Archive for the ‘Cocktails’ Category

With the ever-increasing popularity of bourbon, a new article comes out every few months explaining what rules need to be followed in order to have a whiskey classified as “bourbon.” But there are also differences in whiskies. I try to explain all of it as best I can in this blog. 
There seems to be a lot of confusion about the spelling of whiskey and/or whisky, but the use of the letter “e” (or the lack thereof) is not random. Here’s the best explanation I’ve found…
whiskeywhisky
The spelling whisky (plural whiskies) is generally used for those distilled in Scotland , Wales , Canada , and Japan. Whiskey (with an e; plural whiskeys) is used for the spirits distilled in Ireland and in the United States. The BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) in 1968 specified “whisky” as the official U.S. spelling, but allowed labeling as “whiskey” in deference to tradition.  Most U.S. producers still use the “whiskey” spelling, though as you can see, Maker’s Mark chooses not to.
International law reserves the term “Scotch whisky” to those whiskies produced in Scotland. Scottish law specifies that the whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years, in oak casks. Whiskies produced in other countries in the Scotch style must use another name. Similar conventions exist for “Irish whiskey,” “Canadian whisky,” and “Bourbon whiskey.” In North America, as well as in Continental Europe, the abbreviated term “Scotch” is usually used for “Scotch Whisky.” In England, Scotland, and Wales, the term “whisky” almost always refers to “Scotch Whisky”, and the term “Scotch” is rarely used by itself.
So what is bourbon?
Bourbon is a type of whiskey.
According to federal law, bourbon must be at least 51% corn, distilled at less than 160 proof, and aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. (There are some other requirements, but those are the main ones.) Bourbon also must be made within the United States. In other words, a foreign product that meets all the other requirements still cannot be sold in the U.S. as bourbon.
Contrary to popular belief, there has never been a legal requirement that bourbon be made in Kentucky, which is why most Kentucky producers call their product “Kentucky Bourbon.” 
Still confused? My advice is to sit back with your favorite glass of whisky, whiskey or bourbon…and just enjoy. Cheers!

It takes a few weeks for this limoncello recipe to be ready, but, hey…we’ve got nothing but time!

 

It starts with beautiful lemons…

 

Many years ago, my wife and I visited the Amalfi coast, and we spent several nights on the beautiful island of Capri. On our last night, we dined at the historic Grand Hotel Quisisana, and our meal ended with a glass of the most delicious limoncello I ever had.

I asked the waiter if it was possible to get the recipe of the limoncello, and he made a big deal about the recipe being a “secret.” Though disappointed, I understood, and I left Capri thinking that I would never taste it again.

 

Sure, you can buy limoncello from Capri in a bottle, but what fun is that?

 

Two weeks later, back at home, I was reading the latest issue of Conde Nast Traveler, and there in black and white, was the Quisisana limoncello recipe! WTF?

After making many batches of this limoncello, I started experimenting with other citrus, and the most successful by far was with grapefruit. Now I make a batch of each: lemon and grapefruit. It’s important to use 100-proof vodka in this recipe. Most vodka is 80-proof, so you’ll need to go to a liquor store with a better selection to find it. Absolut makes a good one, as does Stoli.

Four ingredients, easy to make. The toughest part is waiting for it to mellow a bit.

 

4 lbs. of lemons, but you only use the zest!

 

4 lbs. lemons, zest only
2 750-ml bottles 100 proof vodka
5 1/2 cups sugar
6 cups filtered water

Just the zest!

 

Peel the zest off all the lemons, trying not to get any of the white pith that could make the limoncello bitter. (There will always be some…that’s OK.) Place all the zest in the bottom of a one-gallon glass jar with a lid.

Pour the vodka on top of the lemon zest pieces, seal the jar, and keep it at room temperature for a week, swirling the jar around gently once a day.

 

Vodka and zest.

 

On the sixth day, combine the sugar and water in a pot over medium-high heat, and stir until all the sugar completely dissolves. Remove it from the heat, cover it, and let it thoroughly cool to room temperature (overnight is best.)

On day seven, strain the lemon zest, pouring the infused vodka into a clean glass jar. Discard the lemon zest.

Pour the sugar/water mixture into the vodka and mix it well.

At this point, you can pour the finished product into bottles. I like to let it mellow for about a month before drinking. (It’s worth the wait…although nobody says you can’t take a few “cheating sips” every now and then!)

I keep my limoncello refrigerated.

It’s Derby Day! Did you forget? I did! Thanks to my buddy, Roy, for the reminder!

The Mint Julep is such a perfect, classic and historic bourbon drink, it seems silly to wait until Derby day to have one. Of course, as any aficionado of spirits will tell you, there are as many right ways as wrong ways of making one.

The first step in my Mint Julep is making the simple syrup. Learning from one of my old radio buddies, my pal Rick O’B, I infuse mint into my simple syrup to take my cocktail to the next level. I use the standard ratio of 1 cup of clean, filtered water to 1 cup of sugar, using an organic product like Woodstock Farms Organic Pure Cane Sugar. I place the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat until just boiling. I’ve found that it needs to reach this stage for the sugar to really dissolve. As soon as it starts to boil, I remove the saucepan from the heat, and throw in a handful of freshly picked mint leaves, stirring to make sure the mint gets in there, and then I leave the saucepan to cool to room temperature. Once it’s at room temp, I strain the simple syrup into a bottle with a tight sealing lid, and place it in the refrigerator to cool. It will keep for about a week.

An equally important ingredient for a perfect Mint Julep is the ice, specifically crushed ice from clean, filtered water. Don’t even think of using tap water for any cocktail much less this one. Why ruin an expensive bottle of bourbon by going cheap on the ice? I make my own ice cubes, then put them in an untreated canvas ice bag and bash them with a mallet to the perfect crushed size. Untreated canvas bags for crushing ice can be purchased online from bar supply companies for about $30. I got an untreated canvas tool bag (the exact same shape and size) at Home Depot for 3 bucks.

Da bag.

The next step is a little tougher: which bourbon to choose. The explosion of choices on the bourbon market has made it all but impossible for the average imbiber to know which bourbon is best for their tastes. If you’re a beginner, I suggest you go to a trusted bartender and explain that you’re new to the bourbon world, and could you have the tiniest of tastes and sniffs of what he’s got at his bar. Chances are, you’ll get a sampling of some of the better known brands: Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, perhaps Buffalo Trace or Bulleit, and the standard Jim Beam. This is a very good start. If you have deeper pockets, go to the manager of a trusted higher-end liquor store and explain that you’ve had all the rest, now what does he think is the best? (Also, hinting to wife and friends that “I’m trying new bourbons” around your birthday or Father’s Day inevitably gets you a few bottles as well!)

My go-to bourbon for Mint Juleps is the very affordable Eagle Rare 10-year-old at $32.99 a bottle…and you can never go wrong with the classic Maker’s Mark. It’s always on sale around Derby Day.

Finally, a Mint Julep needs a metal–not glass– Julep cup. Made of pewter or aluminum, it frosts on the outside as you stir your drink, keeping your beverage ice-cold on even the hottest of days.

 

3 oz. bourbon
1 oz. mint-infused simple syrup
crushed ice
Julep cup
Fresh mint for garnish

Crush the ice and pack it into the Julep cup, even letting it dome slightly over the top. Don’t worry…the alcohol will melt it.

I like to add 1.5 ounces of bourbon, then the ounce of simple syrup, then another 1.5 ounces of bourbon on top. Break off a few mint leaves from the stem and push into the ice. Using a long spoon, stir the drink well. A beautiful layer of frost will form on the outside of the cup. Add more ice, if necessary, and garnish with a sprig of mint.

A nice selection of bourbons. This is an old photo: that Pappy Van Winkle is long gone…but I saved the bottle!

 

Years ago, I gave my self an important research project: Create your own version of the perfect espresso martini.

It took painstaking research, which required drinking many espresso martinis in many a bar on my travels.

My favorite version came from a bartender working at Knave, the lobby bar at the at Parker New York, the former Le Parker Meridien Hotel in Manhattan. It featured Coole Swan, an Irish cream liqueur I had never heard of before. The bartender was nice enough to write down the recipe for me, but I guess I had a little too much to drink…because I lost it! So it was up to me to use those brain cells I didn’t fry and come up with my own combination.

A lot of mixing late into the night, and I came up with what I consider to be my perfect espresso martini. As the marines say: “There are many like it, but this one is mine.”

 

Alz Espresso martini

My espresso martini

 

 

3 oz. good quality vodka, like Belvedere
3 oz. freshly brewed espresso
1.5 oz. Kahlua
1.5 oz. Coole Swan

 

Chill your martini glasses. Pour all the ingredients into a large shaker with ice. Shake vigorously. Strain into chilled glasses.

This recipe makes 2 martinis. Let me tell ya…this tasted as good the first time as it did several martinis later! I’ve found that using a high-end vodka really does make a difference in the quality and taste of the martini…as does freshly brewing your espresso just before assembling the drink.

I love watermelon margaritas, especially when they’re made with the sweetness of fresh watermelons.

 

All you need.

 

Many recipes add a lot of sugar: sugar on the rim of the glass as well as sugar in the margarita itself. I think that a ripe watermelon and the Cointreau add enough sweetness, so I leave any extra sugar out of my recipe.

 

4 cups cubed, seeded watermelon
4 oz. (or more!) tequila (I like Patron silver)
3 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice
1 oz. orange liqueur (I like Cointreau)

 

 

Combine the watermelon, tequila, lime juice, and orange liqueur in a blender. Process until it’s smooth. Pour it into margarita glasses filled with ice. Garnish with a lime wedge.

 

Watermelon margarita, aerial view. (No drone required.)

 

 

I love tequila. I love Pimm’s. And I love Dark & Stormies. I’m a lush. This cocktail has an interesting nod to all three.

tequila cup

 

 

3 oz. Patron silver tequila
1.5 oz Pimm’s No. 1
good squeeze of fresh lime juice
Chilled ginger beer
Ice cubes
Fresh mint
Cucumber slices (optional)

Combine the tequila, Pimm’s and lime juice in a highball glass filled with ice.
Place slices of cucumber in the glass, if desired.
Top it with your favorite ginger beer and stir gently.
Garnish with a mint sprig.

It’s #NationalFrenchFryDay so what better way to celebrate than to talk about the Parmesan truffle fries we recently had at The Capital Grille?

 

The best.

 

My daughter and I have been going to The Capital Grille in Providence, RI, every few months for what we call a “fodder-dodder dinner” for several years now. It’s a great opportunity for us to chat, have a few laughs, and enjoy a great meal.

But with the pandemic, a lot has changed…

No valet parking. (It’s one of the great deals in Providence because it’s always free at The Capital Grille.) It meant we had to drive around the corner to a parking lot. No big deal…there were spaces reserved for Capital Grille customers.

Here in Rhode Island, indoor dining is a somewhat recent event. And even though the state says it’s OK, and even though I really want to support my local restaurants, I still hesitate dining indoors everywhere. But certain restaurants, like The Capital Grille, I know will do things right.

Wearing masks. Social distancing. Extra diligence with cleanliness, although this place has always been spotless. And hey, what a surprise, not a single customer complaining about the extra measures taken for everyone’s safety. No one’s “rights” were threatened.

All the employees wore masks, and we took ours off only once we got seated at our “usual” table. (We sit in the bar area at one of the small high-top tables. The bar seats were all removed, and the few tables that were left in the bar area were spread far apart.) If we needed to use the restrooms, the masks went back on while walking through the restaurant.

The menu was limited. The bar menu, my personal favorite, was gone. Some of the small bar plates were listed under appetizers, but a few items, like the tenderloin sliders, lamb lollipops, and most significantly, the burgers, were not.

Since my daughter always ordered a wedge salad, and a cheeseburger with bacon and Parmesan truffle fries, she was a bit bummed that no burgers were on the menu. But it only took her a second to decide that a filet mignon was a good choice, and it came out a perfect medium-rare, and was devoured in minutes.

Although I very often order seafood at the Capital Grille, I went for the gusto a had the 22-oz. bone-in ribeye…also cooked perfectly.

Always a great time at The Capital Grille!

 

We split a wedge salad to start (there’s never a problem with them dividing the salad and bringing it to the table on 2 separate plates), and then we discussed what sides we should order. For my daughter, the much-loved Parmesan truffle fries were a no-brainer. I tried to go for something green and healthier, but let’s face it: a huge dish of creamed spinach or brussels sprouts with chunks of bacon is hardly low-calorie. So I decided to one-up her order of fries by getting the larger serving for the table. Steak and fries…what could be better?

A Shirley Temple for her and a Stoli Elit martini for me made the meal complete. Despite being really full, we ordered the amazing cheesecake to go, to enjoy the next day.

We may never completely return to “normal,” whatever that is. But it looks like The Capital Grille is rising to the challenge, and we’ll be back!

 

 

Just because I’ve got a garden full of fresh veggies, it doesn’t mean I have to gorge on nothing but salads! Sometimes, a refreshing cocktail is just what I need after a long day of yard work. This one fits the bill!

Imagine a vodka mojito, using cucumbers….

 

 

4 fresh cucumbers, peeled and seeded
Small ice cubes
1 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
2 teaspoons granulated organic cane sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
4 oz. vodka (I like Tito’s)
1 oz. orange liqueur (I like Cointreau)

 

Peel and seed the cucumbers. Coarsely chop them and then purée them in a food processor until smooth. Strain them through a fine sieve, pressing the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Or, if you have one, use a juicer. Set the extracted cucumber juice aside.

To a large glass pitcher, add the mint leaves, sugar and lime juice. Muddle the ingredients so that the mint leaves release their oils. Add 3/4 cup (at least) of the cucumber juice. Add the vodka and Cointreau. Muddle again briefly.

Fill tall drinking glasses with ice cubes. Strain the cocktail into the glasses. Garnish with a cucumber spear or peel…or mint.

Skip the necktie. If your dad’s a food nut, he deserves something better! All of these ideas have been rigorously tested by our panel of experts (OK, just me), and get a big thumbs up. This article was originally published a few years ago, but I’d still be happy to get any of these for Father’s Day!

 

Masterbuilt Electric Digital Smokehouse: I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to grilling. I refuse to use a gas grill because I think there’s no difference between that and my kitchen stove. I use real hardwood charcoal, with real smoke and real flavor. But when it comes to smoking meats, basic smokers require constant maintenance so that the temperatures don’t fluctuate. I’m just too busy for that, especially if I’m cooking something low and slow for about 12 hours. So I have a digital smoker. I plug it in, set the time and temperature, and then periodically add wood chips through a side drawer to smoke the meat. I can literally set it and forget it. I have it cook through the night, so I wake up to a beautifully smoked slab of meat in the morning.

 

Cognac! How can you go wrong with booze for Father’s Day? But if you’re looking for something really special to give Dad (or your favorite blogger), it’s Kelt XO. What makes Kelt XO special is that before bottling, they place the barrels of cognac on board ships that sail the world for months at a time. During this time, the cognac gently rocks back and forth in the barrels, slowly acquiring a smoothness you can’t find in other spirits. Each bottle even comes with a tag that tells you exactly what ports around the world your cognac has been to. Worth the search at high-end liquor stores.

jack daniels

 

Jack Daniels smoking chips: Whether you have a smoker or not, these chips will make anything you cook taste better. Made from the old oak barrels that they use to age Jack Daniels, you get a serious hit of whiskey in every bag…and in your food. Simply toss a handful of chips you’ve soaked in water for about a half hour, and they will infuse the food on your grill with flavor. You can also use them dry, on charcoal or gas grills.

 

Cookbook favorites: “Jamie at Home,” by Jamie Oliver (a great combination gardening/cookbook), “Charcuterie,” by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (the best book on how to cure and smoke meats), “Barbecued Ribs, Smoked Butts, and Other Great Feeds,” by Jeanne Voltz (my absolute barbecue Bible!), and “Martin Yan’s Feast: The Best of Yan Can Cook” by Martin Yan (the authority on Asian cooking.)

 

Redi-Check Remote Cooking Thermometer: Even someone who has barbecued all their lives runs the risk of burning or undercooking a roast or a large bird. Opening the grill and jabbing the meat with a thermometer several times causes the juices from the meat to run out, leaving it dry…and every time you open the grill, you lose precious heat. This is the better solution: You stick the needle into the roast or bird and leave it in there the entire time it cooks, so no juices leak out. You plug it into the monitor which then calls you when the meat is ready (from as far as 100 feet away!) You set the time or temperature, and then get to join your guests for the party.

smoking gun

 

Smoking Gun: There are times when you don’t need a full-on smoker. All you want to do is smoke a small piece of fish or a hunk of cheese.  You simply take some of the finely ground wood chip powder (comes with the gun) and place it in the pipe-like bowl. Light it, and the Smoking Gun will blow that smoke through a hose into the Ziploc bag where your piece of fish is waiting for its magical transformation to smoky deliciousness.

 

Mason jar cocktail shaker: A fun new way for Dad to make his martini.

mason jar, baking steel

 

Oh, and by the way…dads don’t care if your gift is late. You can still buy it now and give it to him later!

It used to be that only the big distilleries were able to age their finest spirits in charred oak barrels. But now, there’s a movement goin’ on…and hand-crafted oak barrels are available to aficionados at home.

Companies like Redhead Barrels (http://www.redheadoakbarrels.com) are offering oak barrels for aging that range in size from 1 liter to 20 liters. And that’s where this enthusiast comes in: with a 1-liter barrel, I’m able to age my favorite spirit–vodka, rum, whiskey, bourbon, mixed drinks, anything–in just a few weeks, elevating the flavors to levels previously unknown.

 

wood

My  1-liter barrel arrived with the spigot and bung separately. Curing the barrel is necessary before using it. I do this by rinsing the barrel out a few times to remove any loose pieces of wood chips or splinters that may still be inside. I hand-turn the spigot into the barrel until it fits snugly and place the barrel in the sink on the included stand. I fill the barrel with very hot water…and watch. Some barrels are totally watertight and will not leak. Others may take literally a few days of repeated fillings with hot water before it thoroughly seeps into the wood, expanding the wood fibers to seal the barrel.

Once there are no leaks, it’s ready to go. I empty the water out of the barrel and fill it with my favorite spirit. Because there is more wood surface area to less liquid (as compared to large barrels), alcohol will age faster…in weeks instead of years. Once I’ve aged it as much as I want (tasting it along the way is the best way to determine this), I simply pour it into a bottle to stop the aging process. I rinse the barrel out thoroughly, and I’m ready to age yet another spirit.

I chose to age a cocktail that I first savored at the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio, the brainchild of talented chef Jonathon Sawyer. The call it a Negroski, their take on a Negroni. It features equal parts Campari, Cocchi sweet vermouth, and OYO stone fruit vodka. They make large batches of it and keep it in a barrel until they serve it. So enamoured my wife and I were with this drink, that I begged the bartender to give me the recipe.

Doing the math, equal parts of each ingredient meant 1 1/3 cups of each to make a quart…which fit perfectly in my 1-liter barrel. Once I corked the top with the bung, it was time to let it age.

A slight daily rotation of the barrel gently rocks the liquid inside, exposing it to the barrel’s charred wood interior, giving it more flavor. And at the end of  a week, I was ready for my first tasting: the wood had a subtle influence, rounding out the flavors. I wanted a little more, so I waited another week…even better, but not quite there. It took a total of 3 weeks before the drink reached its flavorful peak.

I poured some of the drink into a cocktail shaker with ice, stirred briskly with a spoon, and strained it into a martini glass, garnishing with a twist of blood orange peel. Delicious!

 

cask

 

Since my first batch, I’ve aged Manhattans, my homemade Lithuanian honey liqueur (Krupnikas), and even simple spirits. It’s amazing how an average whiskey becomes something quite spectacular after just 3 weeks of aging!