Archive for May, 2009

Bitter Lessons

Posted in Bitters, Home Made Ingredients with tags , on May 31, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

Evaluating Bittering Agents

Before I actually finish the crazy orange chocolate bitters I wrote about a while back I decided it would be worthwhile to familiarize myself with the flavor profiles of the three most commonly used bittering agents: cinchona bark, gentian root and quassia wood. Recipes for making aromatic bitters generally specify using one, two or even all three of these but they don’t talk about what qualities each brings to the mixture. I figured the easiest way to figure that out was to do a little taste testing of my own.

Three Bittering Agents

Making Preparations

The first thing I did was to create a simple tincture of three agents by themselves. Each was made the same way: 5 gm was weighed and put into 50 ml of 150 proof Everclear and left for approximately 15 days. I left the agent in whatever “natural” form it came in when I purchased it from my local herb store – e.g. the cinchona was in large chunks, the quassia in chips and the gentian in short sections of root.

Taste Testing

Once the tinctures were done, I evaluated them for color, nose and taste. Tasting was done two ways. First undiluted by putting a single drop of the tincture on the back of my hand and then licking it. Second by putting 5 drops into an ounce of filtered water at room temperature. Here are the notes:


– Color: deep copper brown-red
– Nose: earthy/sweet notes; faint cola/vanilla scent
– Taste (pure): earthy and surprisingly sweet (enough to mask the heat of the alcohol). A little drying on the palate but w/o a particularly bitter finish.
– Taste (diluted): very similar to the straight tincture with the sweetness showing up as a very mild almost nutty aftertaste.

Cinchona: bark and tincture


– Color: pale yellow
– Nose: slight woody notes, a little smoky-sweet. vaguely like licorice. Also a little bit of turpentine.
– Taste (pure): bitter but not intensely so with a hint of the sweet notes one finds in licorice.
– Taste (diluted): bitterness comes a little forward tasted this way and the sweetness is almost gone.

Quassia: wood and tincture


– Color: dark amber
– Nose: earthy/clay notes; slightly vegetal.
– Taste (pure): Intensely bitter with a very long bitter finish. The flavor of single drop persists for several minutes.
– Taste (diluted): The bitterness was even more expressed when I diluted it in water. Rather amazing.

Gentian: roots and tincture


Of the the three agents I tasted, I found the cinchona and the quassia the most appealing and complex. I am sure to try using both of these when I finish my bitters. I was particularly surprised by the cinchona, which I expected to express some of the tartness I experience when I drink tonic water. Instead I found that it showed an unexpected sweetness which stood up nicely to the heat of the Everclear. And as far at the gentian goes, I’d say the only reason to add it would be to “pump” the overall sensation of bitterness without introducing a new flavoring element.

What next?

A few days ago I filtered my chocolate orange bitters, removing the cacao nibs and the fresh orange peel I had added a few weeks back. I decided what they needed next was a dose of cinnamon, so I added a few quills and am now monitoring the flavor every day to gauge the effect. (I must say, by the way, they are really tasting pretty good at this point.) Once the cinnamon level is where I want it to be, I’ll pull that out and make a few test mixtures using my cinchona and quassia tinctures. Almost done….maybe.

[CODA: I would very much like to acknowledge Jamie Boudreau’s blog post on how to make bitters from April of last year. Reading it convinced me that my bitter components testing would be a worthwhile exercise.]


Whence “shrub”?

Posted in Home Made Ingredients, Left Coast Libations with tags , , on May 18, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

Over this past weekend I’ve had several occasions to tell people about the two shrubs which I put up (and blogged about) on Friday. Everyone asks the same thing after hearing about them: where heck does that word come from and what does it mean? I had no good answer till this morning when I finally got around to doing some serious web research. Here’s what I learned.

Our word “shrub” most likely comes from the Arabic “sharbah” (or “sharabb”) which is a syrup made from fruits and/or extracts of flowers and herbs, generally mixed with lime juice which serves as a preservative of flavor and color. This syrup is then diluted with water or evaporated milk before serving. In India this is called sharbat. Interestingly I was already familiar with sharbat as I had to research these flavorings as part of proofing Anu Apte’s recipe for the “Saffron Sandalwood Sour” just a couple of months ago. Having made sharbat and now shrubb, the case for a connection seems pretty strong to me.

Our syrup shrub would seem to be a variation on the sharbah/sharbat where the lime juice has been replaced by vinegar as a matter of practicality, I imagine, at time and place when limes would have been rare or non-existent. Exactly when sharbah/sharbat were introduced to the West is unfortunately lost in the misty “day after” of history.

Here’s a link to more information on sharbat (and sharbat recipes):

Do I Dare to Drink a Peach?

Posted in Cocktails, Home Made Ingredients, Manhattans, Stone Fruit with tags , , , , on May 18, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

A few weeks ago I attended the American Distilling Institute’s public tasting event at Hangar One in Alameda, CA. One of the more interesting things I tried was a peach whiskey made by Peach Street Distillers, located in Colorado. This was not a “for sale” product but rather something the distillers had made for themselves, a bottle of which they’d brought along as something of an “under the table” treat. It piqued my interest sufficiently to do a little research and ultimately to discover that Leopold Bros. makes a Georgia Peach-flavored Whiskey which was actually available for sale. Impressed with their other products, I decided to purchase a bottle and give it a try.

The Taste

Before talking about the taste of this whiskey, I should first mention that it is apparently produced in rather small batches and bottled several times a year. I stumbled upon this fact when I noticed that the bottle I purchased held a much darker colored spirit than the bottles I had seen on the shelf of another liquor store. Curious about these variations, I contacted Leopold Bros. by email and got a reply from Todd Leopold on this matter. Here’s what he had to say:

“The color in our fruit whiskies does not primarily come from the barrel. It comes from, as you guessed, oxidation of the fruit sugars. The longer it sits in a gas permeable barrel, the darker it becomes. So what you are noticing is the variation in oxidation levels.

“Normally, an oxidized peach is a bad thing. But when it is blended with whiskey, the oxidation of the peaches isn’t as aggressive, and leads to more interesting flavors and aromas like raisins and plums. This oxidation doesn’t occur on the shelves so much as it does in the oak barrel.”

Todd also told me that they are combining their own “new make” whiskey with the peaches and then aging this blend in used bourbon barrels purchased from Heaven Hill in Kentucky. This of course lends a lot of character to the result.

After learning all of this I decided it would be interesting to pick up a second bottle from a different batch so I could compare the two side by side. Below are my tasting notes.

Batch 08 05

The first bottle I purchased is marked “08 05” (for 5th bottling of 2008, if I understood Todd’s encoding properly). This batch (which may now be sold out) has a distinct mahogany color – much darker than the other bottling as you can see in the photo. The nose is very raisiny with earthy-peppery notes and a hint of toffee. The raisin character carried directly through into the taste, which coated my tongue and lingered for a very long time. I almost felt as if I was drinking a very old TBA riesling or fortified desert-style wine rather than a whiskey. However despite the suggestion of oxidation, there was nothing dried out or “hot” about this spirit. It’s a bit like drinking liquid fruit. Delicious!
Batch 05_05 Georgia Peach Flavored Whiskey

Batch 08 09

The second bottle I purchased is marked “08 09” (for the 9th bottling of 2008). This batch is lighter in color than the 08 05, closer to an orange-amber. The nose is also quite different as well and led with much more bourbon character, complemented by citrus peel and vanilla notes. The palate, again quite different from the 08 05, was brighter and crisper, less rich and unctuous. As sweet and fruity as it was, I knew I was drinking a whiskey.
Batch 08_09 Georgia Peach-flavored Whiskey

(Aside: I should mention that according to the Leopold Bros. website they are now also making a Rocky Mountain Peach-flavored Whiskey. I have not yet gotten a chance to try this nor have I even seen it for sale here in the bay area. I did however spy an 2009 bottling of the Georgia peach on the shelves at BevMo today.)

The Cocktails

I actually found this something of tricky ingredient to use in a cocktail. I believe that’s because its got such a broad flavor profile: sweet, sour and earthy all at once. If you use too much, it tends to dominate the drink; use too little and it tends to get lost. I concentrated on spirituous formulations and perhaps it would prove more versatile in cocktail that include juices and/or syrups.

Note that all these drinks were formulated with the 08 05 batch.

The J. Alfred Prufrock (AKA Peach Old Fashioned)

1 1/2 oz. Rye (Rittenhouse 100 proof suggested)
3/4 oz. Leopold Bros. Georgia Peach-flavored Whiskey
1 Sugar cube
2″ Lemon peel
Fee Bros. Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters

Muddle the sugar cube with 1 – 2 dashes of the bitters.
Add the lemon peel and muddle a bit more to express the oils.
Add spirits and ice (a single chunk if you have it)
Stir to chill.

Note: You need to be careful not to over bitter this drink.

J Alfred Prufrock (AKA Peach OF)
Highland Peach

2 oz. Macallan 12 y/o Single Malt
1/2 oz. Leopold Bros. Georgia Peach-flavored Whiskey
1/4 oz. Benedictine (to add a little spice)

Combine all ingredients in mixing glass, add ice, stir to chill.
Strain and serve over a large block of ice in an OF glass.
Garnish with a lime peel.

A Peachy Manhattan

2 oz. Wild Turkey Rye
1 oz. Leopold Bros. Georgia Peach-flavored Whiskey
1/4 oz. Navan Vanilla Cognac Liqueur

Combine all ingredients in mixing glass, add ice, stir to chill.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with brandied cherry.

Note: I tried making the manhattan several different ways: with red vermouth, Aperol and then with two different amari (Ramazotti and Nonino). To my palate none of these drinks were quite right. In particular, a bitter component really seems to play poorly against the dried fruit intensity of the whiskey. Even the Aperol, which generally plays well with others, seemed a bit out of place in this context.

Bajan Peach

2 oz. Mount Gay Special Reserve Rum
1 oz. Leopold Bros. Georgia Peach-flavored Whiskey
1/4 oz. Cinnamon Syrup
1/4 oz. Lime Juice

Combine all ingredients in mixing glass, add ice, shake to chill.
Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with brandied cherry.

Note: you may need to tinker with this one depending on how strongly flavored your cinnamon syrup is, as well as how sweet.

Tis’ the Season to be Shrubbin’

Posted in Cherries, Cocktails, Home Made Ingredients, Left Coast Libations, Stone Fruit with tags , , , , on May 16, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

OK…it’s still a little early in the season for local berries to be stacked in low-cost abundance on the shelves at Berkeley Bowl, but raspberries and blackberries from the good old USA are now once again available. That, plus a good dose of the inspiration I received during last night’s seminar on home made ingredients given by Neyah White of Nopa and Jeff Hollinger of Absinthe (part of 2009 SF Cocktail Week) and there was nothing more to stop me shrubbin’ today than finding the right jars.

I’d been wanting to make a shrub for a while now. It was one of very the first special ingredients that caught my eye in the original version of LCL, called for in one of Jamie Boudreau’s contributions to that book. Here’s the recipe:

Clarke’s Conundrum
Jamie Boudreau

2 1/4 oz. Rye
1/2 oz. Pedro Ximinez Sherry
1/2 oz. Raspberry/Blackberry Shrub
3 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Stir all ingredients with ice.
Strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with a lemon twist.

[Here’s is a link to Jamie Boudreau’s own write up on this cocktail and a generally good introduction to the topic of shrub.]

I of course wanted to learn more about shrubs after reading this but by the time I was done with my research (and making bacon bourbon – remember that?), berries were long out of season. Living in northern CA where juicy ripe berries can be had cheaply and in abundance in season, I could not bring myself to buy Mexican or Chilean imports (to say nothing of paying the obscene prices these fetch). I would have to bide my time – which as it turned out was fully consumed making all the things I needed for the 100 new LCL cocktails, sadly none of which called for shrbb.

Anyway, today I started two shrubs, which I am choosing to make without cooking as suggested by Neyah White. One will be blackberry and raspberry (so I can make Clarke’s Conundrum) and one will be black cherry – to which I will also add some cinnamon and use balsamic vinegar when the time comes. Right now I am macerating the fruit with sugar and a little vinegar to control fermentation. (Oh, and I also muddled the cherries before adding the sugar. I just hope I used the right end of the muddler.) I also chose to use Turbinado (AKA Demerara) sugar for the cherries, mostly because I ran out of refined white cane and had a supply of it on hand. (I also seem to recall the Neyah said he favored “really dirty sugar” in his concoctions, so I think I am on solid ground having made this choice). Here’s a photo taken on my back deck of the beautiful macerating fruit:

Shrubs Macerating

I’ll probably let them stand for a couple of days down in my cool basement (it’s getting warm in the house) and then add the vinegar before I leave town for a few days. I’ll filter and try ’em when I return and let you know how they turned out in a follow up post.


One other thing I was inspired to do after last night’s seminar was to add a whole bunch of fresh orange peel to this bastard chocolate-orange-chili bitters I’ve been tinkering with for the last couple of months. It started life as something of a disaster (the story of which cannot yet be told) exhibiting almost no chocolate character when it was supposedly “ready.” I however could not bring myself to sink it. So I put it away and ignored it until about three weeks ago when I filtered it (dumping what was left of the original ingredients) and added back about 4 oz. of cacao nibs. About two weeks later (and after shaking it almost daily) I noticed it was finally developing a reasonable chocolate nose. I now have hope. I added the orange peel to push that component even further. Oh, and I also snagged what was probably one of the last Seville oranges of the season and threw the peel of that in there as well. I’ll also keep you posted on this. (Here’s a photo. Kind of pretty actually.)

Bastard Chocolate-Orange-Chili Bitters

Handy’s Heat

Posted in Cocktails with tags , on May 13, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

A Submission for the Monteleone Cocktail Contest

As has been posted on several notable cocktail blogs, The Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans is hosting an online contest (in conjunction with Tales of the Cocktail) to find a new official Monteleone Cocktail, the original recipe for which was lost in the haze of the 1970’s (not a good decade for cocktails I guess). The winner will receive four nights lodging at The Monteleone during this year’s Tales gathering.

Now, I hadn’t been thinking of entering this but a couple days ago I was egged on to do so by my erstwhile business partner Ted Munat. Actually, I think Ted is hoping I win so that he can crash for free in my room. We’ll see about that.

Anyway, after putting some thought into what would make an appropriate Monteleone, I decided that in consideration of the fact it would be spending the rest of its life in New Orleans, it would need to “bow” in two specific directions:

First, towards The Quarter, meaning rye and absinthe.

Second, towards the Bayou, meaning cajun spice and heat.

After some tinkering, here’s what I came up with:

The Monteleone Cocktail (AKA Handy’s Heat)

2 oz. Sazerac Rye (or Thomas Handy Rye for more depth and kick)
1 oz. Orange Juice
1/2 oz. Lime Juice
1/2 oz. Agave Nectar
1/4 tsp Absinthe
5 drops Chili Tincture (see recipe below)

Shake well over ice. Double strain into a chilled coupe. Lime peel garnish.

Here’s a photo of the finished drink, which I must say went down very nicely every time I made it this weekend:

Monteleone Cocktail (AKA Handy's Heat) by Michael Lazar

Chili Tincture (ala Erik Adkins/Jon Santer)

Fill a jar with de-stemmed, intact Thai (or other small, hot) chilies and cover with Wray & Nephew Overproof rum for two weeks. Strain out chilies and store tincture in a sealed container. Handle this stuff with care!

Making the Rounds (III)

Posted in Left Coast Libations with tags on May 3, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

Part III of reports on visits to LCL bartenders in SF.


Last Wednesday Scott and I headed over to visit with Duggan McDonnell at Cantina. After our last failed attempt to drop in (see the end of Part II) I exchanged a couple of emails with the man himself and determined a prime time when drinks could be had along with some conversation.

When I arrived (before Scott), the bar was already pretty hopping with nary a seat to be had but it was certainly not packed to the brim. I had the distinct impression that many of the folks here were semi-regulars, in for a post-work libation (or two or three). But then, after watching Duggan in action for a while, I became less certain of this. What I saw was that Duggan, working the well at the front of the bar, greeted each and every patron as they arrived, making them feel immediately welcome. (Though I could imagine this not happening if the bar became very croweded.) Duggan also made it a point to learn the names of the people for whom he was making drinks and then took it all a bit further by introducing adjacent patrons to each other. (The success of this “trick” was certainly aided and abetted by everyone having shared a few of his delicious cocktails.) In fact, of all the LCL bars visited thus far Cantina felt the most like a neighborhood watering hole – and something of a secret one at that with little signage out front. Here, I thought, was an example of how important a component is hospitality to a good bar and a great cocktail drinking experience. This should not be underestimated.

After Scott arrived and we settled in, we got down to business which was to try Duggan’s drinks from Left Coast Libations, both of which were on the cocktail menu. (Oh, and I should mention for folks not familiar with Cantina, this place is 100% cocktails and no food). As Duggan started to mix, I noticed two things right away.

First, there were the dishes of chopped ginger and sliced serrano chiles which play a supporting role in several of the Cantina cocktails. Duggan had made a point of submitting two cocktails each of which used some of the same ingredients so that (and I quote him here) “one’s mise-en-place could be minimalized.” Sage advise from a hard working bartender.

Second, Duggan was using Barritt’s Ginger Beer, an exotic import from Bermuda. When I first read through Duggan’s recipe for The Laughing Buddha I saw that the drink called for ginger beer but as ginger beer fanatics will tell you, these vary greatly in taste and quality. So I had Ted make an inquiry (I had not yet made Duggan’s acquaintance) and learned of Duggan’s preference for Barritt’s. Well, that took me on quite a journey! Even in today’s brand-crazed market Barritt’s was not readily found. Finally I just stumbled upon it at a very nice wine and liquor store called Beltramo’s in Atherton, down on the peninsula, about 20 miles south of San Francisco. (Well worth the trip, especially if you fancy unusual single malts.) Anyway, Duggan told me they had a wholesaler in SF keeping them supplied with Barritt’s. Handy.

After we enjoyed (all to fast) both The Laughing Buddha and The Misdemeanor, it was time to explore the rest of the menu. Of particular note was the Sommelier’s Sidecar, made with late-harvest riesling brandy, homegrown Meyer lemon, Cointreau and Sauternes (Carmes de Rieussec). Yum! I must confess that cocktails made with dessert wine to add sweetness are a new favorite of mine. But it was the brandy which really put this over the top. This had been made by Lance Winters at Hangar One. Cantina had purchased an entire barrel, though I guess that was a while ago. We didn’t ask but I’d hazard a guess that when this stock is gone, this drink will be off the menu.

By this point it was getting late, Duggan was off entertaining and mixing for other customers and we were getting hungry. (Remember I said there was no food?) Scott and I said our good byes and went off to put something in our bellies besides cocktails.

[CODA: I suppose I shouldn’t even mention our lack luster visit to B&B later than evening after we had some food. However, I feel somewhat compelled to do so. It seems that every time we go we wind up having a highly average experience. (And what’s up with offering an Aviation w/o Creme de Violette anyway?) If there’s someone out there feels they can help us manifest an exemplar evening at the place, do give us a shout.]