gary Regan, are both very good friends of mine, and while on one hand it might seem that Angostura orange bitters might be biting into their sales, I fully expect that what we will see instead is that everybody will see higher sales. Not just Joe and Gary, but I expect that Angostura’s original aromatic bitters will also see higher sales, since there will be an increased awareness of bitters overall, which will increase in it’s use across the board.
The next battle? Improve sales of vermouth by getting people to realize that a great Martini can be made by using a lot more vermouth than is commonly seen used today… and of course a dash of Orange Bitters!
I have been highly remiss in my duties. I’ve been working so hard at helping with various aspects of the upcoming "Tales of the Cocktail" (July 18 to 22nd at the Hotel Monteleone), that I haven’t taken the time to tell any of you anything about it.
To begin with, Tales of the Cocktail is a wonderful event that takes place each year down in New Orleans. It is essentially a conference all about spirits, mixology, and cocktails, with a little bit of New Orleans flavor tossed in for good measure. The audience is a broad mix of people including restaurant owners, bartenders, and ordinary people who just have an interest in learning more about quality cocktails.
The event is described as:
Tales of the Cocktail: a culinary and cocktail festival for the connisseur or amature, to fully experience (taste, see and learn about) cocktail culture in New Orleans and around the world. The event’s annual components are Spirited Dinners, seminars, Cocktail Hour, Cocktail Lunceons, walking tours of the French Quarter, and classic and contemporary cocktail parties — all presented by the country’s hottest chefs, authors, bartenders, an cocktail experts.
The speakers at this event are essentially a "who’s who" in the culinary and mixology world. With such notables as Tony AbouGanim, Ted Allen, Kevin Brauch, Dale DeGroff, Ted "Dr. Cocktail" Haigh, Gary Regan, Julie Reiner, Audrey Saunders… and that’s just the tip of the iceburg.
There are a wide array of different types of events that will be going on. Some events are free, but many cost around $35 to attend (many sessions include cocktails being served). You can purchase a "Founders Day Pass" for $485, which essentially is an "all you can eat" ticket. You’ll pre-register for 8 seminars, and then be able to get into any other seminar (that isn’t already sold out) once you get there.
Some of the major events are:
Cocktail Hour – Where attendees get a chance to meet many of the authors of famous cocktail books, purchase copies, get them autographed, as well as sample each author’s and mixologists signature cocktail and collect their recipes.
Spirited Dinners – Many of New Orleans most famous restaurants hold a special dinner on Thursday night, with a fixed menu that has been carefully paired with individual cocktails by the attending authors and mixologists. The dinners range in price from $65 to $85 per person. (FYI: If you want to come to the dinner that I will be doing the cocktails for, sign up for NOLA!). The restaurants participating this year are:
- 7 on Fulton
- Bombay Club
- Bourbon House
- Café Adelaide
- Café Giovanni
- GW Fins
- House of Blues
- Rib Room
- La Cote
- Louis XVI
- Mr. B’s
- NOLA ( <– That’s mine!)
- Palace Café
- Pelican Club
Raising the Bar – A special series of seminars specifically targeted at the professional mixologist to help them advance their overall knowledge and understanding of cocktails and cocktail service.
Ask The Experts – A casual lunchtime gathering of many of the guest authors and mixologists to allow attendees to ask any questions they might have on a variety of related topics.
The Bar Chef Challenge - In the vein of "Iron Chef", this event will test the abilites of several mixologists as they work against the clock to come up with a cocktail which best utilizes the "secret ingredient".
Tales of the Cocktail Spirit Awards Ceremony – The "Oscars" of the cocktail world, this event will present a wide range of awards for notable accomplishments and abilities related to food and drink.
Movie Night – A chance to get a brief seminar about the important role that cocktails often play in movies, before the showing of the classic "Thin Man"… cocktails will of course be served.
Tasting Room – With the various products on the market it can often be difficult to have a good understanding of what each one is, and what it should be used for. The Tasting Room will be a regularly scheduled series where the producers of various products will have the opportunity to describe their product to attendees and in many cases allow them to sample as well.
The Seminars – At the heart of Tales of the Cocktail, are the large number of seminars and panel discussions which will be presented. Here is hopefully a full listing of the seminars being presented, I’ve marked in bold the ones that I will be hosting so you can be sure not to miss them!
- Revolution to Evolution: The story of the American Cocktail
- Drink in History: THe Napoleon House – New Orleans Greatest Saloon
- Lost Ingredients: Obtaining (or making) rare ingredients for even rarer cocktails
- On the Rocks: The importance of Ice
- Spirited Women Past and Present
- The Cocktail’s Family Tree
- The Martini
- Rum’s Punch – A spirited view of rum’s rise, fall, and return
- Drinks and Dishes Born in New Orleans
- Rum Balls and Other Spiked Food Items
- Sake To Me!
- Enter the Distologist
- Johnny Appleseed, Hard Cider, and Applejack – The Spirit of Americana
- The History, Oddities, and Eccentricities of Galatoire’s
- From Glen to Glen, exploring the making, the magic and the myths of Scotch whisky
- South American Spirits
- How to Conduct a Home Tasting
- From Farm to Glass
- Prohibition’s Shadow
- Aromatics and their uses in Cocktails
- American Rye Whiskey
- Cocktail Culture Around the World
- Cocktails and the Blogosphere
- History of the Cocktail
- South of the Border… Down Mexico Way
- Wine Based Cocktails
- Tiki Drinks – From A to Zombie
- Cocktail and Film
- Party like a Pro
- Spirits Glass Tasting with Georg Riedel
- The Mint Julep: Its History and Celebration
Oh, and I’ll also be doing some filming for future episodes of "The Cocktail Spirit" for Small Screen Network down there as well.
I always have a great time down there, and I’m sure you will to!
As previously mentioned, I’m involved with a new project for producing videos that will hopefully help expose folks to cocktails and mixology. We did the filming for this a couple months back and are now starting to post the episodes up in a "one-per-week" schedule. The first two episodes are now available, so be sure to check back later to see how this project progresses!
Episode 1: Cocktail History and the Champagne Cocktail
Episode 2: Stocking your bar and the Last Word
The Cocktail Spirit with Robert Hess
Cocktail History and the Champagne Cocktail
Stocking your bar and the Last Word
This last weekend we headed out to my "still under contruction house" and got the bar all set up and filmed about 30 episodes of an upcoming "web show" that I am going to be hosting called "The Cocktail Spirit". This will be one of the first (of hopefully many) different shows being offered by "Small Screen Network".
You can see a segment from a "Pilot" episode we filmed a few months back on a beta version of their website here: http://www.SmallScreenNetwork.com, with our new episodes hopefully ready to be posted on a weekly basis starting the end of March. The original pilot was filmed with the notion that it would be a half-hour show with guests that I’d be serving drinks to and discussing the overall process and concepts of cocktails. We decided after the pilot to take a slightly different approach, and go for shorter episodes (about 7 minutes… although some still ended clocking in at 20 minutes or more!), and to just have it be me talking straight to the camera/audience.
My intent with this show is to try to raise the awareness of people to the culinary value that cocktails can play, and to see them as far more than just an alcohol delivery vehicle. I discuss history, methodology, construction, quality ingredients, proper recipes, and sometimes even creative enhancements. I try not to get overly fancy or fussy with how I make the drinks, but instead just focus on showing how just about anybody can make great drinks, using great ingredients.
The first few episodes that will air will cover "The History of the Cocktail", "Stocking Your Home Bar", "The Basic Tools of the Bartender", and "Your Cocktail Library", we’ll then run through episodes in which I breifly touch upon each of the six base spirits (Brandy, Gin, Rum, Tequila, Whiskey, Vodka), plus episodes on Bitters, and Champagne. Some of the drinks that I’ll be showcasing are the Last Word, Champagne Cocktail, Caipirinha, Champagne Flamingo, Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Bloody Mary, Opera, Sidecar, Jasmine, Martini, Daiquiri, Floridita, Margarita, Rosita, Whiskey Sour, Kir Royale, French 75, Harrington, Cosmopolitan, Mojito, Pegu Club, Black Feather, Frostebite, Irish Coffee, Moscow Mulse, and even an episode on Abisnthe.
Each episode was basically shot fairly "off the cuff" (ie. no scripting or rehearsal), and there were only a couple of times where we eneded up needing to stop camera to re-shoot. In one particular case, I ended up getting into a bit of pontification and forgot to add the last ingredient to the drink. When we finally stopped, one of the cameramen pointed out that I still had something in my jigger… Duhooo! So we did a quick pickup shot to show me pouring that into the mixing glass… but if you watch carefully you should be able to pick out the episode where this happens. I’ll leave it up to you to find it!
Once these episodes are posted, and we start getting some traffic, we’ll listen to the feedback we get from all of you and will use that to make any adjustments to the overall show when we film the next set of episodes sometime in the Fall.
Hopefully, you will enjoy the show, and perhaps I’ll have some things to say that you’ll find interesting, if not educational, about cocktails and mixology.
Here we’re getting the lighting all set up and checking the camera angles to make sure we can properly get all of the action:
I brought along a "mascot" to keep me company on the set. If you look closely, you should periodically be able to see him in some of the episodes:
I mixed up a LOT of drinks, and the crew seemed to always find enough time to at least take a sip of each one. They claimed it was quality control, but I think they were just glad I was doing a "Cocktail" show, and not one on vetrinary medicine.
It often seems like I travel a lot. When I’m not traveling as part of my day-job at Microsoft, I’m traveling for my “night-job” as a Cocktail Evangelist. I enjoy both of these occupations a lot, so it really doesn’t seem so much like work. It shouldn’t be surprising then to learn that I really don’t make it a habit of taking time off for “vacation” trips.
I did just get back however, from an honest to goodness vacation. It was, as you might expect however, slightly related to my involvement in the world of mixology and cuisine.
Some good friends of mine, Anistatia Miller, and Jared Brown, who are cohorts in my cocktail adventures, annually take a vacation in the United Kingdom where they rent out property that is part of the Landmark Trust. This is an organization which buys up old (and often in heavy need of repair) buildings of historic importance. They then fix them up and turn them into vacation houses which people can rent out and stay in. Landmark Trust shouldn’t be confused with the National Trust, which is an organization which similarly purchases historic buildings, but they open them up for tours instead.
This year, the property they chose was the Old Campden House, in Chipping Campden. The property once was home to a very grand house, which was built in the early 1600’s only to be burned to the ground in 1645 by the Royalists during England’s civil war. All that remained on the property were some of the ancillary buildings, which over the centuries fell into sad shape. The Landmark Trust purchased these buildings and after a lot of renovation opened them up for use.
There apparently is a strange “mystery” surrounding the Campden House property, which has been come to be known as the “Campden Wonder”. It occurred in 1660, when William Harrison, the estate manager headed out for Charingworth. When he failed to return, a search began, and eventually turned up a hat, shirt, collar, and comb which apparently belonged to Mr. Harrison. The worst was feared. Eventually John Perry, who worked for Mr. Harrison came forward and confessed to having killed Mr. Harrison. He later also implicated his mother and brother in the deed as well. They eventually were tried, and found guilty, and later hung. The “wonder” however, comes in the fact that two years later, Mr. Harrison walked into town, claiming that he had been abducted by three men and shipped to Turkey and into slavery. Why John Perry would have confessed to a crime he obviously never committed, was never discovered.
The buildings on the property include the East and West Banquet Hall, the Almonry, and the North Lodge. The Banquet Halls are the two most impressive buildings, although still relatively small. They were apparently designed for diners to have their repast while looking back onto the main house, which would have candles lit in every window, presenting a beautiful and elegant spectacle.
With the rooms available, we had sleeping for up to 10 people maximum, and by renting a couple of additional rooms at the 8 Bells Restaurant and Pub, we could get up to 12. The core group consisted of just myself, along with Jared and Anistatia. During the course of the week however, we had a rotating group of additional visitors who participated in our festivities. These consisted of Nick Strangeway (from the “Hawksmoor” restaurant in London), along with his girlfriend Claudia; Dre Masso from the Worldwide Cocktail Club; Nick Blacknell, from Beefeater gin; Sasha Petraske, from Milk & Honey in New York (and London); Simon Ford, from Plymouth gin; and Adrian Hodgkins, a beer aficionado and good friend of Anistatia’s from Oxford, along with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. Essentially we had a group of folks where every single one of them was either directly associated to food, drink, or both, so it should be no surprise that we had a wonderful time.
We started out in London for two nights, where we had a chance to watch the extremely exciting darts finals (trust me, it was indeed exciting!). On the drive up to Chipping Campden, we made a stopover in Oxford, where we met up with Adrian for a couple pints at the Turf Tavern, which dates back at least to the 1200’s. From there, we continued on to Chipping Campden, and the Old Campden House. After figuring out who would stay where (I in the West Banquet Hall, Anistatia and Jared in the East Banquet Hall), we struck out onto the town to see what it had to offer, finishing off with dinner and a couple of pints at the Eight Bells.
The next day, we started prepping some of the food that we would be cooking over the course of the week, including a brace of four ducks which Anistatia marinated in a honey glaze and then hung in the fireplace to age for a couple of days before we would cook it. We eventually discovered that the Lygon Arms had wireless internet, and so we had to briefly stop in so we could do a quick checkup on e-mail and such. The only downside of this was that in order to get access to the wireless, you had to buy a pint of beer. Did I say downside? What was I thinking!
On an adjoining property, there was a small flock of sheep that were grazing, and on one occasion they discovered a hole in the fence around our property which allowed them to get over to our property and into the fenced in area that surrounded the East Banquet Hall. It was then up to Jared and myself to figure out how to properly motivate the sheep into heading back down a narrow stone stairway, and through the hole in the fence back to their own pasture. In the process they decided that they liked the little terrace that was alongside the building.
When Nick Strangeway showed up (along with Claudia and Dre), he brought with him a huge goose, as well as a bone-in brisket which was absolutely fabulous. When Nick Blacknell and the Hodgkins arrived, we kicked things into full gear and started pulling out some of the various spirits and such, and started doing some experiments with various cocktails. Pomegranates, quince jelly, blood oranges, oak infused gin, various scotches, tequilas, and vodkas, homemade rhubarb syrup, and a broad assortment of bitters would be brought to bear as we tried one drink and then another… unfortunately, I think we were too busy tweaking the various libations and so nobody remembered to actually takes notes on what we ended up with.
Sasha then showed up, in his typically dramatic fashion, by knocking on the door of the East Banquet Hall just as we were finishing our main course. It should be noted here that the property is surrounded by a tall wall, which is designed to keep out trespassers, and Sasha really didn’t know exactly how to find us. As luck would have it, when his train arrived in another town, and he called for a driver, he just happened to get a driver who not only knew exactly where Old Campden House was, but he also owned the sheep which often grazed on the property, so he knew exactly how to get into the property, and which building we would probably all be in. Leave it to Sasha.
Many of the pubs in Chipping Campden appeared to carry Hook Norton beers, usually their “Hooky Bitters” and their “Double Stout”. We were also right in the middle of where Donnington Brewery distributed their beers, and so part of our adventures were to seek out a few of their pubs to try this special brew. One of the places we found was the Farmers Arms, where we not only had several pints, but some great food and conversation as well.
At the close of our visit, Simon Ford finally made it in, but unfortunately after all of the rest of the group had taken off. By this time however we welcomed the more relaxed pace which this afforded. We then headed back to London Heathrow, where I boarded my flight back to Seattle, while Anistatia and Jared stayed on for a couple days before they would head back to New York. All in all, a great trip.
Now with a houseful of mixologists, it should be no surprise that we not only spent a lot of experimenting with cocktails, but also in discussing the state of cocktails and spirits in London, America, and the world. Many of us are involved in the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Worldwide Cocktail Club, as well as various bars and restaurants. Sharing information at this level, and in this sort of environment proves to be extremely useful for helping us all get a better understanding of where things are going, as well as who is going there. The fact that we also had some representatives from both Beefeater and Plymouth in attendance allowed us to also discuss how and where these spirits could and should fit into the overall equation. It was interesting to hear about their various marketing and distribution approaches, as well as where they felt they needed to go in the future. Anistatia and Jared say that each year their little “vacations” move closer and closer to turning into an “industry” event… I can only imagine what next years will be like!
I love checking out new bars, especially ones that might show promise of actually doing things right. But I also get a bit of a sick pleasure out of checking out bars that just really don’t get it, but think they do. I stopped by Qube the other day, expecting for it to be one of the latter. Why? Because they apparently feature a $15 Cosmopolitan on their bar menu, the high price is because they use "Ultimat" vodka, which here in Washington State goes for $56 a bottle. I bet they couldn’t tell the difference between a Cosmo made with Ultimat, and one made with Smirnoff.
Like I said, I was "expecting" Qube to be a dissapointment. But they weren’t. They really showed some promise with their cocktails, and even the general knowledge and ability of the bartender. When I ordered my Old Fashioned, he asked me if I wanted it with bitters or not, and bemoaned along with me those sad few who prefer it without. Their appetizer menu featured a nice collection of "Sticks" (Satay), as well as various other asian inspired fair (apparently prepared in French fashion). I went with the Salmon Tartare, which I thought was quite wonderful and flavorful.
Eventually, the bartender and I got into a discussion about their "infamous" Cosmopolitan, and he quickly assured me that all of the bar staff was opposed to it, and were petitioning the management to get it off of the menu. It can’t come off soon enough in my mind, such a menu item has no reason to exist.
I plan on checking back with the folks at Qube over the coming months to see how they are going, they do have some work ahead of them to bring things up to what I would consider a "Quality" bar, but they do show promise.
1901 Second Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
Those who know me may be a little surprised to see me actually saying something favorable about a vodka. To clarify, it’s not so much that vodka is evil incarnate or anything, but that the general publics over-facination with such a totally non-descript product doesn’t do my culinary sensibilities any good. The masses are attracted to vodka for two very specific reasons.
1) Their "young" palates haven’t yet acquired a taste for the other spirits (brandy, rum, gin, tequila, whiskey). The distince lack of significant flavor of vodka allows it to add alcoholic effects to any drink, without actually forcing them to encounter unexpected flavors.
2) They fall prey to marketing hype and/or peer pressure. Smirnoff Vodka made great inroads by getting James Bond to always order a vodka Martini and have that bottle of Smirnoff strategically located on-screen. Smirnoff has given way to Grey Goose, Belvedere, Chopin, Stoli Elite, or one of the various other brands out there, but in truth, when mixed as a cocktail, it really is hard to tell one from the other once you get into the premium brands.
Flavored vodka on the other hand starts moving things into slightly more interesting territory. And I’m not talking about the "citrus", "vanilla", "raspberry", or "green apple" flavors either. I’m instead refering to the flavored vodkas that might be introducing you to slightly unexpected flavors.
First there was Charbay and Hangar One which introduced people to not only distinctively fresh flavors, but sometimes slightly unique flavors as well, as in Hanar One’s "Mandarin Blossom", or Charbay’s "Green Tea". Gradually, the general public is getting the idea that their spirit can actually have flavor in it.
I was recently sent a sample of a new vodka coming to the market, "Herb’s Aromatic Vodka". This series of four different vodka relies on the flavors of Fennel, Dill Leaf, Rosemary, and Cilantro to provide both unique and subtle flavors to their vodkas. While any one of these can be used to simply make a vodka martini, and result in a more unique flavor experience than plain vodka ever could, I think the real value of these flavors is in tasking culinary bartenders/mixologists into coming up with drinks that specifically incorporate their flavors into new drinks as opposed to simply switching them in to already established cocktails.
On the Herb’s website they provide a few example cocktails:
- Rosemary vodka, with cranberry juice and grapefruit juice.
- Cilantro vodka, with lime juice.
- Dill Leaf vodka, with creme de cassis and soda.
- Fennel vodka with triple sec.
Which, while perhaps good "training wheels" to introduce folks to their new flavors, while retaining some semblence of other vodka drinks they might be familiar with, such attempts fall short of being representative of the potential.
As a personal challenge I took it on myself to attempt to build up a few simple cocktails which I felt played upon some of the specific flavor qualities presentd in these different vodkas, and perhaps also represent slightly new overall cocktail flavors for many.
Here they are, and as of yet unnamed:
Dill Leaf Cocktail
- 2 oz. Herb’s Dill Leaf Vodka
- 1 oz. Lillet Blanc
- 1/2 oz. yellow Chartreuse
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.
- 1 oz. Herb’s Rosemary Vodka
- 1 oz. dry vermouth
- 1 ounce brandy
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.
- 1-1/2 oz. Herb’s Fennel Vodka
- 1 oz. Dubonnet
- 1/2 oz. Lillet Blanc
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.
- 2 oz. Herb’s Cilantro Vodka
- 1/2 oz. lemoncello
- 1/2 oz. dry vermouth
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.
My sincere hope with these new vodkas, is that they allow people to take the next step in cocktail appreciation, which revolves around truly undestanding and appreciating the culinary potential of the cocktail, and to discover how a drink which is artfully designed to draw together several different flavors can be far better then "yet another" Lemon Drop.
To me, vodka is till just vodka. It is the "entry level" spirit that can provide new drinkers with the introduction to what cocktails are all about. Vodka does represent craftsmanship and art in it’s distillation, and plain vodka does have a place in the cocktail landscape, just not a very big one. Flavored vodkas can raise the steaks a little further, by providing the mixologist (and the customer) with an ingredient that has more value then just the cleanliness of the alcohol. Herb’s Aromatic Vodka represents what I think is the next step in this flavor journey, and is worth spending some time with. After all, gin is really nothing more than a flavored vodka anyway.