Monday, April 27, 2015

Brandy 201: The different styles of Grape Brandy

Brandies come in all shapes and styles. There are all flavors of brandy out there, but the tradition has always been grape brandy. Wine is weak, it goes bad. A true spirit gets rid of the extra water and burns a bit on the way down. I get confused when people say that they don't like brown spirits, but like wine. Brandy is just a more pure wine with a bit less sugar that is usually aged for a bit.

Brandy is a very broad term, just like whiskey. Brandy essentially just means any spirit made from distilled fruits, fruit juices, or bits of fruit. Some brandies are simply distilled grape wine. Pomace brandy takes the leftover grape pulp after they make wine, and ferment and distill that. Others will utilize fruits and berries, or a blend thereof. Most brandy you see will be aged distilled grape wine brandy. Not all brandy is graded, but many grape brandies will choose to advertise their age in the form of a grade, such as VS, VSOP, or XO.

Cognac & Armagnac
Cognac and Armagnac are simply varieties of grape brandy from a certain region. Cognac is fairly regulated in that it has to use certain breeds of grapes grown in certain regions of western France. It is twice distilled and aged a minimum of two years in French oak barrels, again with wood only from certain regions. Otherwise, it's not cognac. Cognac is seen by many to be the most premium form of brandy. It does certainly seem to cost the most. If you're a fan of hip-hop music you've probably heard of the four big cognac making families: Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Remy Martin. These four brands run over 90% of the cognac market. Armagnac is made in southwest France. It tends to use a slightly different blend of grapes and uses column stills rather than the pot stills used in cognac. Armagnac is not dominated by big brands like cognac, but that does mean that most small producers don't have much distribution into other countries.

Pisco is a spirit typically made in parts of Peru and Chile. It is a pomace brandy which means it is made with the recycled pulp of wine grapes. After the majority of the juice is extracted the pulp still has enough sugar to extract and ferment. Pisco is typically clear in color but can occasionally take on a slight gold or amber color. It was developed by the settlers from Spain as a slightly more premium alternative to Orujo, a pomace brandy they would import from the homeland. It bears a flavor and aroma very akin to fresh wine grapes. It's typically completely unaged so it doesn't change do much from the original product. It is, of course, quite a bit stronger, and when you find a smooth one you ought to be careful.

Grappa is an Italian style of pomace brandy. After wine production, they take the skins, pulp, seeds, and even stems of the grapes and distill them. Grappa is a protected term similar to cognac. Grappa must be made in Italy, from pomace, and no additional water can be added during fermentation and distillation. This makes for an interesting method of steam distillation to avoid burning the pomace. As with most brandies, it's traditionally served as a digestif, after dinner, sometimes with coffee. It too bears a strong wine aroma and some grappa will even advertize the variety of wine grape they use, such as Grappa Alexander Cabernet.

Special mention to Aguardiente

"Call things by their right names - Glass of brandy and water! That is the current, but not the appropriate name; ask for a glass of liquid fire and distilled damnation."
- Robert Hall

Photo Credit: wikimedia

Friday, April 24, 2015

#003 Venusaur

This is a part of an ongoing project I'm working on to make a Pokemon cocktails for each and every Pokemon. I'm starting with just generation one and we'll see how the response is. 151 drinks is a tall order, but people have done crazier things. If I succeed I will most likely publish an eBook or possibly hard copy collections of each drink. Give them a try and let me know what you think. 

1 1/2 oz. Applejack
1 oz. Pineapple Juice
1/2 oz. Melon Liqueur
1/4 oz. Blue Curacao
1/4 oz. Lime Juice
1 1/2 oz. Lemon Lime soda

Add all the ingredients aside from the soda to a mixing tin with ice. Shake until well chilled. Strain into a decorative specialty hurricane or tulip glass. Top with the soda to fill. Garnish with a few mint leaves and a lime wedge.

This cocktail was derived very simply from the middle evolution, Ivysaur. We stretched it a bit and found that it actually makes a very drinkable tall drink. It reminds me of an old favorite, the Liquid Marijuana. Midori, blue curacao, pineapple, with some lemon and lime. If you were to add a few bits of rum to that and you'd have a popular club drink. I opted for apple brandy as I feel it's underutilized in tall drinks and I thought that it better represented Venusaur. The seed Pokemon matches well with apple flavors wouldn't you say? Remember our friend John Chapman, often called Johnny Appleseed. 

"Venusaur, the Seed Pokémon. Venusaur uses its large petals to capture sunlight and transform it into energy."

Charmander -->
<-- Ivysaur

Recommended Brands: Laird's, Midori, Bols, fresh juice that's not from concentrate, Sprite

#001 Bulbasaur

This is a part of an ongoing project I'm working on to make a Pokemon cocktails for each and every Pokemon. I'm starting with just generation one and we'll see how the response is. 151 drinks is a tall order, but people have done crazier things. If I succeed I will most likely publish an eBook or possibly hard copy collections of each drink. Give them a try and let me know what you think. 

1 oz. Applejack
1/2 oz. Melon Liqueur
1/4 oz. Lime Juice
1/4 oz. Blue Curacao
1 dash of simple syrup (~1/8 oz.)

Add all the ingredients to a tin and shake with ice. Double strain into a shooter glass to get out any pulp, or two shot glasses if you feel like sharing.

This cocktail is a simplified version of the Ivysaur. It bares many similarities to the Jack Rose on a smaller scale. The Jack Rose would use grenadine instead of Midori and blue curacao. If you use rose's lime juice you can omit the simple syrup to avoid making the drink too sweet. It actually took a bit of tinkering to figure out which ingredients to maintain. The choice of a base spirit was a difficult one, but I think a fruit based brandy actually fits the drink very well. Using a vodka or rum did cross my mind but what else would you use for a grass type but something fruit based.

"Bulbasaur. It bears the seed of a plant on its back from birth. The seed slowly develops. Researchers are unsure whether to classify Bulbasaur as a plant or animal. Bulbasaur are extremely calm and very difficult to capture in the wild."
Ivysaur -->

Recommended Brands: Laird's, Midori, Bols

#002 Ivysaur

This is a part of an ongoing project I'm working on to make a Pokemon cocktails for each and every Pokemon. I'm starting with just generation one and we'll see how the response is. 151 drinks is a tall order, but people have done crazier things. If I succeed I will most likely publish an eBook or possibly hard copy collections of each drink. Give them a try and let me know what you think. 

1 1/2 oz. Applejack
3/4 oz. Pineapple Juice
1/2 oz. Midori
1/2 oz. Honey Syrup
1/4 oz. Blue Curacao
1/4 oz. Lime Juice

Add all the ingredients to a mixing tin with ice. Shake until well chilled. Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a few mint leaves and possibly a fresh cherry.

This cocktail was based very loosely off of a sidecar. Instead of cognac I decided to use an apple brandy, feel free to try it with a calvados or even a pear brandy. I felt that straight lemon juice wasn't quite playful enough so I substituted lime and supplemented it with pineapple. For color, I used Midori and a bit of blue curacao which also compliment the other fruit flavors without being too overwhelming. Balance is everything in a sour and it took a lot of tinkering in order to ensure that the drink wasn't too sweet or sour. 

"The seed Pokemon, Ivysaur, Bulbasaur's evolved form. The bulb on its back absorbs nourishment and blooms into a large flower."

<-- Bulbasaur

Recommended Brands: Laird's, Midori, Bols, fresh lime juice

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Brandy 101: What is it?

The word brandy is derived from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning burnt wine. The vast majority of brandy is made by distilling some form of wine. Through distillation, the water in wine is separated from the alcohol. This creates a much stronger drink than regular wine. Most brandy is aged in wood casks, typically oak, for several years. This turns the clear distillate into a fine brown amber color, just like whiskey.

It's worth mentioning that not all brandy is made solely from grapes. There are plum brandies, pear and apple brandies, peach brandy, prune brandy, and even brandy made from other fruits like the juniper berry. You may have seen things like blackberry or ginger-flavored brandy as well. Typically these are not actually distilled from blackberry or ginger. They take a fairly standard brandy and infuse it with blackberries or just blend it with a liqueur. They are still fine products but often have a great deal more sugar than standard brandies.

Pomace brandy is an interesting regional trend. With pomace brandy it is not just the wine that is used to make the brandy, it is the whole grape. A great deal of pomace brandy actually uses substantially less grape juice. Many cultures will juice the grapes to make wine and then take the residual grape pulp and use that to make their brandy. The pulp still contains enough sugar to yield some alcohol. The brandy that comes from the pulp might not yield the same flavors as the wine but different doesn't mean worse. The skin of the grape does bare flavor just as the juice does. Italian grappa is quite flavorful. It is unaged and it carries a great dry wine aroma without feeling burnt. 

Certain regions have opted to call their style of brandy by a different name. Grape brandy from the Cognac region of France is designated as cognac provided it complies with the regulations of the region. The same is true for Armagnac. There is an Appellation d' Origine contrôlée, which legally declares that nothing can be sold as cognac unless it complies with the standards of the land. It acts almost like a patent or copyright protecting the name of the spirit.

If you've ever bought brandy you probably notice that brands often offer a line of products or various grades. The letters, VS, VSOP, and XO are very common in brandy, cognac, Armagnac, and even some rum and other liquors. VS stands for Very Special. VSOP stands for Very Superior Old and Pale, and XO stands for Extra Old. In order, they reflect how long the brandy is aged, from 2 years to 4 years, to 6 years. As something is aged it takes on more flavors and complexities from the wood. Some Brandies have been aged upwards of 50 years. It does take work to age liquor and prices do go up the higher the grade of brandy. Try it all. Find your sweet spot. 

"An American monkey, after getting drunk on brandy, would never touch it again, and thus is much wiser than most men."
- Charles Darwin

Photo Credit: Needpix, wikimedia

Popped Belvedere Martini

This was a Cocktail I created for the Belvedere Vodka's The Challenge. The goal being to create a legendary vodka martini cocktail. This was the first video I ever did for a competition and I had fun editing. I have a lot more videos planned for the future, but it was good getting my feet wet. This was just filmed in my dining area. Future videos will probably be done at Aqua Vitae Institute. They will also probably feature my face.

1 1/2 oz. Belvedere Vodka
1/4 oz. Dry Vermouth
1/4 oz. Tuaca
1/2 oz. Oleo-Saccharum

Despite using a sugar and oil mixture, this is a stirred cocktail. Add the ingredients to a mixing glass with ice. It helps to add the Oleo last. Stir very vigorously so that the oil is still emulsified into the drink. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

To make Oleo-Saccharum:
Peel 4 lemons into a bowl (you can use the remainder for juice). Slowly add 8 oz. of sugar to the bowl of peels while muddling. Keep muddling around breaking down any lumps of sugar, working the sugar into the peels. This should take about 15 minutes. Let this sit overnight and a pool will collect of sugared lemon oil. Add eight ounces of hot nearly boiling water to the bowl. Strain out the liquid making sure to filter out all the pulp, pressing on the pulp to get all the Oleo out.

This was actually a quite difficult contest as the rules state you could only use a total of two ounces in total of any alcoholic ingredients. Even the smallest martini I would make would be two ounces of vodka and then about a third of an ounce of vermouth. I decided to make my recipe include that ration of 6:1 vodka to vermouth. But I had to make my martini unique, something that would make the vodka really pop. I opted to use Tuaca and a lemon oleo-saccharum. Tuaca brings a great vanilla note which brings out the smoothness of the vodka, as well as a citrus with compliments the vermouth and some of the subtler flavors of the vodka. The Oleo also helps add a sweetness to the drink, but the main component of it is the addition of the oily nature. Despite the vast majority of the drinking being fairly strong spirit, the oily nature makes it incredibly easy to drink down. 

P.S. The first video is up on YouTube. Check out the channel link on the right.

"I am prepared to believe that a dry martini slightly impairs the palate, but think what it does for the soul."
- Alec Waugh

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tobacco and drinking

I'm going to open with a quote this time: "To be honest, after years of smoking & drinking, you do sometimes look at yourself & think... in between the first cigarette with coffee in the morning to that 400th glass of corner-shop piss at 3am, you do sometimes look at yourself & think: 'This is fantastic, I'm in heaven.'" A truly wonderful quote by Dylan Moran in Black Books. Guilty pleasures are what makes us so interesting. Hedonism, consciously unconscious self-destruction, cognitive dissonance, a glorious blend of yummy yummy and boo hoo, that's what smoking is. That's what drinking is. And it's so much better when they're combined together. Why is it that the things that feel best in the world always have those little strings attached.

Drinking and smoking have been entwined into our culture for a long time. From the upper-class ladies sipping a martini and smoking a long cigarette, to a tired politician smoking a cigar with a glass of whiskey or brandy. I'm sure a Budweiser can has been used as an ashtray many a time. It occurred almost simultaneously that we discovered that smoking was bad for us and that alcoholism was declared a disease, despite their massively extensive history. What is it about a slow release of poison into our system that is so fantastic?

Tobacco and drink have gone together a long time, so much so that many cigars are ever aged on old liquor barrels. I'm smoked a number of whiskey, rum, and brandy cigars, where the tobacco leaves are aged in the old wood. They take on the smell and some of the flavors on the spirit.

Tobacco liqueur does exist as well. It's a fairly new product. It takes fresh tobacco from Louisiana along the Missippi. It carries a great oily nature from the fresh tobacco leaves. Dried smoking tobacco has a much different nature than fresh of course. It was actually featured on Travel Channels Booze Traveler.

The cigar bar is an ancient institution. While they really only became truly popular as cigar bars in the nineties after the smoking bans. Before the bans, everyone smoked in bars. Some bars might've had no-smoking areas but it was just how it was done, going back to gentleman's clubs and hunting lodges and the like. Hookah bars have also started popping up in cities and small towns across the country. They take a good deal of their theme from Middle Eastern and Asian bars and cafes, though some are blending more into the gentleman's club vibe. Human beings seem to need an activity to occupy them while having meaningful conversations. They smoke, have a drink, or play a game of chess. Smoking and drinking in theory are individual actions but they bring about a great sense of community. I got one of my first jobs by having a conversation with a manager over a cigarette while he was on break. These days especially, smoking has become a community.

Aside from the glorious smokey flavor that ties tobacco with so many spirits and the great sense of community granted by both indulgences I really don't know what makes them so great together. But they are. 

"I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex, and rich food. He was healthy right up to the day he killed himself."
- Johnny Carson

Photo Credit: Needpix, pikist

Friday, April 10, 2015

Dissecting a cocktail: Sonic Screwdriver

The Sonic Screwdriver is an icon for fans of Doctor Who. It is the tool that works on everything, except wood. We all know the classic screwdriver. It's a simple highball of vodka and orange juice. Naturally, the adult nerdy community likes to have a drink when they watch their favorite show. Many people have created their own recipes based on their tastes and whose Sonic Screwdriver they prefer. Matt Smith's screwdriver would glow bright green while David Tennant's was blue. The War Doctor had his red Screwdriver and River Song had her special red setting. There are dozens if not hundreds of screwdriver variations out there. I've picked out a few favorites and thought I'd go through and give them a few reviews.

BBCA's Sonic Screwdriver Punch
3 cups orange juice, 3 pureed ripe peaches, 4-5 cups lemonade
Chill the juice, peach puree, and lemonade for at least 1-2 hrs before serving. Mix the juice and puree and pour over ice. Top with the lemonade. Garnish with a few mint leaves. 
This is an interesting little cocktail put out by BBC America. It's a non-alcoholic punch so it's good for kids to enjoy as well. For adults, it is an enjoyable drink but certainly not the most creative non-alcoholic punch I've ever seen. On the bright side, you can jazz it up with just about any fruit or berry flavored vodka. This is odd that it took the moniker of a sonic screwdriver though. BBCA can do whatever it likes, of course, but aside from having the orange juice this is nothing like a screwdriver or a sonic screwdriver. It lacks the color. I give it a 5/10. Try this with a mixed berry vodka and a sparkling lemonade. That could bring it up to a 7.

Nerds and Nomsense's Sonic Screwdriver
1 oz Blue Curacao, 2 oz Blood Orange Vodka, 3 oz OJ, splash Red Bull.
Shake the ingredients aside from the Red Bull with ice and strain into a martini or cocktail glass. Top with red bull. This makes two cocktails
According to the creator, this drink is meant to taste like gummi frogs. Fans of Doctor Who may remember gummi candies have played some significance, namely the jelly baby. They were featured with the Second Doctor and they've continued to be referenced all the way to the current, Twelfth Doctor. Even the Master offers a few to his wife as he was taking over the world. This drink is actually quite unique in that it doesn't take its style from the original screwdriver though it does use vodka and OJ. I regard this as a very good reference to nerdy culture and it pays homage to the fandom but as a cocktail I give it a 6/10. It's not the most original cocktail, the proportions and balance don't work for me as a proper sour or highball. The flavor is a mishmash of sweet, I don't see myself ever having more than one of these in an evening.  

Liz Mulhern's Companion drink
1/2 oz Vanilla Vodka, 1/2 oz Blue Curacao, 2 oz Sprite
Build on ice in a highball glass
The recipe keeps to the premise of the traditional screwdriver but uses Vanilla Vodka for sweetness, Blue Curacao for orange flavor, and sprite to help with citrus. I actually greatly respect this recipe. It keeps the vodka and orange citrus flavors while getting it just the right color and adding a unique vanilla flavor in combination with bubbles. It's a great re-imagining of the classic. I actually first had this with Pinnacle Whipped in place of vanilla vodka. My verdict for this drink is an 8/10. It is very tasty, original while holding to tradition, and very easy to make for the lay person. This is probably my top pick for a long DW marathon. Allons-y!

The Way Station's Sonic Screwdrivers

Absolut Citron, Orange Juice, with a different topper depending on the doctor
Pour vodka and OJ in a glass with ice. Top with Blue Curacao for a 10th Doctor, Midori for the 11th, and Grenadine for River's Red Setting
The Way Station is an oasis of a bar for nerds everywhere. Unfortunately, I was unable to discern their exact recipe or ration for these cocktails but as they tightly resemble the standard highball I recommend a ratio of 1 part Vodka to 2 parts Orange juice with about a half part of the topper. I do take some issue with the drinks though. The colors don't match up that well when mixed. The orange juice is just too strong a color. They taste very sweet, definitely a girly drink. They are fine drinks, but I regard them as a bit simple for a cocktail bar in New York City. That said, they're very good for home use. My verdict, 6/10, sweet and simple, in other words, uninspired, a good cocktail that anyone can make, but there's a lot more room for improvement. 

I have been made aware that The Way Station has since added a 9th and 12th doctor to their list of screwdrivers. The 9th uses Pimm's as a topper to the template above. The 12th actually impressed me. it's Dewars, Amaretto, bitters, and ginger ale. I actually like this balance for Peter Capaldi's Doctor. Scotch fits well and I love that they broke the template and completely redid the personality of the drink. 

Special Mention to Drunken Moogle's recipe.

Finding a Doctor Who quote about alcohol was actually pretty interesting as the early doctors swore that they didn't touch the stuff. Chris Eccleston changed that though.

"I'm telling you. Lloyd George, he used to drink me under the table. Who's the Prime Minister now?"
"How should I know? I missed a year."

Photo Credit: Wikimedia, pxfuel, Snappy Goat

Friday, April 3, 2015

Tools: Strainers

Strainers are a crucial tool for a bartender. They are really what give a drink it's texture. There are many ornate strainers made by beautiful artisans, but they all boil down to essentially three styles. Some may include slight variations such as prongs for balance or a more comfortable grip. Some even have the ability to strain into two glasses at once. For our purposes, there are really just three.


The julep strainer is designed exclusively to filter out large chunks of ice. It's a concave piece of metal with equally sized holes throughout. This allows liquid to flow through while restraining any large chunks of ice. They are designed specifically to fit the standard mixing or Boston glass. Tere is some debate as to how the julep strainer best meshes with the glass. Most people insert it with the bowl facing up as this tends to allow a slightly firmer grip on the handle butIt does allow very small chips of ice to flow through, but these melt almost immediately. The ideal time to use a julep strainer is when you are making a stirred cocktail. They are ideal for drinks that are made solely from spirits, like martinis. Julep strainers do not function very well at filtering out juice pulp or other particulates. 


A Hawthorne strainer is probably the strainer that bartenders are most familiar with. Most are comprised of a flat piece of metal with holes and a handle. What makes it a Hawthorne strainer is the spring running around the edge of the bottom of the strainer. This enables the strainer to be adjustable and fit a variety of pouring vessels such as a mixing glass or beaker, a mixing tin, and a cheater tin. The spring also allows the strainer to be adjusted while sitting in the glass or tin. You can pull the strainer back to allow pulpy juices to flow through. You can also press it forward to force the liquid to flow through the spring and the flat metal piece filtering out much more dense pulp. Pretty much whenever you make a shaken cocktail, a Hawthorne strainer is the best strainer for the job.

The fine mesh or tea strainer doesn't serve many functions on its own. It does serve an amazing job of supplementing the efforts of a Hawthorne strainer in filtering shaken drinks. Simply strain with a Hawthorne strainer and pour into the Mesh strainer over the glass. some bartenders can even do this all one-handed, gripping the mesh strainer with their thumb and holding the tin and Hawthorne with their whole hand. The fine mesh filters out even the smallest ice chips and bits of pulp. It also helps further aerate a cocktail after being shaken. A mesh strainer does get clogged however especially when dealing with pulp. Often times it will be necessary to tap the mesh strainer to get the last bits of the cocktail through the mesh.

“Alcohol lowered inhibitions. It didn't create impulses that weren't there.”
- Chelsea Scott

Photo Credit: wikimedia

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

April Fools: Weird Joke Shots

These shots are not meant to be taken by you, okay. They are meant to be served to your stupid friends. That said, everybody has their own tastes. Once in a while you may just get a taste for a whole raw egg in your drink.

Cement Mixer
1 shot Bailey's, 1 shot rose's lime juice
Pour the shots into two separate glasses
This shot is like a baking soda vinegar volcano from grade school, except in your mouth. The cream base of baileys reacts poorly to the citrus of the lime juice. The way you drink this shot is to drink one shot but hold it in your mouth and then take the second shot. You swish the two together in your mouth. As they mix, they curdle. It turns chunky in your mouth and tastes of spoiled milk. Most people will just spit this right out if they're not sure what to expect. 

Prairie Oyster

1 1/2 oz bourbon, 1 egg, 1 dash Tobasco
Pour the bourbon into a rocks glass without ice. Crack the egg into the glass. Add a dash or two of Tabasco. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper for good measure.
This is a pretty weird one. There are many variants to this as well. Some don't use and liquor and others add Worcestershire sauce. A prairie oyster was slang for a fried bull testicle. This still exists on some menus as an appetizer. Raw egg bothers some people, others are fine with it. Many people will actually take this shot as a hangover cure.

Soy Sauce
1 part Jagermeister, 1 part Everclear or devils springs 
Swirl the ingredients in a tin with ice, strain into a shot or rocks glass. Or serve it in a novelty syringe
This was created by a dear friend of mine Shane. This really is not a shot for the faint of heart. It is crazy high proof and if you don't like Jager, you're screwed. Shane made this as a combination of two of his favorite things and we named it out of a reference to one of his and now my favorite books, John Dies at the End. In JDatE, there is a drug called the sauce. whose effects aren't entirely known, but whose side effects are quite interesting. It be opening doors to another world, man. This was a few friends' first drink at lousy parties. They'd take this and it would kill their taste buds so they could down jungle juice and cheap beer all night. Oh, please drink responsibly.

The Sourtoe Cocktail
1 large shot of anything, garnish with a toe
Pour the shot, throw in the toe
Drink it fast, drink it slow, but the lips have to touch the toe. This started in a little hotel bar in Alaska. It started as a variant of serving an oyster in champagne, only instead of an oyster, it was a severed human toe that was dehydrated in salt. These days it is no longer served in a beer mug full of champagne. It's served in a shot glass with whatever liquor you'd like. Good luck finding a severed human toe at your neighborhood bar though. 

Special mention to: The Ogre Killer, The New Jersey Turnpike, Smoker's Cough, The Cheese Shot, Tidal Wave, Motor Oil

Photo Credit: Wikimedia, Food Facts